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environment | sustainability

East Vancouver: a case study

Some history, some reflections about an edge city
relativity mc escher 1953
relativity mc escher 1953
East Vancouver is best described as an outer-edge suburb, or an edge city. Over the years, the differences between what exactly constitutes a suburb and an independent town or city have become blurred, as the "burbs" and outer-edges have become more independent of core urban areas. These entities have increasingly been able to exist by themselves, creating their own capital for investment and development, and creating their own consumer class. So it's hard to say what is a suburb, when the suburb could likely survive without the big city.

Yet there are places where alot of unfortunate circumstances exist simultaneously, and we would generally call them suburbs or edge cities.

In the case of east Vancouver, it seems that it developed from the high-tech businesses like HP and Wafertech, which were built in what must have been farmland at the time. These businesses spawned neighborhoods which sprawled toward the urban core, and also further into the rural countryside. The sprawl came from the urban core too, and eventually the two instances of sprawl met with each other, so that now from downtown Vancouver, one can travel east for about eight or nine miles before reaching the end of the major sprawl.

The giant corporations that build their companies far from urban centers seem to be saying, "We don't want a city messing with us, we'll save money this way, and we'll be far removed and safe from the rabble." To a degree their plan works; yet they also end up designing their own prison cell from which escape is impossible. Eventually they have to pay, and they come face to face with the rabble--they find out that rabble comes in many shapes and sizes.

East Vancouver is a special case, for it seems that it is sustaining itself not just on the high-tech employers, but on a variety of retail and restaurant establishments. There is a several-acre Wal-Mart across from a several-acre car lot. A few miles down Mill Plain there is a Target and attached feeder stores. On that stretch of Mill Plain there are a dozen little insurance and medical offices, a dozen banks, a dozen gas stations, several quite unappealing business plazas, etc...Toward the end of Mill Plain, the end of the eight or nine mile run, there are half a dozen construction projects--future restaurants, oil and lube shops, and even a future Wildoats market, just a mile down 164th Ave. from Albertsons and Fred Meyer, which are across the street from each other.

It is overwhelming and absurd, and just like anything that is awful, its hard to take your eyes off it. This place is part of me. Its hard to admit it, but its inescapable.

Why do people come here? I think I know why so many Russians and east Europeans have come to Vancouver--its better than where they're from. It may not be great, and after a while it may get worse, but for now its just better than where they're from.

Its been rumored for years that in this part of Vancouver, many people are refugees from southern California, and that makes sense. I've seen the edge cities around San Diego, and I can see how people from there would be comfortable here. The edge city is a state of mind, and different weather and environment might not penetrate the artifice for refugees from other edge cities.

One interesting aspect of east Vancouver is that it's officially part of the city. It was annexed years ago, and the city limit to the east is now 164th Ave. That means the city can collect revenue from the 20,000+ people who live here, and the people get regular basic services in return. This raises property values, so that rich people looking to buy a house go further into the countryside and rural areas. The city generates more revenue, so that in theory it could spend more on making the central city more liveable. In downtown there are numerous buildings under construction, and some already built, as part of a revitalization effort. There's even rumors about developing a commuter bus/train to connect with transit centers in north Portland...sometime in the next 20 years. In the meantime, the edge cities to the north and east continue pumping out Wal-Marts, shopping plazas, and techno-business parks. There are two Wal-Marts in the edge cities, and plans for at least one more, and this along with all the malls and shopping plazas will effectively keep small shops and groceries from surviving in the downtown area. The average lifespan for any kind of business in downtown is about 9 months. Across the river is Jantzen Beach, which at any given moment has more cars per acre than anyplace in the Northwest, and its not pedestrian or bicycle friendly. The new residents in downtown Vancouver will find themselves relying on Jantzen Beach for supplies, and the short drive over will be more than they bargained for.

This is how the edge city sucks the life out of the urban core, and its only for the sake of saving money and staying aloof of the unwashed masses.

Why focus on this area? Its an interesting case, because its so obvious how these edge cities are part of a large problem. They are a leech on the natural resources of the Earth, and the forests and fields must be subdued before they can be built. They are socially organized in a way that makes mental well-being non-sustainable. In the edge city, there are dangerous collective pathologies bubbling just below the surface.

One of the most obvious indicators is the traffic situation. In east Vancouver, traffic poses a real threat to people. One can see from the design of the roads (as if they were designed) that the human form is not part of the plan--by itself, it is at risk. To an alien that has never seen cars or people before, it would obviously seem that cars are hunting people, and the bigger the vehicle, the more aggressive the hunt. To a sociologist, it is clear that the vehicles are at least trying to intimidate people, and the people inside the vehicles may not even be aware of it. In this sense, vehicles take on a life of their own, with little internal guidance from the driver, in a world that was constructed almost exclusively for them. It's a world similar to the ones Kafka dreamed of, but with its own peculiarities.

