Speaker Series in Review: The War on Blight with John Atkin

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Civic Historian, John Atkin discusses the shady history of urban planning in Vancouver in our final presentation of the 2018 Speaker Series!

John Atkin enthralls audience members with his presentation on the dark underworld of city planning in post-war Vancouver.

Audience members were privy to an incredible final presentation for our 2018 ‘Vancouver Noir’ Speaker Series in which Civic Historian John Atkin revealed the city’s dark history of discrimination with city planning. His presentation, aptly named ‘The War on Blight: Post-War Planning in the City’ unearthed “this hidden little story of strange little men planning the destruction of neighbourhoods,” Atkin stated in his introduction.

The shady cast of characters in this true narrative weren’t the typical gangsters or crime lords from our previous presentations. Instead, they were devious city planners and politicians who strove to ‘clean-up’ the city by wheeling and dealing dishonest plans, surveys and developments that preyed upon Chinatown and Strathcona residents and their valuable land.

Atkin went on to explain the title of his presentation, ‘The War on Blight,’ which stemmed from a 1957 Vancouver redevelopment study. In the study, it said, “Areas bypassed by progress and renewal, are areas of blight.” “This whole view of Blight as a disease and the defeat of the war on blight has given rise to the city we have today—but the story is much more interesting than one might imagine,” he added. In particular, he revealed that the same 1957 study expressly stated that “…rising land values and property values themselves, make it profitable to remove family dwellings and to replace those with retail industry and department blocks,” thus beginning a long saga of rhetoric that would entwine racism with redevelopment. For instance, documents frequently targeted only ethnic areas, and framed ‘blight’ as a contagious problem, and focused on trying to contain it.

Giving some context to the hostility of the post-war planning in the East Side of Vancouver, Atkin showed the audience rare photos of the city pre-war, which demonstrated just how much of the city was zoned for industrial purposes. This industrial zone extended all the way from Strathcona to False Creek, where, as most know, the shiny Olympic Villiage and many new waterfront condos stand.

Vancouver's False Creek Industrial Area before Redevelopment, Vancouver Police Museum

Vancouver’s False Creek was once heavily industrial and was home to many ethnic minorities. Photo credit: Vancouver Archives #CVA 260-1017.

Additionally, by this industrial waterfront, were sawmills that employed many different races of workers, all of whom also lived in close proximity to their work. This is how Vancouver’s first ethnic enclaves came to be, but sadly, they also would become the target of redevelopment by the city.

Atkin also discussed the war’s effect on city planning, explaining that Social Engineering after the war became of great interest to politicians both here and across the border. In particular, in the US, the government was concerned that men coming home from the war would not enjoy their American way of life after experiencing life in Europe. One document even went so far as to state: “These men may have sat outside with a glass of wine, and when they come home, they will be disappointed to move back to the tenements of the inner city; we will have a revolution.” Atkin went on to clarify, that planning of the utopian suburban life became a big focus for the US and eventually Canada because they wanted to prevent a revolution in the inner cities.

From there, Atkin discussed the evolution of the Vancouver’s city plan, and how this “War on Blight” targeted False Creek, Chinatown and Strathcona in many devious ways. For starters, the city began planning out its own residential utopias, with Point Grey receiving the first residential zoning bylaw in the city—with a design that still stands today. This design includes sidewalks, trees, boulevards and lots of pleasant housing. But the creation of Point Grey also resulted in less than favourable comparisons to the East Side ‘slums’ of Vancouver, which were deemed as chaotic and disorderly. This coupled in with land deals with the CPR greatly affected the city’s attitude to ‘blight’ and increasingly focused on redeveloping the East Side for redevelopment to ‘win’ this war.

Moving into the ’30s, city planning became a true profession, and this had a cascading effect on zoning in the city. For instance, as the regulations became more solidified and targeted, one focus was to actually get rid of old Victorian houses in Strathcona, which, at the time, were considered ugly and undesirable. At the same time, the city was struggling with a housing crisis. Atkin surprised many by stating, “Even then, Vancouver had a housing shortage. It has had less than a 1% vacancy rate since its founding, and since the ’40s and ’50s negative vacancy rates… It got so bad that the federal government war-time housing corporation would occasionally knock on doors to convert houses.” In particular, this corporation would knock on doors of large houses and if they found only two occupants, they would slate it for rezoning the very next week.