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The Space and Community

A Map of Oppenheimer Park in Relation to Vancouver

Oppenheimer Park is located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), bordered by the streets of Powell and East Cordova, and the Avenues of Jackson and Dunlevy. The Downtown Eastside contains some of British Columbia’s oldest neighbourhoods - one of them being the former Japantown, which is where Oppenheimer Park is located (Aoiki 2011). Established more than a hundred years ago, this park was originally the site of a baseball diamond in the heart of Japantown (Scalza 2011). Over time (and with the decline of Japantown), Oppenheimer Park has become a gathering place for the citizens of the DTES community; a community that is afflicted with poverty, drug use, and crime (City of Vancouver 2012). However, it is a strong community nonetheless with a history of social activism, all of which is reflected in the day-to-day activity occurring in the park (Downtown Eastside Enquirer, 2008). After recent renovations in 2010, Oppenheimer Park now offers a soup kitchen, public washrooms, a playground, and other features to the diverse group of park-goers (Southcott 2012). However, homelessness and drug problems remain prominent features of Oppenheimer Park, making it an area of concern to the Vancouver Police and those living in the surrounding community. Furthermore, many who are newer to the park’s neighbourhood are also affected by it, and at the same time, have played a major role in the gentrification process occurring around Oppenheimer Park. While some measures have been taken to keep the rent at a reasonable price for those living in the Oppenheimer Park neighbourhood, the original DTES residents of the surrounding area are finding themselves being pushed out of their community, with many being forced to congregate in the limited space that is Oppenheimer Park (Carnegie Community Action Project 2013). 

On this page, an overview of history and demographics of the park will then be followed by a discussion of the identified issues (the property market, affordability and gentrification, and missing support systems) affecting it, with a special focus on its recent 2010 renovations.


In 1902 Oppenheimer Park officially opened under the name of the Powell Street Grounds. Opened by Vancouver’s second mayor, David Oppenheimer, the park was later renamed Oppenheimer Park. Oppenheimer was a German born Canadian and is arguably Vancouver’s most influential mayor; under his leadership much of Vancouver’s infrastructure and landscape was shaped (Bollwitt 2013).

The baseball diamond at Oppenheimer Park

When the park was created in 1902 it was located in the heart of Little Tokyo. By 1914 the Asahi baseball club was formed, which was comprised primarily of Japanese Canadians and based out of the park’s diamond. This baseball club drew in large crowds to the park, but on September 18, 1941 the team played its last game following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The event caused considerable fear and prejudice towards the Japanese community that surrounded Oppenheimer Park. The Little Tokyo community rapidly disappeared as many Japanese residents were involuntarily relocated to farms and internment camps (Aoki 2011, Bollwitt 2013).

Shortly beforehand, the area had become a flashpoint for political activism, which it remains today. In 1938 Vancouver’s infamous Bloody Sunday protest broke out, in which unemployed, communist-led workers went on strike during the Great Depression (City of Vancouver 2012). From the 1940s to the 1980s Oppenheimer remained a popular destination for many families. However, the 1980s witnessed a rapid growth in the crack cocaine trade and drug abuse began to dominate the park’s usage. This is partly due to the ongoing gentrification process that has pushed out the lower class into the downtown east side neighbourhood by Oppenheimer park. During this time with much drug use and trade police could not fully control the park and took more of a surveillance role on the situation. Due to the intimate link between addiction and homelessness, this led to many homeless citizens living in the park, and with the concentrated use and distribution of a variety of drugs, Oppenheimer Park became a concern to the Vancouver Police. This focus has more recently caused controversy, particularly as the area has become gentrified and more established socioeconomic classes have demanded increased scrutiny (Aoki 2011, Bolwitt 2013, City of Vancouver 2012).

In 1997 a 30 foot totem pole was carved apart of a community art project. This totem pole was meant to represent all those who have died in the downtown Eastside and give strength to those who are still alive; further to this line of thinking, Oppenheimer Park underwent drastic renovations in 2010. Upgrades to the park include a new field house, washrooms, universally accessible walkways, children’s playgrounds, patio spaces, picnic tables and seating areas, a central lawn area, and landscaping. In keeping with the history of the park, sports were integrated into the design; as the site itself is not well suited for baseball, the architects included in place a basketball court and horseshoe pitch. The Vancouver Police and the Strathcona Business Improvement Association have hoped these renovations would help change the both the park’s image and the surrounding community, but regrettably, neither has happened to a significant degree. This is partly due to the protests of local downtown east side residents who are resisting change in the area, as they know that change will cause many to be pushed out of their community (Aoki 2011, Bollwitt 2013, Vancouver Police Department 2011).


