This is the oldest big-city neighbourhood in British Columbia; construction of the tight pattern of residential towers began in 1957. People said it was the most densely-populated patch of ground in the Commonwealth outside of Hong Kong. More than 40,000 people live here now; more than half of these get by without a motor vehicle.
40,000 makes for a big urban village — maybe it’s two villages, or three, but the entire area feels like a single walkable piece to me, once you move away from Burrard or Georgia, which form the eastern and northern boundaries of the West End.
The locals, doubtless, have struggled almost forever with fears that they would be overwhelmed by hordes of people, especially rich people. It’s a certainty that in every decade, long-time residents moan: “It’s not what it used to be. It’s losing its charm. I wonder if I should move?” But the West End continues to serve Vancouver urbanists as a shining example of high-density livability. Robson Street, admittedly, has been captured at the Burrard end by international chain stores, and parts of it could be swapped with similar blocks in Waikiki or Palm Springs; but deeper in, the West End retains its library, community centres and a generous selection of everyday services.
My co-tourist was Alfred DePew, an author and teacher who moved here from New England five years ago. He had gained his Canadian citizenship two days before our tour. We ate at La Brasserie on Davie Street and enjoyed the food and the service. It sits across from HELL Pizza (“to die for.”)
Alfred loves the area, but he worries that rising rents will drive out ordinary folks and established small businesses, and that the City government is too eager to see new development. “Everything seems to be a done deal before consultation,” he says. “Real estate is out of control.”
For now, the Fraseropolis UV Index rates the West End at 84* out of 100, the best score so far in our Urban Villages project. The setting is matchless (how can you go wrong sitting alongside English Bay and Stanley Park?) Many residential streets are calm and welcoming, despite the towers. The commercial architecture, when you stop to look, is kinda crappy, often no better than the storefront look in Maple Ridge or Aldergrove; this is redeemed by the bustle of human activity on the sidewalks. The residents here are active in protecting their turf, both through political channels and through simply choosing to show up in public; and so far, they’re on the winning side.
[This is post #9 in our Urban Villages series. By the way, the “urban village” is treated on this site not as a commercial area, but as a walkable mixed-use area centred on a set of services. Livability in an urban village is a function of housing availability for a diversity of folks, public transit, civic amenities and incentives to walk and cycle as well as a range of commercial services.]