Shaping Vancouver 2015: Conversation 3

What Is Neighbourhood Character?

The evening’s panel discussion focused primarily on the Heritage Action Plan’s goal of taking immediate action on priority character buildings which will draw information from the upcoming Character Home Zoning Review. Panelists discussed how heritage and character links to community identity and if these unique identifiers are worth preserving.

Moderated by Ian Waddell, the evening’s discussion explored what features give areas their distinctive character, how to balance heritage conservation with other community and financial interests and how to ensure that new development is responsive to the neighbourhood context. 


Ian Waddell


Donald Luxton

Mike Harcourt

Ian McDonald

Am Johal

Caroline Adderson

To watch a full-length video of this discussion, please click here.

As part of the Shaping Vancouver 2015 series, this panel explored the topic of neighbourhood character in Vancouver. The event began with a presentation by Donald Luxton, one of the lead consultants on implementing a Heritage Action Plan in Vancouver. Luxton described Vancouver’s current Heritage Conservation Program and the dire need to improve it, as it has not been updated since its creation in 1986. He suggested that Vancouver should be creating Heritage Conservation Areas to better manage development, following the example of many other British Columbia cities. Luxton also outlined the key objectives of the new Heritage Action Plan, which are to:

  • Review and update the Vancouver Heritage Registry
  • Improve heritage conservation tools and incentives
  • Streamline the heritage building application process
  • Take immediate action on priority character buildings
  • Maximize sustainability outcomes
  • Involve and engage the community in this process

What features give areas their distinctive character?

Ian McDonald responded that both the details in building and neighbourhood design as well as the enduring usage of a neighbourhood help to create a culture within an area.

Donald Luxton noted the unique situation of Vancouver’s built heritage in that many of the character homes being discussed were the very first buildings to be erected on the site and is indicative of the young age of this city. Luxton continued and explained that much of Vancouver was laid out following the introduction of the family car which resulted many neighbourhoods composed of spread out single family homes. Luxton expressed his hopes for creative densification in these areas. Caroline Adderson noted that visual characteristics are only one part of the discussion of character. Adderson stressed the importance of analyzing community narrative and how a neighbourhood’s stories come together to form an identity.

Adderson voiced her concern about the buildings replacing demolished heritage homes noting that many are not built to last, and some make no effort to increase density. McDonald warned about the dangers of writing off new development as inferior quality, as it does not leave room for future heritage to be created. Harcourt stated that he would be a proponent of abolishing single family housing in order to decrease barriers to densification in residential neighbourhoods.

Waddell asked panelists to outline what layers they believed are important to an area’s character. As well Waddell questioned panelists on whether it is possible to create neighbourhoods that support a mixed population of different income levels and demographics.

Harcourt responded that it is possible to design communities for many groups of people but it relies on political will. Harcourt argued that citizen and politicians need to prioritize equal access to services across the city and plan for new communities. Harcourt referenced the success of the False Creek and Champlain Heights neighbourhoods.

Am Johal spoke on the complexity of layers in British Columbia as the city lies on unceded land and discussed the tension between progress and heritage in a city that is rapidly growing.

How can we balance heritage conservation with community and financial interests?

McDonald reasoned that heritage and finance are capable of working alongside one another, adding that developers should be able to utilize the heritage toolkit to leverage proposed density levels and tax incentives.

Waddell asked panelists how developers can reasonably be asked to invest large amounts of money in buildings that may be ‘falling down’. Luxton responded that often the building that is classified as ‘falling down’ is one that is in the hands of someone who wishes to tear it down. Luxton suggested that education is needed on building restoration, and the financial benefits that comes with it.

Waddell asked panelists what further tools or incentives are needed to preserve neighbourhood character. Harcourt noted the flexibility that the city has by having its own individual heritage charter and offered that this allows the city to engage in experimental projects. Harcourt did not that further tools/incentives may not be what is needed now but rather a modification in what we expect of our neighbourhoods.

We acknowledge the financial assistance of the Province of British Columbia. Thank you to SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement for co-presenting the series.