Analysis

Vancouver's real divide isn't West vs. East. It's North vs. South

But if you look at the data — in public amenities, in demographics, in political representation — the more significant difference is between north and south.

When everywhere is expensive, the biggest differences are now north and south of King Edward

Eighty-two per cent of people living in neighbourhoods north of King Edward live in apartments (as of the 2016 Census), while it's just 31 per cent in the rest of Vancouver. (Composite/CBC News)

When people think of how Vancouver is split politically and culturally, one direction usually comes to mind.

The geographic markers on numbered avenues, the cost of property, and traditional political affiliations have all created a mental image of the west and east sides of Vancouver being different. 

But if you look at the data — in public amenities, in demographics, in political representation — the more significant difference is between north and south.

"I think that's becoming the new paradigm," said councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung. 

As the city's only councillor living south of King Edward Avenue and a former park board commissioner, she's well aware of the disparities that exist when it comes to public infrastructure. 

"You don't see a lot in terms of public art. You typically don't see as much in terms of sports fields and arts infrastructure. So I think that that does need to shift."

Historic roots

Civic historian John Atkin says the north-south divide has its roots a century ago, when the city was actually three municipalities before amalgamation in 1928: South Vancouver, Point Grey, and Vancouver itself, located solely north of 16th Avenue.

"I think that bias still holds, because we talk about densification, the towers and everything seems to be focused at the top end of the city," Atkin said.

"You have a very strong identity with neighbourhoods such as Strathcona, Grandview-Woodland, Kitsilano, Point Grey.

"And if you said to somebody 'Sunset', everyone's going to sit there and go 'uh, I think there may be a community centre somewhere called that.'"

(For those unaware, Sunset is a neighbourhood of 36,500 people in south Vancouver). 

Atkin says the city can do its part by better promoting the heritage of the region. 

"Folks are always surprised when we take them through it [on walking tours] and they're always surprised that there's such interesting stuff," he said.

Diversity demographics

In the last decade, the "million-dollar line" that divided homes along Main Street has washed away, while the northern half of Vancouver continues to densify: 81 per cent of people in the city's nine northern neighbourhoods live in apartments, according to the 2016 Census, compared to 31 per cent for the rest of the city.

At the same time, there are significant cultural differences. In those nine northern neighbourhoods, 32 per cent of people have a mother tongue other than English or French, while it's 60 per cent in Vancouver's six most southern neighbourhoods.

"Perhaps [northern] communities are more accustomed, and they know better how to engage in the political process or raise those concerns," said Kirby-Yung, adding the city needed to do a better job of reaching Vancouverites from immigrant communities. 

"They're very engaged in their specific cultural community and family groups, but they're not necessarily as adept in kind of having a voice heard in the larger community, and I think that's a really big issue for Vancouver. Who are you actually getting feedback from?" 

Ward system a solution?

To Mayor Kennedy Stewart, it's another piece of evidence that Vancouver needs a political system where at least some councillors are elected in specific geographic areas, instead of from the city at large. 

"This is why at-large electoral systems have been struck down by the courts in the United States over and over and over again ... because councils do not reflect the community and I think that's a big problem," he said. 

But a south Vancouver resident who might have benefited most from a ward system last election doesn't think that's the way to go. 

"I'd like politicians to represent everyone in the city and all four corners ... and not simply just represent a small geographic area within the city," said David Grewal.

Grewal ran for the NPA last election and got the most votes of any candidate in several south Vancouver polling stations, yet ultimately finished in 11th place, one spot out. 

Grewal believes there's a disparity between the north and south when it comes to core services and amenities, but argues change will come through gentle densification and better outreach from the city. 

In the meantime, he's happy to champion what's already there. 

"There's a lot of really good things going on in south Vancouver," he said.

"Fraser Street, Victoria Drive, they're really vibrant, they continue to grow, at any point in time you can go down the street and it's bustling ... our communities are doing fairly well, but there's always room for improvement." 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is a reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering political stories throughout British Columbia.

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