Harland Bartholomew and Vancouver Urban History 1928 to 1952 (VIDEO)
May 07th, 2020
When I look back in Vancouver history to find the source of escalating house prices, sclerotic city processes and sterile sprawling neighbourhoods I find a system initiated by Harland Bartholomew. For the first 42 years of Vancouver’s history, London was the model. There were no government central planners, people decided what to do with their property, market forces and innovative buildings made for a vibrant, economically prosperous city.
Bartholomew introduced his Plan for Vancouver in 1928. Many people during that time believed that complex human systems like economies and cities were best organized by central planners. Many Western countries but especially the Soviet Union embraced central planning for their economies and cities. The result was catastrophic. It turns out that complex systems cannot possibly be understood much less managed by humans with limited information. Complex dynamic systems need to be flexible and responsive to the numerous and changing economic and social forces. The prosperity we all experience today is thanks to this insight.
Although no one advocates for an economy planned by government functionaries we still use the central planning model for our cities. This is the second video in what I hope will be a four-part series on the development history of Vancouver. The first video documented how our street system was laid out and named by owners of District Lots led by Canadian Pacific Railway surveyor Laughlin Hamilton before the city government even existed.
Our major streets were chosen by the BC Electric Company headquartered in London by Robert Horne-Payne who used an old wooden three-wheeled wheelchair which prevented him from visiting Vancouver. Homeowners converted their front yards along streetcar lines into shops but only because there was no zoning. All of our much loved neighbourhood shopping streets were created in this way. After Bartholomew brought in zoning this became illegal.
There is a growing recognition that you cannot design cities the way you design buildings. Buildings are made for individual people but cities grow to meet the emergent properties of groups of people. Cities which are planned according to the ideas of people and not the self-organizing actions of humans will not be as successful. Urban spaces should be grown not willed into existence fully formed. Complex humans systems like economies and cities will become dysfunctional under central planning. We won’t get control of unaffordability in Vancouver until we recognize this.
I hope these videos will contribute to the public conversation on how to bring back an organic, innovative, vital city with housing and buildings that respond to the needs of today’s people not yesterday’s conventions.