Demographics in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood surrounding Oppenheimer park is quite diverse and generally follows separate trends from much of the surrounding area. The following statistics are from Canadian Census data, collected in 2012:

During the period of 2001 to 2011, the Oppenheimer Park neighborhood witnessed a population growth of 5%. This is comparatively low, with the neighboring areas in the Downtown East Side growing at nearly three times that rate (13%). The resident population is relatively dominated by males and seniors; it is estimated to consist of 65% males, and 21% of all residents can be considered part of the senior demographic. The latter figure is approximately 45% higher than the proportion of seniors in Vancouver overall.

The community is also diverse; 25% of households primarily speak a Chinese dialect, with 30% of the resident population consisting of immigrants. Further to this, 10% of the population consists of First Nations, which is a figure five times higher than the city in total.

2010 Renovation

Aerial View of Completed Renovations

Part of the City of Vancouver’s regeneration policy was to improve the public realm, particularly where social issues such as addiction, homelessness, and crime were especially prevalent. In 2010, renovations were made to the physical landscape of the park, and features such as a community soup kitchen and public washrooms were added. (City of Vancouver, 2013.) Many cities have had success in implementing such policies; however, Vancouver is unique on a number of accounts, and many of these qualities contributed to the failure of the Oppenheimer Park redevelopment.

This renovation project was intended to facilitate social change in addition to making the area more enjoyable for its residents (Harris, 2010). The park had previously acted as central location for drug trafficking, prostitution, and homelessness, and by enhancing the space and disrupting the existing social network, the project would ideally serve to dismantle social structures in the area that perpetuated these types of issues (Harris, 2010). By shutting down the site temporarily during construction, redesigning it to maximize visibility, and making the space a destination for a variety of social classes, it had the potential to make drugs and prostitution less accessible and force those in the area to seek alternatives (McFarlane, 2013).

The Issues

The Oppenheimer renewal project was aimed at combatting urban decay, discouraging crime, decreasing transience, and preventing the park from being used as an area for the trafficking of drugs and prostitutes. While it succeeded on the first account, it accomplished little else and strongly antagonized local residents as a result of a number of issues.

The Property Market

For the past several decades, Vancouver has experienced consistently increasing demand for real estate. With new wealth being generated in developing countries, particularly China, there has been a considerable influx of investment into the local real estate market. As a consequence of this surge in demand, developers have quickly built out the last remaining areas in downtown Vancouver with large, dense, multi-family communities. The most notable example is Coal Harbour; once complete, the downtown area was left with effectively no waterfront property to develop on. Despite the large number of units placed on the market, the vast majority were sold swiftly (primarily to foreigners), and local developers were forced to look for new opportunities. (Gold, 2013.)

The Woodward's Redevelopment

Due to the limited number of economical and real estate opportunities in the downtown area, and the inherently high land prices resulting from this restrictive environment, property developers increasingly sought out lower-value lands where more financial upside exists, resulting in larger profits. One of the most considerable opportunities existed in the Downtown Eastside, given the suppressed economic potential and ample availability of sites suitable for redevelopment.

A number of companies recognized this potential and began to explore the area for urban renewal projects, most notably Westbank and the Salient Group. The former pursued a bold and aggressive strategy for reforming the neighbourhood into a viable business venture with the Woodwards project (BC Business, 2010), while the latter focused on smaller-scale projects that helped establish the area as one inclusive of higher-income individuals. (Boddy, 2007.) These two companies, along with a number of retail businesses and restaurants, helped act as a catalyst for change in the impoverished district. (Southcott, 2010.) This is seen as a good thing to many capitalists as it stimulates the local economy, however to many socialists it is seen as a negative movement causing even more human displacement.

Affordability and Gentrification

However, local residents did not readily embrace this rapid change. Such development projects acted too quickly resulting in escalating the cost of living for local residents and caused the socioeconomic mix to change dramatically. Efforts were made on the part of city council to mitigate the negative impact of these shifts, such as a mandatory social housing component for rezoned developments amounting to no less than 20% of the constructed units. Most of these policies were ineffective; with social housing defined as accommodation offered at 20% below market rent, even low-income units were placed well beyond the reach of most DTES residents. (Metro Vancouver, 2013.)

This issue of gentrification expanded well beyond the scope of housing as high-end restaurants, cafes, boutique shops, and commercial spaces were introduced to the area. This was primarily a result of external demand rather than internal, as locals found many of these establishments to be past their economic means. However, many supporters of this movement argued that economic development is the only means of lifting such areas out of destitution; with exclusively low-income populations, they become problematic in terms of perpetuating the cycle of poverty. (Ley, 1986.) When this change is supplemented with effective policy, it can be used to redefine the socioeconomic nature of a region and better integrate all members of society.

