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Map showing the extent of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood and the sub-areas it encompasses

The Downtown Eastside ("DTES") is situated in the heart of the city and has a strong community rich with culture, history and people. Libby Davies, Vancouver’s MP for Vancouver East describes the Downtown Eastside as “a community of people from many backgrounds and experiences who share the place as home in sometimes dire circumstances”(Davies, 2008: 12). There are complex issues that affect the DTES including unemployment, drug use, homelessness, crime, housing issues and a declining economic vitality. Because of these issues it has been targeted for redevelopment since the mid-twentieth century by academics, private developers, civic officials and government. (Plant, 2008)

Any redevelopment projects or plans have draw backs and benefits but most recently, Vancouver’s revitalization efforts for the DTES have become a contentious issue; there are strong feelings from the community that these plans foster gentrification and create a negative impact on the community. We will argue that Vancouver’s revitalization efforts, such as the 2005 Housing Plan, have created gentrification, but not all the impacts have been negative. We will explore other theories of gentrification and Vancouver's new development efforts through the DTES Area Plan to showcase how stakeholders can work together to avoid direct displacement of local residents.



The DTES is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Vancouver and has been an important commercial, residential and industrial centre of Vancouver for many years. The DTES lies on unceded Coast Salish territory and comprises about 202 hectares of land. The DTES includes the sub-areas Strathcona, Gastown, Oppenheimer, Victory Square, and Chinatown and is bordered by Cambie Street to the west, Clark Drive to the east, Venables Street/Prior Avenue to the south, and the waterfront to the north (City of Vancouver, 2012).

The DTES was developed as a centre of industry, residence and commercial business in the 1880s and 1890s. Hastings Sawmill and the Canadian Pacific Railway yards drew wage workers from all different cultures and backgrounds to work and reside in the DTES. Large Chinese and Japanese communities developed as a result of the need for labourers (Plant, 2008). Following a decline in industrial work after WWII, there was a shift in business westward which continued to drain the Eastside of economic vitality. The social, economic and cultural aspects of the neighbourhood were further impacted by the termination of the BC Electric streetcar service and the North Shore ferries route (Plant, 2008). By the mid-1960s the DTES was getting a reputation for emerging social and economic problems. In fact, some observers went as far as to dub the neighbourhood as the “skid road” of Vancouver (Sommers & Blomley, 2002: 30). This postwar notoriety stimulated numerous redevelopment plans for the area by academics, private developers, civic officials and government alike. In the following years, the DTES history is marked by different and reoccurring efforts to redevelop the neighbourhood (Plant, 2008).

The early urban renewal plans started in 1925 as district zoning bylaws that characterized Strathcona as a commercial/light industrial/residential area. Then, as social and economic problems persisted, other redevelopment plans advocated for the clearance and complete redevelopment as the only option to counteract what was termed then as ‘urban decay’. The majority of the renewal and redevelopment projects resulted in displacement of thousands of people and clearance of whole city blocks (Plant, 2008). These redevelopment plans were met by opposition of many of the residents, one of the most active groups being the Chinatown residents. In the 1960s there was a mobilization of people in opposition to the city’s redevelopment plans and many community associations were formed to advocate for local resident’s needs such as the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association and The Downtown Eastside Residents Association. This forced the government to reassess their approach and focus on improvement of services and socially and culturally sustainable plans rather than demolition and reconstruction projects (City of Vancouver, 2012; Plant, 2008). Although activism in the area was gaining momentum there were still prominent issues of drug use, crime, prostitution, unemployment, homelessness and intravenous drug-related diseases such as hepatitis and HIV-AIDS. Businesses and investments were pulling out of the area increasing the economic hardships in the neighbourhood. In the 1990s the Vancouver government began to try and address these issues with the Four Pillars Coalition which aims to control and reduce drug use. Some of the projects that have come out of this are a needle exchange program, safe injection site and detoxification facility. Other plans include the Strategic Action Plan and creation of the 1999 Downtown Eastside Revitalization program and the 2000 Vancouver Agreement whose objectives are to create healthy safe community with affordable housing, and sustainable economic growth (Plant, 2008).

