Opinion: Let’s face it, Vancouver's waterfront is boring (VIDEO)

Feb 14 2023, 9:29 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Uytae Lee, who is an urban planning video journalist and the creator of About Here.

Don’t get your yoga pants in a bunch here, Vancouver, but I think it’s time we admit to ourselves that our seawall is not in fact the “crown jewel” of the city. It’s a boring, 28-km walking path.

With a few exceptions like Granville Island and the convention centre, most of Vancouver’s waterfront is a trail that connects various parks to various luxury condos. Sure, it’s beautiful! And it’s great for going on walks, bike rides, sitting on a bench, or sitting on a log. But have you ever tried to grab a bite to eat? Your options are woefully limited.

If, like me, you’re getting tired of Cactus Club, here’s a taste of something different.

porto portugal

Cafes along the riverfront in Porto, Portugal. (Shutterstock)

klong hae floating market thailand hat yai

Klong Hae floating market in Hat Yai, Thailand. (Shutterstock)

coney island beach amusement park new york

Coney Island beach and amusement park in New York. (Shutterstock)

In fact, one of my favourite examples is right here in Canada: the Halifax waterfront! When it isn’t a frozen maritime hellscape, you’ll find restaurants, buskers, beer gardens, concerts, museums, festivals, and much, much more all right next to the Halifax Harbour.

To me, these are what truly great waterfronts look like. They bring the whole community together.

halifax waterfront beer garden

A two-storey beer garden along Halifax’s waterfront. (Uytae Lee)

waterfront active uses example 1

Example of active restaurant/retail uses on the Halifax waterfront. (Uytae Lee)

So why is Vancouver’s waterfront so empty? Well, I was surprised to discover that it’s not because our city has long endeavoured to build the world’s longest uninterrupted jogging path.

In fact, there are plenty of city waterfronts around the world that still have great paths right next to businesses and other attractions (e.g. Venice Beach, Bergen, Baltimore, etc.). The two are actually quite compatible.

The real reason Vancouver’s waterfront is so empty is actually a bit more political.

Reason #1: NIMBYs

Many people, especially those who live next to the seawall, actually don’t want it to become too busy. In fact, there’s a long history of people opposing all kinds of activities on the seawall.

In the 1970s, cycling was banned on the seawall. In one year, police handed out over 3,000 tickets to these two-wheeled criminals.

In 2003, community activists sued the Vancouver Park Board for having the audacity to build a restaurant next to Kits beach. They were worried that it would “despoil a magical beach, lead to beer-swilling in a public place, cause light and noise pollution and increase traffic congestion.”

In the early 2000s, a set of volleyball courts proposed for Sunset Beach was ultimately cancelled because of nearby residents’ concerns about “noise,” “competition for parking,” and “dust.”

I think a reporter writing for the Globe and Mail in 1980 described it best. “Thousands of… citizens living in apartments in the city’s West End regard the park as their private backyard.”

Reason #2: Victorian-era Park Ideologies

It turns out a lot of policymakers and park planners also love public spaces with little else to do besides walking. This practice dates back to the early 1800s in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.

Cities at the time were often polluted, over-cramped, and noisy. So in response, landscape architects like Frederic Olmstead began designing parks to serve as a way for residents to escape the city into “nature.” His designs (which include New York’s Central Park, Montreal’s Parc du Mont-Royal, and literally hundreds of other parks across North America) went on to influence the design of public spaces around the world.

Vancouver’s seawall was arguably our city’s twist on this concept. This walking path by the sea was a way for citizens here to escape into “nature.”

Reason #3: Money

At the end of the day, it’s more profitable for developers to build luxury apartments along the seawall than to build and manage commercial spaces like a café or a restaurant. So as key Vancouver waterfront real estate like the Expo Lands were redeveloped, that is exactly what ended up being built. Row after row of luxury waterfront residences. Many townhouse apartments abutting the seawall today sell for several millions of dollars.

north false creek seawall

North False Creek seawall fronted by inactive residential uses. (Uytae Lee)

We can do better

When I look at the seawall’s history and the political forces that shape it, I don’t think it’s anything to be proud of. Vancouver’s waterfront is the product of nimbyism, outdated Victorian park planning ideals, and real estate interests. At best, it’s a safe and inoffensive idea.

At the end of the day, a city’s waterfront is a very important defining feature of a city. And it’s worth critically thinking about what that space looks like.

Maybe we could try thinking outside of the path?

waterfront active uses example 1

Example of event activations on the Halifax waterfront. (Uytae Lee)


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