How Granville Island changed the course of Vancouver urban design history
40 years ago, a rule-breaking reimagining turned an industrial wasteland into a bustling public space
For many Vancouverites, Granville Island has always been the unique shopping, arts and industrial hub that we know today, nestled under the Granville Street Bridge on False Creek.
But 40 years ago, it was little more than a collection of corrugated tin shacks, surrounded on all sides by increasingly decrepit sawmills. About the only recognizable modern features are the towering silos of the cement plant.
For many years, Granville Island was a mud bank used by the Musqueam First Nation for fishing. In the 1890s, shortly after the completion of the Granville Street Bridge, the federal government created an artificial island on top of the mud bank as a place to promote industrial development in Vancouver — originally called, in a burst of creative genius, Industrial Island.
Over the years, the island became home to a number of industrial operations, much of it geared toward serving the sawmills that dotted the south shore of False Creek.
But by the early 1960s, the sawmills were falling into disrepair. After a massive six-alarm fire at the mill immediately to the east of the island, the writing seemed to be on the wall.
"That really was the signal that maybe the era of the sawmills was waning," said civic historian John Atkin.
"A desire to shift the filthy waterway and change False Creek really set in motion through the mid 1960s a rethink of what False Creek could be."
While the city now controlled most of the south False Creek shore, Granville Island was still under federal jurisdiction — and the city preferred to keep it that way, fearing the liability. So the island was transferred to the federal government's Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to handle the redevelopment.
The late Ron Basford, MP for Vancouver Centre at the time, became the project's champion. He envisioned a unique mixed-use space that could be home to industry, shopping, a school, the arts and more.
"If Ron hadn't picked up the baton and said, you know what, Granville Island's going to be something interesting and unique, it probably wouldn't have happened," Atkin said.
The gradual transformation started in October of 1977 after city council approved the formal redevelopment plan.
The public market opened in 1978, and what was originally the Vancouver School of Art moved to the island in 1980 after being renamed the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
For Atkin, one of the keys to the island's success was that gradual evolution through its early years, as opposed to a complete rebuild and flashy grand opening that one might expect of a similar project today. Instead, buildings were restored or repurposed, not replaced.
"People were down there exploring an industrial landscape that was actively changing," Atkin said. "You were working with the existing fabric."
Atkin says the island's unique jurisdictional situation allowed designers to get away with things they probably wouldn't have if the island was owned by the city, and therefore beholden to city engineering standards.
For example, sidewalks and proper traffic separation would have been required. But under federal control, the result was a mishmash of vehicle and pedestrian traffic that creates an urban space unlike anything else in the city — to say nothing of the mixed use zoning that saw an active public market almost next door to a still-operating nail factory.
"It broke so many of the accepted rules of public space," Atkin said.
"By being able to do that, they actually created the space that we love today."
With Emily Carr University set to leave the island within the year, big changes are coming to Granville Island, and it's not entirely clear what the future holds. But the robust visioning process currently underway has Atkin hopeful that the site can retain its unique character — a reminder of a pivotal turning point in the history of Vancouver's urban design.
Granville Island, Atkin says, was the first project to focus on what the public wanted after a series of ill-fated projects, such as the freeways proposed in the 1950s.
"[With Granville Island,] you have that real sense of Vancouver finding its own self, and it's not looking elsewhere," Atkin said.
"It's part of that real seismic shift in the 1970s that creates the city we have today."