How understanding heritage as exploration of meaning enriches urban development in Vancouver

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      Places tell stories.

      Often, these are tales about people and the times they lived in those settings. This is the reason why people feel deeply connected to certain places. It also explains the human desire for some of these stories to live on.

      As Bill Yuen tells its, places represent meanings to people.

      Yuen is the executive director of the Heritage Vancouver Society, and he says that the organization views heritage as an “exploration of meaning”.

      “For us, it’s really important to be able to help people understand those meanings so that they can understand the city better,” Yuen told the Straight in a phone interview.

      Although the traditional view of heritage focused on historic and architecturally notable buildings, he noted that this approach has evolved into a broader understanding.

      This change is reflected in the new Vancouver Heritage Program approved by city council on March 10, 2020. The updated VHP is based on six guiding principles, and one of these is “cultural heritage”.

      A staff report to council drew from a framework by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on what heritage entails.

      The report cited UNESCO’s definition of cultural heritage as the “legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that is inherited from past generations”.

      Cultural heritage is not limited to tangible things like buildings, historic places, monuments, and artifacts. “It also includes lived expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants,” the city staff report noted, quoting UNESCO.

      These intangible aspects of cultural heritage include “oral traditions, performing arts, social manners, rituals, celebrations, practices and knowledge and techniques related to traditional handcrafts”.

      Yuen said he has heard some people say that their heritage is “not a Victorian building”. He said heritage can take many forms, and it could be an economic activity or something as specific as a type of food.

      “But a lot of these things happen in places,” he said. “They happen in buildings, and there is a connection there.”

      Yuen added that a broader understanding of heritage fits in good urban planning. “When we grow the city and when we develop, at least from my perspective, we don’t start from a blank slate,” he said.

      According to him, new development should enhance what is already in place “so that the history comes out or the things that are meaningful about a place come out stronger”.

      The Straight asked Yuen to list some of Vancouver’s noteworthy heritage. Here, in his own words, are five examples (not arranged in a ranking order).

      Older storefronts on main streets like Kingsway

      “While many may be considered unremarkable in appearance, older storefronts on main streets like Kingsway can be critical to communities. Simply because they are older, they can be more affordable for neighbourhood businesses and services. These are significant social spaces, much-loved gathering spots, and places selling goods and services we rely on for daily needs. In addition to being important for the diversity of retail and services at more affordable price points, areas on arterials like Little Saigon, South Hill, Punjabi Market, and Greektown have been home to various cultural groups and their social histories. Usually overlooked, these areas have been and are important footholds for many immigrants to start economic life in Vancouver.”

      St. Paul’s Hospital

      “As a highly public place since 1894, St. Paul’s Hospital has a significance for Vancouver that goes far beyond the historic building. It plays a large role in the local economy, with many businesses relying on St. Paul’s for a large amount of their business. Over the years, St. Paul’s has also become an important fixture in local public memory. Whether it is the memory of a hospital experience, the annual Lights of Hope celebration, or St. Paul’s important role on the frontlines of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Vancouver, St. Paul’s presence in the West End is deep. Its move will be consequential. How will new development address the void St. Paul’s will leave in the West End and how can the historic building be used to present the meanings of St. Paul’s are important questions.”

      Heather Lands

      “More details of the Heather Lands project were released recently. As a partnership between the Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation (MST) and the Canada Lands Company, the recent update starts to show how the ‘enduring recognition of the culture, traditions and values of the MST’ will be reflected in the design. It is especially important to have more areas in the city where we can have an experience through place, the cultures, values, and traditions of the MST nations. Also of note is the fate of the historic Fairmont Building. Once a school, a hospital, and the RCMP headquarters, different groups attach different meanings to the building. For First Nations, it is a painful one. As city council instructed staff to explore relocation of the building—whether it will be moved and, if so, how the various histories, including the significance of reconciliation, will be reflected—is an important heritage question.”

      MacLean Park housing project

      “Because of the tendency to associate heritage with age, postwar-designed buildings are not generally considered heritage. The MacLean Park project stands in contrast to the traditional heritage styles of Strathcona and expresses a design philosophy rooted in modernism with its use of concrete, simple geometric forms, and separation of people from streets. Importantly, this housing project is a physical reminder of 1960s urban renewal. This project was one of three built to house displaced residents from the planned demolition of Strathcona—Hogan’s Alley was demolished in order to build the freeway.”


      “The natural environment we all enjoy is something we are connected to in different and shared ways, depending on our cultures and backgrounds. For many, the natural environment is so meaningful for our physical, emotional, and social well-being as part of the rituals or everyday routines that form our lives. Think of the Grouse Grind, jogs around the seawall, or cherry-blossom viewing with our friends, and lunch-break strolls through a park. We understand that, particularly for Indigenous peoples, this connection to the land is extremely important because the natural environment is intimately tied to cultural identity, traditions, and spirituality.”