The current plan is the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan which “will focus on ways to improve the lives of low-income DTES residents and community members” as a partnership with existing organizations in the area as well as through public engagement (DTESLAP, 2012). The Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan incorporates many policy and planning documents such as the 2005 DTES Housing Plan, DTES Development Capacity Estimates, Gastown Heritage Management Plan etc. In the implementation of the plan, gentrification has been a debated topic. Although gentrification has been used as a useful tool to reverse decline in the area and breath some vitality into the neighbourhood it has also brought up concerns about affordable housing and displacement of local residents in the DTES. While recent redevelopment plans are more inclusive and involve public engagement, they remain a contentious issue in the area because of the different interest groups, community organizations and corporations trying to fight for representation and control over the region’s future (Plant, 2008).


Historically the DTES has provided a home for low- and modest-income people, especially singles, and newcomers to the city. The current demographics still reflect some of the historical characteristics of the neighbourhood with an ethnically diverse population and a relatively stable population of working class, low-income, and First Nation residents (City of Vancouver 2012).

The DTES presents a unique demographic which differs than that of the city’s. It has a higher percentage of vulnerable residents including seniors, families with children, and people with disabilities, mental illness, and addictions. The majority of the residents are single (61%) and live alone. There are fewer families in the DTES and large portions (24%) are single parent families. The age profile shows a bias towards an older population with more than half of the population over the age of 45 and with a high percentage of seniors. Males make up the greatest proportion of the gender profile at 60 percent male, and 40 percent female (Statistics Canada, 2006; City of Vancouver, 2012). The incidence of low income in is 67% and the life expectancy of residents in the DTES is 5 to 10 years lower than the city’s average (Statistics Canada, 2006; City of Vancouver, 2012; Housing Plan DTES , 2005).

This demographic has a diversity of needs which are unique from the other neighbourhoods in the city. It is important when planning revitalization or assessing impacts of development in this neighbourhood to take into account the multiplicity of needs and issues specific to this community.

Characteristics of the built form and land use

Total Housing Units by Type in the DTES, 2011

As one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Vancouver the DTES still holds a resemblance of its historic past with approximately 500 buildings in the area listed on the City’s Heritage Register. The built form consists of a mix of commercial, residential and industrial buildings. The residential buildings include market and non-market housing such as apartments, single family and duplex homes. With the predominance of singles low-income residents, there is a large amount of single room occupancy (SRO) and social housing operated by non-profits or government agencies (City of Vancouver, 2012). Market housing accounts for about one-third of the total housing in the area and the other two-thirds are private and governmental low income housing (Housing Plan DTES, 2005).

The residential areas are mainly in Strathcona and parts of the Oppenheimer District. There are several key commercial/ retail areas such as Water, Hastings, Cordova, Main, Pender and Keefer Streets which are located in Chinatown, Gastown, Victory Square, Thornton Park and parts of the Oppenheimer District. The industry areas are typically to the north and south of the DTES and are of lower density job areas (Statistics Canada, 2006; City of Vancouver, 2012).