Missing Support Systems

Box for discarded needles of drug users attached to the fence of the baseball diamond at Oppenheimer Park.

The key issue preventing the intended outcome of the 2010 renovations, however, was the lack of support systems. Because of the limited availability of mental health treatment, addiction services, and suitable housing, former users of the space quickly found themselves displaced to a similar situation in a different area. Since then, the Oppenheimer district has again become overrun with social issues, and though the project has perhaps improved the park space itself, it has done nothing to alleviate the underlying social issues that surround it. (DTES Enquirer, 2013.)

The issue at hand is how these types of urban regeneration projects can be used to deal with social issues effectively. What can these projects realistically accomplish? What components and processes must they include to earn community support? And most importantly, what conditions must be in place for them to actively and successfully generate meaningful social change?

In the context of the Oppenheimer Park renewal, we can analyze these questions and draw lessons for the implementation of future projects. Urban redevelopment can act as a powerful driver of reform, socially, environmentally, and economically; but for it to be effective in the long term, we require a comprehensive understanding of the conditions that facilitate its success.


The New Community Center

Ultimately, the goal of this redevelopment was to rehabilitate the Oppenheimer Park area and help address some of the issues facing it. However, this project failed on several accounts; chiefly, it acted as a cosmetic makeover that did very little to address the underlying problems of the area. Secondly, it gained little support in the local community and the process by which it was developed did not address the concerns of the residents themselves. We have provided several recommendations to address these two issues. First, five unmet needs must be addressed for the community to have a viable future: health, housing, security, training, and employment. Secondly, the community must be involved with the project and be included in an integrated design process for it to be accepted and supported.

Addiction and Mental Health

In this instance, the first issue to be addressed concerns addiction and mental health. The vast majority of the problems facing the downtown east side and the Oppenheimer Park area are driven by the simple fact that over 20% of residents face a serious mental illness and much of this population simultaneously deals with addiction issues. (First United, 2013.) The only facility available to deal with psychiatric issues locally is the Strathcona Mental Health Team, and while St. Paul’s Hospital does have a mental health department, most inpatients from the area are discharged if they are physically stable. (VCH, 2013.) This limited resource is not able to provide services for a large portion of the affected population and with mental illnesses going untreated transience becomes common.

The drug trade that surfaces as a result further leads to crime and poverty. Before any progress can be made in regards to homelessness, income disparity, and illicit activities, there must first be resources available so residents are in a position to do so.

Our first policy recommendation is to establish a comprehensive and integrated mental health and addiction service that is located in and focuses on the downtown east side. By providing adequate treatment, Vancouver Coastal Health would permit residents to stabilize so they can seek work and return to normalcy.


As far as homelessness is concerned, the single-room occupancy model has been the primary means of addressing housing needs. However, not only are there insufficient units, but the units that do exist are frequently infested by pests and used for the drug trade and prostitution. Housing must be provided that is simultaneously sufficient for the population size and of adequate quality that buildings are not turned into havens for criminal activity. This responsibility would fall under the provincial housing authority; however, the City of Vancouver can enable the development of social housing using the community amenity contribution (CAC) model. (City of Vancouver, 2013.) Under it, developers would contribute funds when rezoning a property in the area that are in proportion to the density increases allowed by council. These funds could then be used to develop social housing over and above that permitted by the provincial budget.

Law Enforcement

We further recommend a police presence in the downtown east side. This has consistently been demonstrated to decrease crime, though some argue that clamping down on crime antagonizes certain populations and leads to increased crime. (Eck, 2000.) This is deceiving, however, because increased police spending typically occurs when crime increases, leading to a positive correlation. However, increases in police spending have been found to decrease crime when it is not already on the rise, such as during gubernatorial elections. (Levitt and Dubner, 2005.)

By increasing policing in the area, the City of Vancouver would be able to decrease the availability of drugs and ensure affordable housing remains free of criminal activity. A key distinction must be made, however; this crackdown must be targeted towards drug distribution and not drug use. The goal is to make drugs less accessible and more expensive so rehabilitation and the treatment for mental disorders are more attractive options.

Skills Development and Employment

Employment must also be addressed. Once local residents have been provided with housing, and they have been adequately treated for addiction and mental health issues, they must be provided with the tools necessary to build stable, purposeful, and independent lives.

Rather than focusing on finding work, we propose that the City of Vancouver partner with the province to deliver a comprehensive skills development program. This should include training for both soft skills, such as organization and leadership, and hard skills, such as software training and trades apprenticeships.