The intersection of Mill Plain Blvd. and Chkalov Dr. is the nerve center of east Vancouver. This is where no less than 18 lanes of traffic intersect--11 on Mill Plain, 7 on Chkalov. This is where the vehicles come; this is why they exist. They face off with each other, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Their tinted windows conceal the pained expressions of longing and desire. These symbols of rage, these "psycho-sexual dreamboats" as Ralph Nader would say.

Exhaust takes on new meaning. It chokes and kills us, yet it is our victory. We must keep on rolling.

(Note-the author has lived in east Vancouver for the past 9 months and worked there off and on for years)
IT COULD BE BETTER 03.May.2004 12:12

i like it and i dont

Its nice to Have a Yard. Granted it does not have to be a lawn.

Parks would be nice. Housing density could be further.

Its better that high density housing. Prison and high density housing go well to geter.

People know this, thats why they are there.

Like a culture grown in a petri plate- you see urban sprawl

Perhaps this is a lack of education and as you point out immigration policy plays a role too.

Economic growth policies and its distortions caused by forgien policy are a big role too.

Good reflections

Edge City 03.May.2004 13:07


I've lived around the 'Couv all my life and am shocked by the explosion of the area known as Fisher's Landing.
Nothing but crappy chain restaurants as far as the eye can see. If you drive down 164th (a major artery) it looks exactly like part of Los Angeles, like Anaheim or some other godforsaken hole. No independent video stores, book stores, parks or native trees.
And lots of ugly look-alike houses filled with ugly look-alike people.

Welcome... 03.May.2004 14:14


Welcome to Generica. No need to think, create, or question, just consume. Is that what Georgie Boy wants us to do anyway?

what was lost 03.May.2004 18:45

in west 'couv coyote66@pacifier.com

It wan only twenty years ago when that whole area was farms and woods with the airstrip as the main attraction. You might have even been lucky enough to see a cougar on the edge of one of those fields.

Somehow, a lot of people think of it as progress. (repeat subliminal from "Brave New World"..."I want new things. I hate old things")

The irony is, traffic, crime, and pollution are worse over there than in the "bad" parts of downtown.

Do like the article. All too true.

25 Years Ago... 03.May.2004 19:10


...east Vancouver was farmland with a little Tektronix outpost. Then HP moved in, building on farmland down a little two-lane. Others followed.

Now, as Chardman states, the area is full of ugly look-alike houses filled with ugly look-alike people. That is unless you're talking about the California high-tech refugees. They all moved up to Prune Hill and 5000 square-foot houses. Of course, they're just as ugly and look-alike as the rest, just more pretentious. Associating with them (Prune Hillers and lowlanders alike) is sort of like hanging with Borg.

Native, here 03.May.2004 20:45


I'm a native here, having lived in S.W. Washington most all my life, except when I went to Germany during the Vietnam War. (Uncle Sam, you know. Is there another draft coming?) I grew up in Woodland, then lived 19 years in the extra-converative Town of LaCenter (wow, was I glad to pack outta there, then lived in Bonnie's Vista area (trapped among BattleGround, Vancouver & Salmon Creek drainage), and finally, my last move is here in Cascade Park. With each relocation, I came closer to Portland, OR. I LOVE Portland. I dislike Vancouver, almost intensely.

Vancouver stole Cascade Park, and I almost pray Hazel Dell stands up to the City, and doesn't allow a takeover. Stay independent! In the last few days, there have been 2 huge traffic stalls at Mill Plain/Chakalov, both during the morning commute. Traffic is pathetic there. The air stinks. While signing for a political candidate in front of Fred Meyer, the grease cooking from Burger King wafts across the diseal-exhausted street. Traffic lights suck. Sometimes one will just stay red, and cars cross at their own risk. Drivers are stuck in a stop-start mode every hundred feet. Side roads have unmarked speed bumps. So one goes leaping over them, thud/thud.

The City doesn't give a rip what the people want. Have they asked us? Where is park development? Where are trails? Where are bicycles? Where is mass transportation to the airport? Blue Star Airporter makes a mint hauling us and our luggage. SOME city. I get to Portland as much as possible. Even MAX has an end-of-the-line, short of Vancouver. Bus #6 now drops one off at Delta Park, but returning, you get off at Denver Avenue. Stupid. But at least Tri-Met comes into Vancouver. C-Tran has only expresses to Ptld. I swear Vancouver needs some 8-balls.

Sure, our property taxes are less than Portland's and ought to be even less, if people have the smarts to pass Eyeman's initiative. See you in Portland!

What's the difference? 03.May.2004 22:53

acid adolph

Q. What's the difference between Vancouver and yogurt?

A. Yogurt has an active culture. {Clark County is for those who want a low tax rate and don't care much about quality of life, either around them or anywhere on the planet.)

