Mudflat Dreaming revisits Habitat 76 and offers long view on local housing shortages

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      In an odd way for a city so restless, Vancouver’s history repeats itself constantly, as if on a loop. Look, for example, at the themes that surface in the new book Mudflat Dreaming, by locally raised historian Jean Walton. They have a familiar ring indeed, though decades have passed since the incidents recounted in the book took place.

      Mudflat Dreaming chronicles a very specific chapter of our past: the battles in the 1970s between municipal officials and the communities of squatters that had existed for years in places like Maplewood Mudflats, on the North Vancouver waterfront just east of the Second Narrows bridge (once the home of revered novelist Malcolm Lowry).

      These gatherings of hand-built homes, improvised from salvaged materials and elements of the landscape, represented to their residents an alternative to the development juggernaut they saw as bulldozing local history and ecology.

      As the following excerpt from Mudflat Dreaming shows, the questions they raised about housing and community were reflected in the 1976 Habitat conference, prominent in its day for taking on such pressing issues as housing shortages and a widening gap between rich and poor—all still alarmingly current.

      From Mudflat Dreaming, by Jean Walton:

      In 1972…a seed was planted by Canadian delegates halfway around the world at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. The Stockholm meetings should be followed up, the Canadians proposed, by another conference focused exclusively on the global problem of how to ensure that everyone in the world had a decent place to live. Planning began almost immediately for what was to be the first UN Conference on Human Settlements, to be held in Vancouver, British Columbia.

      During those preparatory years before what came to be known as Habitat, Vancouver was itself caught up in civic debates about development, livability, and an alarming housing shortage in the face of a rapidly increasing population. What better place to host a conference on the subject of adequate shelter for all? Could Vancouver be a model city for the world to consider, with its active port, its majestic views of the nearby mountains, its industry mixed with residential neighbourhoods, its radiant beaches, its recent commitment to “citizen participation” in development schemes for the city’s future? Vigorous citizen involvement had recently averted the construction of a massive freeway project and a waterfront scheme that would have wiped out Vancouver’s Chinatown and most of an historical residential district. At the provincial level, the newly elected Barrett government had just implemented an Agricultural Land Reserve, designed to freeze the sale of farmland for commercial, industrial, or residential development—an early recognition of how crucial it was to protect and promote local food production.


      Meanwhile, in Vancouver itself, a kind of People’s Forum was being planned for Jericho Park. This was to be a more accessible, citizen-based conference that would run simultaneously with the UN conference. If Vancouver city officials were hesitant at first to host the official conference downtown, given the cost of heavy security for such a high-profile gathering of international delegates, the Parks Board was even more reluctant to give the green light for a gathering of potentially unruly hippies in Jericho Park, which had already hosted the launch of Greenpeace actions and rock concerts. But through the tireless lobbying of Vancouver producer, filmmaker, and visionary Al Clapp, the People’s Forum received the go-ahead:

      With only five months’ notice, he was able to organize 11,000 volunteers and unemployed students and tradespeople on work grants to refurbish the [park’s] five art deco [seaplane] hangars into a beautiful village that was the earliest and probably still best example of public recycling in Vancouver’s history. The hangars were turned into two beautiful amphitheatres for plenary sessions and performances, a hall for NGO exhibits on housing and sustainable technologies, and a massive social centre featuring the longest standup bar in the world entirely handmade with yellow cedar found on the beaches. [From: Lindsay Brown, “In Memory of Habitat Forum’s Al Clapp”, Habitat Forum 76 blog]

      Among the conditions the government imposed on Clapp to get funding for the forum was that he had to “use unemployed people. That wasn’t a big problem,” Clapp said later, “because most of the people I know and have worked with are what you’d call ‘unemployed.’ They’re artists and craftspeople, who aren’t what we’d call conventionally employed anyway. So it was a nucleus of some of Vancouver’s most incredible artists.”

      Mudflat Dreaming author Jean Walton.

      Clapp had visited the Maplewood Mudflats in the early ’70s and, in fact, had covered the squatters’ plight for Vancouver’s local media outlets. He was friends with Ian Ridgway, Dan Clemens, and the Deluxe Brothers “family” of carpenters and builders. They had collaborated on the Pleasure Faires, and now Dan and Ian were among the “unemployed” artists and craftspeople Clapp hired to transform Jericho Park’s seaplane hangars into a showcase for their West Coast salvage aesthetic. “Ian had hangar number seven,” Dan Clemens recalled. “I had hangar ten. As I remember, it was pretty amazing what we built. I don’t remember much about the conference itself. My job was to build it, and I did. Ian built the ‘world’s longest bar.’ Seven hundred feet.” I couldn’t fault Dan for exaggerating the length of the bar, which was described elsewhere as snaking through hangar seven, Habitat Forum’s “social centre,” for almost 208 feet. It was the solidity, the beauty, and the bountifulness of the bar that was memorable.