Issue of Gentrification

Gentrification on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside


Gentrification, a term first coined by British Sociologist Ruth Glass, can be described as the process of urban regeneration or rehabilitation that sees a middle class enter a neighbourhood and displace poorer incumbent residents after the renovation and replacement of working-class or derelict housing (Atkinson, 2004). Managed gentrification, sometimes called urban renewal, has been lauded for its ability to improve neighbourhoods by introducing social mix while reducing problems stemming from concentrated poverty. The question for Vancouver's downtown eastide is, how has managed gentrification affected the long-term residents? Some believe that instead of reducing problems, gentrification creates upheaval within inner cities by adding to and accelerating income polarization, displacement, heightened segregation, and class and racial conflict (Lees, 2008). On the other hand, proponents of gentrification believe that a more socially mixed neighbourhood stimulates social inclusion, greater social interaction, and higher levels of social capital (Walks & Maaranen, 2008). Furthermore, political policies that increase gentrification are said to be vital for an ongoing entrepreneurial approach to planning, where cities must compete for mobile capital and a global creative class by marketing themselves as liveable, cosmopolitan, tolerant and harmonious places (Walks & Maaranen, 2008). In the case of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, gentrification has been a tool used by planners to reverse some of the decline in the area that came as a result of a growing drug dealing and dependent population as well as an influx of deinstitutionalized mentally ill. While there is no doubt that social planning has been affective at reducing the drug related crime and homelessness, some question if gentrification has led to displacement and an affordable housing shortage.

Gentrification on the Downtown Eastside

Development in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (“DTES”) has accelerated since the 1980’s when the City of Vancouver began a strategy of revitalizing the area by encouraging market development. This revitalization is similar to what Neil Smith calls “New Build Gentrification” (Lecture 5), or gentrification without direct displacement. New build gentrification has taken place throughout the DTES, with projects like the Woodwards development where historic commercial and industrial properties have been redeveloped into mixed use projects with commercial, market and social housing uses. Revitalization and the development of a mixed income community were promoted by the 2005 Housing Plan for the Downtown Eastside as an affective strategy to reverse decline. The plan suggests that increased market development, when used in combination with social programs, can help to reduce the impact of drug related crime and improve street conditions. While the plan’s vision calls for “revitalization without displacement” (Housing Plan DTES, 2005), it is debatable if this has been achieved. One reason is what Neil Smith calls indirect, sociocultural displacement. Even without direct displacement, we see evidence today in the DTES that new build development has lead to a “class remake of the central urban landscape” (Lecture 5) with a number of new commercial businesses and services opening for the new middle class population. The DTES has a long history of being home to predominantly low-income singles and the Housing Plan acknowledges this will continue to be a major role for the region. As such, the plan calls for any new market development to be created for a moderate income households with an emphasis on purpose built rental and live work studios and lofts. While this sounds good in policy, in reality there are few mechanisms to ensure that new housing product is targeted at a moderate-income population. As a result, today parts of the DTES have residential prices per square foot as high as any other region of the City.

A second issue stems from the pace of new market development. The housing plan stresses the importance of monitoring the “rate of change” (Housing Plan DTES, 2005) to ensure the appropriate amount of new social housing is built in conjunction with market product. A warning is put forth that an abundance of new social housing will “hinder revitalization efforts” (Housing Plan DTES, 2005) while too much new market housing will lead to “loss of housing security and the likely displacement of the existing low income community” (Housing Plan DTES, 2005). Beginning in 2005, the plan projected the appropriate mix of new housing for the DTES should include 100-120 market and 100 units of social housing. A recent study by the Carnegie Community Action Project suggests this rate is not being achieved with planned or developed market housing growing at a rate closer to 25X new social housing supply.

Single Room Occupancy Hotels

In 2005, there were approximately 13,000 residential units on the DTES, including 10,000 units of low-income housing. At the time, low-income housing consisted of 5,000 social housing units and 5,000 Single Room Occupancy (“SRO”) rooms. The Housing Plan states the need to maintain the 10,000 units, with a gradual transition from SRO’s to social housing over the next 10 years. Ensuring the maintenance of 10,000 affordable homes has been one safeguard the city uses to monitor the potential for development to cause displacement. Implementation of this strategy has not worked perfectly. One issue has been the city’s inability to enforce any sort of rent control in the remaining SRO’s. By allowing new market development on the DTES, the City has promoted increased densities and as a result, land prices have increased. This of course has affected the value of the remaining SRO’s. Today, a private owner cannot earn a positive return on renting rooms in an SRO at affordable rates. The result is either increased rents, or in some cases, a lack of maintenance. At the extreme is a situation where an SRO owner gives up on maintaining a building and faces closure if they cannot meet a minimum standard for health and safety bylaws. If the owner is not compelled by financial mechanisms to keep an SRO operational, tenants may have to face the street. The Housing Plan for the DTES states that in studying other cities that have experienced a loss of affordable housing, and specifically SROs, the number of people living on the street increases.

