Breaking the cycle of disadvantage in Vancouver’s downtown eastside

Many of us living here in Vancouver often have profound moments when we realize how lucky we are to live in this great city. The recent release of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Livability Survey, which ranked Vancouver as the third most livable city in the world, is a solid reminder that Vancouver is a place where many of us are able to comfortably live, work and play. The strength of a city’s social fabric however, is in its ability to provide the necessary support mechanisms for its most disadvantaged – to ensure that no one is left behind.

This is the challenge faced by many of the city’s developers, Mayor and Council, and the Urban Development Institute (UDI) as we plan for the future – how can we contribute to a Vancouver that sees all of its citizens thriving and realizing their greater potential.

Many people in this great city are struggling, unable to find affordable housing and employment, particularly in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. It is here that the growing gap between new residents moving into the area and the disadvantaged is most evident – highlighting a major challenge for Vancouver’s future development and livability.

In the last 10 years, Vancouver has seen its homeless population increase 10 fold. The majority of homeless people in Vancouver are living with mental health and/or drug and alcohol issues, and many are unable to access the support they need to recover. They are unable to engage in employment or find reliable housing, as affordability continues to be a major barrier to individual progression.  In fact, personal incomes in Vancouver have only increased by 9%, whilst house prices have increased at a striking rate of 280% since the 1970’s. 

As complex and challenging as these issues are, actions are moving in a positive direction as the Vancouver City Council begins to make some significant headway on the issue. After a number of attempts led by Council in the past, there is renewed hope that the work being undertaken on the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan will revitalize past efforts and engage all stakeholders to develop both short and long term solutions.  

It is important to note that this will not work without strong partnerships and will require a citywide approach to social, economic and cultural development. Without it, efforts will fail to capitalize on the essential synergetic effects required to realize the council’s plan.

Partnerships with industry, collaborative planning and a shared vision for the future will create forward thinking, progressive solutions that benefit the whole community.  For this reason, these ambitious plans also need to integrate the valuable and willing role that the development industry can play, both in the area’s physical development, and in the social and economic changes required to truly realize the area’s potential.

UDI and its members are willing contributers to the creation of socially integrative neighbourhoods that are targeted at improving the living opportunities within disadvantaged areas of the city.  Vancouver is not alone in addressing this challenge with much work occurring internationally, and as a result, innovative solutions have arisen within urban areas of disadvantage in leading cities such as Berlin, Melbourne, and also in Newcastle, England. These are solutions that can be adapted and enhanced to better serve the needs of Vancouver.

Vancouver is on the precipice of realizing its potential – and there are many willing partners. How we move forward will require strong leadership and cannot rely solely on the government of the day or popular rhetoric, but visionary policy and a city-wide commitment to real and meaningful change that builds on natural synergies.

This entry originally appeared in the September edition of Westcoast Homes & Design Magazine