      The Habitat conference was rife with tensions from the start, most of them related to the stark economic divide between developed and developing nations—a conflict that was endemic to the United Nations in general. The themes of development versus livability, unsavoury sanitary conditions, relocation schemes, endangered ecological sites, and contested human settlements that were playing out locally on Vancouver’s tidal fringes found full-blown analogues on the global scene. Uppermost in the minds of nervous Vancouver city officials, and in the press coverage of the conference, was the escalating international discord around Israeli-occupied—or disputed—territories following the Six-Day War of 1967. Maybe it was inevitable that a conference devoted to the global problem of “human settlements” would be coloured by these very prominent “settlements” on the West Bank. If the leaders of the developed nations wished to keep discussion focused only on the remediation of problems like housing shortages, access to services, and the need for clean water, seeking to treat the situation from the point of view of paternal benevolence—extending a helping hand to the needy—others, like the Group of 77, had a different approach in mind.

      The Group of 77 was a coalition of developing countries, formed in 1964 with a view to improving their role in global trade. When Habitat took place, the UN had just adopted a set of proposals put forward by the Group, called the New International Economic Order. Habitat delegates who represented the Group of 77 worked vigorously to foreground the principles of the New International Economic Order in the Vancouver Declaration, the official document that had been drafted by the UN and was then heavily revised during the course of the conference. From the point of view of a developing nation, you could say that it was not possible to separate the question of adequate housing for all from the determining factors of geopolitical forces: colonialism and neo-colonialism, capitalist exploitation, apartheid, and the like.

      Who had the authority to make decisions about how vast populations were to be safely and humanely housed in the locality that most suited them? Should the development of the world’s cities — where the question of habitation was most pressing — be left to the developers, planners, and multinational corporations? But what of the millions of people who had, in the direst circumstances, made do for themselves? As Habitat’s Secretary-General Enrique Peñalosa pointed out, in his own country (Colombia), “90% of all housing was constructed, not by the government or by the private sector, but by the poor themselves — often against the law.”

      There were forum papers on appropriate economic growth, the future of metropolitan areas, housing in developed and “underdeveloped” countries, human settlements and education, landuse strategies, indigenous building methods in the Third World; workshops on children and human settlements, hardcore poverty, health, quality of life for the handicapped; discussions about the arts, recreation, energy, and “the role of tall buildings” in human settlements; a prospectus for a “Self-sustaining Neighborhood-centered Community Development Corporation for Collection and Recycling of Household, Apartment House and Business Waste”; and a paper on the “Impact of Space Colonization on World Dynamics.” Presentations were given on national settlement policies in Africa, Mexico, and Southwest Asia; urban renewal in London, Italy, and Liverpool; and the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry in Yellowknife (the latter by the president of the National Indian Brotherhood). There was a session on women’s role in shaping the urban environment. Considerable attention was also paid to the existence of squatters’ communities across the world, and the question of how best to support their efforts to help themselves.

      Most controversial, it seemed, was the emphasis placed on public ownership of land—both in terms of how that land should be utilized within a given country, but also in terms of a state’s control over land that might be owned or occupied by foreign interests. The final version of the Vancouver Declaration addressed public ownership of land head-on. Since “private land ownership” was a “principal instrument of accumulation and concentration of wealth,” contributing to “social injustice,” public control of land use was “indispensable to its protection as an asset and the achievement of the long-term objectives of human settlement policies and strategies.” Governments must maintain “full jurisdiction and exercise complete sovereignty over such land with a view to freely planning development of human settlements throughout the whole of the natural territory”; moreover, land as a natural resource “must not be the subject of restrictions imposed by foreign nations which enjoy the benefits while preventing its rational use.”

      A Maplewood Mudflats house torched by the North Vancouver District building inspector, 1971.
      Collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery archives

      As if to drive home the point, the next section insisted that “in all occupied territories, changes in the demographic composition, or the transfer or uprooting of the native population, and the destruction of existing human settlements in these lands and/or the establishment of new settlements for intruders” was “inadmissible”; policies that violated the protection of heritage and national identity “must be condemned.” Among the general principles of the declaration was the affirmation that “every state” had the “sovereign right to rule and exercise effective control over foreign investments, including the transnational corporations—within its national jurisdiction, which affect directly or indirectly the human settlements programmes.” The establishment of settlements in “territories occupied by force” was illegal and condemned by the international community—“however, action still remains to be taken against the establishment of such settlements.” Highest priority was to be placed on “the rehabilitation of expelled and homeless people” who had been “displaced by natural or man-made catastrophes, and especially by the act of foreign aggression.”

      Jean Walton's Mudflat Dreaming: Waterfront Battles and the Squatters Who Fought Them in 1970s Vancouver is available from New Star Books.