Why Should We Care About Gentrification

If neighbourhood change through managed gentrification is seen to create communities that are socially mixed, liveable and sustainable, the negative side affects of gentrification are suggested to be social polarization, segregation and displacement (Lees, 2008). One of the main arguments opposing gentrification is that the evidence does not suggest an improved social mix is a result (Walks & Maaranen, 2008). And this is potentially the case for the DTES where we have seen a number of activist demonstrations against middle class commercial ventures that have come into the area. In fact an inverse relationship is said to be evident in Canadian cities affected by gentrification. One in which a distinct social polarization exists and ever more social "tectonics" characterized by heightened levels of mistrust and superficial or even hostile contact (Walks & Maaranen, 2008).

Revitalizing without displacing has been a tricky task in the DTES. One reason is while focusing on maintaining affordable housing, the city may have overlooked the amenities needed by low-income residents. Are there employment prospects, affordable places to shop, social and health services for low-income populations provided in the DTES or close to other affordable housing locations? In her work "Gentrification and Social Mixing", Loretta Lees discusses the benefits that social segregation can have for low-income populations including a concentration of targeted amenities (Lees, 2008). Even condo marketer Bob Rennie recognized in a recent speech for the Urban Development Institute the need for subsidized commercial services for the subsidized housing being developed. By concentrating affordable housing, scale allows for a more efficient provision of services. Will managed gentrification ultimately lead to displacement if more services targeted at middle income residents begin to push out those targeting lower incomes?

Benefits to gentrification in the DTES?

The DTES is lauded for its severe social and economic circumstances and it is necessary for some vitality to be brought into the neighbourhood. To some degree, the DTES Housing Plan and gentrification have helped breath some vitality into the neighbourhood. Although gentrification and the DTES Housing Plan have provided unwelcomed development in the neighbourhood, some indicators suggest that gentrification has also provided benefits to the community. During the last 10 to 20 years, which have been marked by gentrification, some of the key indicators show stability and even some improvement to the conditions in the DTES.

There has been stabilization in the number of unsheltered individuals in the city of Vancouver and a 72% increase of individuals that are now sheltered (SIA 2013). The vacancy rates in SRO’s in the DTES have decreased from 2001 by 14% which may indicate a decrease in unsheltered individuals in the DTES. The median income in the DTES has increased between 2000 and 2005 by 13% and the proportion of low-income households decreased between 2000 and 2005 in the DTES. With higher income, people are able to better access the necessary amenities for improved health and well-being. The general safety, health and well-being in the neighbourhood have improved with death rates decreasing and a decrease in crime rates (SIA 2013). In regards to these key social indicators, the statistics show that there has been change within the last 10 years with several of the statistics indicating improvement. DTES Local Area Plan and the gentrification that it has caused have been in affect over these years and could be correlated to the improved circumstances for the local residents.

The biggest changes have been in the revitalization of the economic vitality of the DTES. The economic sector has been affected positively by gentrification with an increase in the land values in the DTES, a decrease in vacant premises, and an increase in development permits (new construction, change in use, building additions or exterior alterations) since 2005 (SIA 2013). This economic attention on the neighbourhood provides resources and inquiry into some of the social and economic issues in the area which might not have been given the same attention otherwise.

The future

Gentrification is not the only method to revitalize a neighbourhood but in the case of the DTES, the current revitalization plans and the gentrification that they have caused have provided some good within the neighbourhood. It could still provide benefits for the community as long as there are checks and balances from the local community.

