How nixing a downtown freeway 50 years ago made Vancouver one of the world's most liveable cities

Vancouver is often held up as one of the most liveable cities in the world. But 50 years ago, that outcome was put into jeopardy when officials planned to put a freeway through the downtown core.

Planners say decision to scrap plans for a downtown freeway reverberate today

Protesters in Vancouver rally against a proposed freeway that would have razed Strathcona and Gastown. (CBC)

It was a fight that pitted low-income citizens against high-ranking municipal officials and shaped Vancouver into the liveable city it's known for today.

Fifty years ago this month, Vancouver city council voted against building a freeway through Chinatown, Gastown and Downtown Vancouver. 

"I often refer to it as the most important decision Vancouver ever made from a city building perspective," said urban planning consultant Brent Toderian, a former Vancouver chief planner.

The route would have razed some of the poorest neighbourhoods as part of a national strategy. It also would have completely altered the city's mountain views and cut off the waterfront.

A resident of Vancouver's Chinatown protests a proposed freeway in downtown Vancouver in 1967. (CBC)

Planners at the time championed the idea of sleek, modern freeways because they would have linked the city's economically depressed core to the suburbs and other key interurban freeways like the TransCanada Highway. 

But poor governance, bad timing and public outcry eventually killed those plans — inadvertently setting Vancouver in a direction that helped turn it into an internationally recognized urban utopia.

The rise of modern freeways

Urban freeways were a distinct product of the '50s and '60s, especially as cities struggled with an increasing number of cars on the road. 

Gordon Price, a fellow at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Dialogue, says freeways were seen as modern and economically attractive — linking cities to trucking routes, trade and the ever-expanding suburbs. 

"Freeways have a very bad rep these days but, man, in that period in the 60s when they were newly built, they were astonishing," Price said.

"Every city wanted a connection with the continental freeway system …  I mean, why wouldn't you?"

Cities like Seattle, Toronto and Montreal had already built downtown freeways, which remain in place today. But in Vancouver, myriad factors worked to delay construction and eventually halt the project.

One of those factors was public outcry.

Urban renewal

Plans for a downtown freeway dovetailed with the urban renewal philosophy adopted by cities across Canada.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation funded urban renewal projects, which aimed to rebuild low-income neighbourhoods like Strathcona from scratch — often without residents' input.

Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt was one of the people who helped lead the fight against the freeway.

A resident of Vancouver's Chinatown voices opposition to a proposed downtown freeway. She said the city was offering little money for the homes that would be destroyed to make way for the freeway. (CBC)

A young lawyer at the time, he was asked to represent the residents, property owners and merchants of the Strathcona area.

"It was the courage of the Chinese Canadian community that helped mobilize a whole bunch of other citizens to say this is a bad idea, we're not going to do it," Harcourt said. 

Academics from the University of British Columbia, the Vancouver Planning Commission and other citizens also joined the fight.

After protests and fiery discussions at city hall, the route was eventually shelved. 

Lack of finances

Despite the alluring David vs Goliath narrative of Strathcona residents defeating city officials, Price warns there's more to the story. 

There were several routes planned for the freeway, Price says, and public opposition didn't spell its entire demise. 

Instead, Price says high-level support continued for the freeway, but the project died when changes at the municipal, provincial and federal levels quashed all funding for it. 

Vancouver city planners present a proposal for a downtown freeway at a council meeting. Public opposition eventually helped to kill the project. (CBC)

In Vancouver, a new council was soon sworn in, with a vastly different approach to city planning. In the province, the NDP came to power in 1972.

And federally, policy changed course from urban renewal to the Neighbourhood Improvement Plan, which favoured safeguarding older neighbourhoods. 

Another theory posited in a master's thesis written by Ken MacKenzie, an SFU History student, is that Metro Vancouver didn't build a freeway because it "lacked the administrative, technical and financial resources to achieve such a goal."

Birth of Vancouverism

What most urban planners do agree on is that the fight against a downtown freeway set the course for urban planning in Vancouver to this day.

With no high-speed route directly linking the suburbs to the downtown core, city planners instead pushed a "living first" strategy that increased the number of residences downtown. 

"An entirely new path was laid out for Vancouver city making," Toderian said.

They also focused more heavily on public transportation, walking and cycling and the philosophy known today as "Vancouverism," which is characterized by a densely populated urban area where residents can live, work and play.

"Every element of what is now known as Vancouverism … started and expanded from that decision," Toderian said. "And now we're held up as a model." 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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