Ex Californian here 03.May.2004 23:07

Catalina Eddie

One of the very nice things about Vancouver is that it's closer to Portland than a lot of Portlanders are. I love Portland too, and hope we get some good public transportation to it from here.

Still I prefer living in Vancouver. I live about halfway between the freeways, and there are lots of parks and trails near me. Ya gotta live in So.Cal. for awhile to realize how bad it can be. But don't call it Paradise...


Downtown/Uptown 03.May.2004 23:58

Den Mark, Vancouver

I live in uptown Vancouver, on the edge of downtown. Nearby: old houses, trees, parks, walking trails, running trails, bike trails, farmers' market, bell tower, fountains, playhouse, art galleries, antique shops, quirky cafés, ethnic restaurants, indy bookstores, library, college, symphony orchestra, historic fort, aviation museum, riverfront, history museum, lake, rowing, train station, transit mall, old churches, & so on, & soon, a food co-op. Lots to like here, but of course i was smart & bought a 1910 house in uptown Vancouver, on the edge of downtown.

Uptown, yes! 04.May.2004 06:34


I like uptown Main Street! There are local businesses, and it is really friendly. There are no parking meters, either. It is slow-paced, and conducive to sidewalk walking. Lately, a few more moderate-priced housing units have been built there.

Downtown seems desparate to attract business, almost at any cost, and with tax breaks for the "rich."

uptown: a nice place 04.May.2004 13:05


Den Mark makes a good point--uptown is pretty nice. There are some picture postcard perfect streets with glorious maples and early 1900's houses. As far as the other things, like quirky cafes and ethnic eateries, I guess you could say that technically they are there. There seems to be an exclusivity about many of those places, including the art gallery(s). I really don't know, because it would require supreme patience and wisdom to fully explore them. I need something quick, before I forget. Yes, quickly.

Ironically, one of my favorite places downtown was McDonalds. It was so pathetic that I liked to hang out in there and observe. They got rid of it, and you know it has to be bad if McDonalds pulls out. I think the city elders deemed it inappropriate, because, yes you guessed it, because of the rabble. Now there's an ethnic restaurant there, well actually its just a high-priced pizza place. I say high-priced because I went in there and couldn't get anything for a dollar. I turned around and left.

A few observations 04.May.2004 15:05

Jo Routens

I moved to Vancouver in 1986, the Minnehaha neighborhood which is sort of "mid-west" Van, a rural area that has been slowly suburbanizing. Observations: A big, big bust in high-tech will turn East County into a slum as you will see a large number of people move away in a short time putting an unusual amount of property on the market simultaneously while also yanking the rug out from under many support businesses.
The whole area's autocentric development is partly a product of local government's cock-in-mouth relationship with the real estate industry. It's a really good argument for politically disenfranchising developers, realtors, and builders. I'd ban folks in all of those occupations from holding local public office, giving money to local candidates, and maybe even voting.
Also, you'll notice the average vehicle size increases as you both cross the Columbia river going north, and I-205 going east. East County has a disproportionate number of the willfully stupid--Republican, evangelical, SUV drivers. It always votes heavily in favor of Little Timmy Eyman's initiatives. Yes, I'm a bigot--and I'm fucking right!

Downtown thrives 04.May.2004 15:37


sort of...
as a neighborhood of Portland.
It was a ghost-town for a while, and now it seems like cool businesses are opening up.
Maybe ones that couldn't quite afford to rent or compete in P-town.
Cool ethnic restaurants and gift shops and even a couple of music stores.
Someone oughta do a alternative business guide to the 'couv.
Ex-Couver, I really like your concept of Generica.
I'd been trying to put into words what seems to be happening all over, and that word just sums it up so well.
When a neighborhood is planned exclusively around people's consumer needs and traffic patterns resemble a maze designed to careen us from shopping trap to shopping trap. And Fisher's Landing, for example, would look like any other Generican city, regardless of what state you're in.

case study my ass 08.Jun.2006 10:38


was this article written in the sixties?
did you say east vancouver is not pedestrian friendly?
perhaps I misunderstood and read the article wrong, but that's probably because it was boring and poorly written.
i don't even understand what the point was. east vancouver sucks? vancouver sucks? capatalism sucks? portland rocks? suburbs suck? a little bit of everything?
east van isn't that bad, I live there as apparently you do, I find it very pedestrian and bike friendly. it's more of a cracked out small town than anything. theres alot that goes on here in terms of "culture" but it's dwindling because of the 2010 olympics and all the drug addled street queens they're shipping off to new west. and the nerve centre is more accurately commercial drive and east broadway.
what does that have to do with your article? probably as much as your article had to do with east van, despite the fact it was in the title.