An important part of why the neighbourhood has accrued benefits from the gentrification is a result of the communities working with the government to find solutions to local needs. This relationship was made possible because of a progressive local government that was willing to intervene to protect low-income housing and a strong sense of community activism and embeddedness displayed by the residents of the DTES. This is explicit in the open and public process of the DTES Local Area Plan. Although gentrification is happening, there has been an emphasis on input from the community and providing a platform for their ideas to be heard. This is apparent in the structure of the DTES Local Area Plan Committee which is composed of spokespersons from low income organizations, low-income residents, non-low-income residents, housing and social health services and private enterprise. There has also been a chance for those who are not involved on the Committee to voice their opinions through public and city workshops, round tables, meetings and open houses; these are all available and targeted for dialogue between the community, stakeholders and government (DTESLAP, 2012). As a result of this process comprehensive documents, such as the Housing Plan, are created with specific intentions to have a “strong low-income emphasis” and a viable and dynamic mixed income community not leading to the displacement of the low-income community (DTES Housing Plan, 2005).

As we move forward in the future, it is important to continue to create comprehensive revitalization plans that support working-class and low-income residents that do not solely focus on attracting and appeasing the ‘creative class’. Public policy, with the input of local residents, can be used to ameliorate gentrification through several different ways. It is important for policies to take into account the increasing economic vitality in the DTES which has been boosted by gentrification; while increasing the variety of businesses and employment, these policies need to maintain low-income and working-class employment opportunities within the neighbourhood to secure jobs for nearby low-skilled workers (Walks & August, 2008; Walks, 2013). Policies that support cultural and community organizations, housing search services, shelters and school programs allow these communities to create political capital which will help reinforce their political participation and create a more equal voice for them in democratic spaces (Walks & August, 2008). Vancouver is working hard to produce a comprehensive and inclusive Local Area plan with input from the community but it is crucial that these policies and changes continue to take into account the unique demographics, community, and history of this area.

Works Cited

Atkinson, R. (2004). The Evidence on the Impact of Gentrification: New Lessons for the Urban Renaissance?. International Journal of Housing Policy, 4(1), 107-131.

City of Vancouver. Policy and Planning.Downtown Local Area Profile 2012. Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, 2012. Retrieved from

City of Vancouver. Policy and Planning. Housing Plan for The Downtown Eastside (Housing Plan DTES). Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, 2005. Retrieved from

City of Vancouver. "Emerging Directions" Open Houses. Social Impact Assessment (SIA). Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, 2013. Retrieved from

Davies, L. “Forward,” in Hope in Shadow: Stories and Photographs of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, eds. Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008.

“Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan.” (DTESLAP) Last modified August 27, 2012. Retrieved from

Lees, Loretta. (2008). Gentrification and Social Mixing: Towards an Inclusive Urban Renaissance?. Urban Studies, 45(12), 2449-2470.

Plant, B. 2008. Downtown Eastside Redevelopment Planning.Legislative Library of British Columbia. Retrieved from

Smith, N. (1996) The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London:Routledge.

Sommers, J. & Blomley, N. “‘The Worst Block in Vancouver,’” in Stan Douglas, Every Building on 100 West Hastings. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002.

Statistics Canada. 2006. Census Tract (CT) Profiles for 0059.3 (CT). 2006 Census. Retrieved from

Walks, R. (2013).Income Inequality and Polarization in Canada’s Cities: An Examination and New Form of Measurement: Research Paper 227. Cities Centre, University of Toronto. Retrieved from

Walks, R., and August, M. (2008). The factors inhibiting gentrification in areas with little non-market housing: Policy lessons from the Toronto experience. Urban Studies 45 (12): 2594–2625.

Walks, R., & Maaranen, R. (2008). Gentrification, Social Mix and Social Polarization: Testing the Linkages in Large Canadian Cities. Urban Studies, 29(4), 293-326.