In developing skills, clients would be more able to find suitable work, and when partnered with an employment agency dedicated to serving the downtown east side, authorities would be able to finally deliver a long-term solution to homelessness.

Community Involvement and an Integrated Design Process (IDP)

The stakeholders in an integrated design process (LEED 2009)

The issue of community involvement (or rather, the lack thereof) in this project was a key contributor to its failure. Residents were included to a very limited extent in the initial design phases; while there were specific groups or individuals that were consulted, the average resident went largely unnoticed.

For example, the City of Vancouver consulted extensively with Kat Norris, a Downtown East Side and First Nations advocate from the Coast Salish nation. As a result, traditional cedar totem poles were carved for the park. (City of Vancouver, 2012.) Meanwhile, a large number of local residents advocated for a phased development that would allow them to enjoy the use of the park throughout the renovation. Citing costs, the city of Vancouver declined and instead redeveloped the park entirely at once, causing it to be entirely closed off for over six months. Both locals and DTES advocates protested the City of Vancouver in the weeks and months ahead as a result of the decision. (Loy, 2009.)

In order to avoid this kind of public backlash, we recommend that the City use an integrated design process in future regeneration projects. This process would involve bringing all stakeholders to the table early in the predesign phase, and in so doing, would allow each party’s voice to be heard and incorporated into the design in a cost-effective manner. (USGBC, 2009.) Even if design ideas are not selected to be part of the redevelopment, the likelihood of residents supporting the project is significantly higher, as they will understand the reasoning behind design decisions and know that their ideas have been acknowledged.


In conclusion, we have found that the Oppenheimer Park regeneration project aimed to help combat drug abuse, criminal activity, transience, and urban deterioration. While it may have succeeded in providing a cosmetic improvement to a decaying neighbourhood, it did not succeed anywhere else.

The lack of success was primarily attributable to two problems in the City’s approach; first, the underlying issues that led to the Oppenheimer area’s decline went unaddressed and, not surprisingly, returned to affect the park once the renovation was completed. Secondly, the community was not comprehensively involved in the design and decision making process, which alienated many local residents and resulted in low support for the project.

To deal with these two problems going forward, we recommend that the City of Vancouver and other municipalities implement the following changes to their approach;

  1. Address the underlying issues first.
    1. Provide addiction and mental health treatment to those who need it through a comprehensive and integrated program.
    2. Provide adequate social housing for low-income residents by leveraging rezonings to fund housing development
    3. Increase police presence in the area with a specific focus on drug distribution networks, and encourage drug users to seek help rather than punish them with criminal charges
    4. Establish a training outreach program to provide the unemployed or underemployed individuals with the skills they need for proper employment
    5. Establish an employment assistance program to help trainees find suitable work
  2. Deliver the project using an integrated design process. Bring together all stakeholders early in the predesign phase, and allow residents to provide their input in order to deliver the best solutions and gain the community’s support.

External Sources

*City of Vancouver, “Oppenheimer Park. “Accessed June 7, 2013.

  • Julia Aoki. 2011. Tracing histories in Oppenheimer par: An exercise in cognition mapping. Topia (25): 29.
  • Lees, Loretta. "Gentrification and Social Mixing: Towards an Inclusive Urban Renaissance?" Urban Studies. Volume 45, Issue No. 12 (2008).
  • Ellison, Simmon.2007. Oppenheimer Park: A study of interconnectivity in the public realm. ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing
  • Southcott, Tanya. 2012. Park Place: The meticulously considered redesign of Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s downtown east end engages the disparate communities in this neighborhood, bringing vitality and optimism to it’s residents. Canadian Architecture 57 (8):23.
  • Ley, D. "Alternative explanations for inner-city gentrification:A Canadian assessment." Annals,Association of American Geographers. no. 4 (1986): 521-35.
  • Vancouver Coastal Health, Strathcona Mental Health Team. Accessed August 2, 2013.
  • Eck, J.E. Have Changes In Policing Reduced Violent Crime? An Assessment of the Evidence. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 155. Accessed August 2, 2013.
  • Loy, Irwin. The Hook, "Residents protest park reno." Last modified July 29, 2009. Accessed August 2, 2013.
  • LEED Core Concepts and Strategies. Washington, DC: US Green Building Council, 2009.

Peer Sources

Group 12 - Gentrification of the Downtown Eastside Luke Harrison, Helene Miles, Darla Smith

Group 13 - Dunsmuir and Georgia Viaducts

Group 15 - Gentrification of Downtown Eastside

Group 16 - Old Japan Town