Whose history do heritage houses preserve, and how do they shape our cities?

This story is part of Uytae Lee’s Stories About Here, an original series with the CBC Creator Network. You can watch every episode of this series on CBC Gem.

In 2012, the owners of the Walkem House in Vancouver filed an application to tear it down.

Built in 1913, the house is a fine example of the Arts and Crafts architecture movement and quite possibly “one of the most important residential commissions undertaken by [architect] R. Mackay Fripp,” according to Heritage Vancouver.

So the local government moved to protect the building, which led to the owners suing the city in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court of British Columbia

The building was saved. But there’s a bigger story here — one about the fate of old neighbourhoods as a city develops. 

And I feel very conflicted about it. 

Creating heritage conservation areas

As cities grow, old neighbourhoods often face pressure to redevelop so newer, bigger buildings can be created.

One way to stop this from happening is to create a heritage conservation area — an entire neighbourhood where historically relevant buildings are protected from demolition.

In 2015, the Walkem House became part of a newly-created heritage conservation area called First Shaughnessy, filled with well-preserved homes that once belonged to Vancouver’s elite, which also serve as some of the best examples of the architecture of their era.

In the last couple decades, heritage conservation areas have popped up all over Canada: Armstrong’s Point in Winnipeg, Rosedale in Toronto and Westmount in Edmonton, to name a few. These are areas that have been protected by law, where it is illegal to tear down buildings and replace them. 

But there are some problems with this.

The heritage-protected First Shaughnessy neighbourhood has a far lower population density than other parts of Metro Vancouver, in part because of the inability for old homes to be torn down and replaced with higher-density housing, Uytae Lee writes. (Stories About Here)

Protecting a neighbourhood in the middle of a city is kind of bizarre in an era of rental crises and housing crunches. There are parts of Shaughnessy that have a population density of about 1,100 people per square kilometre, while just across the street are neighbourhoods with almost 17 times that amount. In fact, the population of First Shaughnessy has been decreasing over the last few decades. 

But what makes a place worth protecting? 

When you read up on the heritage laws and policies of major cities across Canada, you begin to notice some pretty common threads. Cities tend to preserve a building if:

  • It’s designed by an influential architect;

  • It’s an early or excellent example of a certain architectural style;

  • It’s built with special materials or methods that set it apart from other buildings;

  • It’s connected to an important person, organization, or event in the city’s history.

On the surface, that sounds pretty straightforward. But on the ground, it tends to produce a pretty biased outcome: the buildings of wealthy homeowners are what we end up preserving. 

Think about it: those are the people who can afford famous architects, who might produce an excellent example of a certain architectural style, with special materials or methods that make it unique.

And if they’re wealthy, there’s a good chance they’re an important person in the city. 

Thus the preservation of wealthy neighbourhoods.

A critical look at heritage policies

Just a few kilometres away from Shaughnessy, there was once a neighbourhood known as Hogan’s Alley. It was an ethnically diverse community that many saw as a hub for Black Canadians in Vancouver.

But it was demolished in the 1960s to construct overpasses, effectively erasing the history of the community

And I think we have similar examples happening today. For example, there’s a row of Filipino businesses next to the Joyce SkyTrain station that have been described as the “heart” of Vancouver’s Filipino community. Right now, there’s an application to demolish them to construct a 32-storey condominium.

Residents of Vancouver’s Collingwood neighbourhood sign petition to save a cluster of Filipino stores from condo development. (Margaret Gallagher / CBC)

I would argue that these places are an important part of a city’s history. But because they don’t match our criteria for traditional, architecture-focused heritage, we tend to lose them. 

More than anything, I think it should be concerning when our heritage policies end up creating exclusive neighbourhoods that actively try to prevent people from living in them or even visiting them. Take a look at Shaugnessy’s heritage laws: they preserve “large lot sizes,” private gardens and iron gates. They even call for keeping out visitors by minimizing parking and discouraging vehicle traffic.

I truly believe there is real value in preserving heritage when it’s accessible for people to experience and interact with for themselves. But what’s the point in protecting our heritage if it ends up behind iron gates?

Because if we aren’t protecting heritage for us, who are we really protecting it for?

Learn more and see some examples of areas working to blend heritage with new housing in Stories About Here: The Heritage Dilemma.

About this series

Stories About Here is an original series with the CBC Creator Network that explores the urban planning challenges that communities across Canada face today. In each episode we dig into the often overlooked issues in our own backyards — whether it’s the shortage of public bathrooms, sewage leaking into the water, or the bureaucratic roots of the housing crisis. Through it all, we hope to inspire people to become better informed and engaged members of their communities.

You can watch every episode of this series on CBC Gem.

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