Robert Lemon

Colouring within the lines

Leaf through Bruce Macdonald’s excellent Vancouver: a visual history and you can see a series of colourful maps, by decade, of the city as it changed from mostly green – undeveloped – to the blocks of red, yellow and purple – commercial, residential and industrial – of the growing city. The colours of a developing city. One that has evolved and grown but not to any grand plan like Baron Haussmann imposed on 19th century Paris.

So how do you create a plan for a city that’s already built? I suggest it’s about filling in between the pattern — the lines and colours on the map — that are already there.

Tracing the history of Vancouver back to the trails in the woods and hugging the water, the growth of the city was really a series decisions by surveyors and engineers who laid out grids of lot patterns, streets and avenues. Streetcar lines spread out like threads of civilization into the hinterland and buildings grew up around this pattern. By the beginning of the last century, the width and breadth of the city as we know it was outlined. The last 100 years have been about filling in the spaces in between. Now, the predominant colour on the map is yellow, representing large expanse of residential land, much of it single-family lots.

This has created and identifiable look for Vancouver — a high density but tiny downtown peninsula with a vast area of low-density suburban growth following the roads and streetcar lines established by history. More like LA than older Eastern cities which had a century or two head start on development. Not without a pattern, but without a plan. That pattern has a distinct feature not found in the older Eastern cities: back lanes. With great foresight, the surveyors of the day set out a system of service lanes separate from the main avenues and streets.

Vancouver boomed in the 20th century and its downtown evolved by replacing older residential areas — Yaletown once was full of workers’ houses and the West End was the city’s tony residential area – with office buildings and apartment buildings. Because this boom happened with the advent of electricity and elevators, taller buildings for commerce and living could be built. The rest of the expanding city was the place for the house and garden ideal, conveniently accessible by streetcar. No need to build rowhouses like the Eastern cities of a century early had to do as they expanded.

But the row houses we didn’t have to build — call them townhouses or a terrace houses — were a very attractive form of housing then and remain so today. Visiting Montreal, Philadelphia or London, one can find livable accommodation in desirable neighbourhoods close to the centre of things. There is a front yard, a front door, a back yard and a garage or mews off the lane. No one living above and your own basement below.

The fact that Vancouver has very little stock of row houses could be a plus in developing a plan for the city’s growth. Filling in neighourhoods using existing lot patterns and optimizing the already-there infrastructure of the back lanes, a healthy increase in density in modestly scaled buildings can be achieved.

Allow a standard 33’ wide lot to have two houses side-by-side with no side yards and you have instant row houses. And double the density. Add a laneway house in back (no need for underground parking) and there are three units where there was one. Allow freehold ownership and no need for strata councils. A citywide plan should encourage such a form of housing and the underlying zoning could be revised to permit additional density in parts of the city close to transit, local shopping and amenities.

This idea for a plan for Vancouver is not radical rebuilding but incremental filling in. Making better use of what is already yellow on the map, and filling in between the lines.


Robert LemonRobert Lemon has had over three decades of experience heritage conservation, planning and custom residential work in BC.  He is a graduate of Carleton University (B.Arch 1979), ICCROM Rome (1984) and the University of York, UK, where he received his MA in conservation studies (1998).

From 1991 to 1996 Robert was the Senior Heritage Planner for the City of Vancouver where he was involved in landmark building rehabilitation projects, the introduction of the current heritage legislation, and the development of the city’s transfer of density policy, Recent Landmarks program and Heritage Interiors initiatives.

Since resuming Robert Lemon Architect Inc. in 1996, Robert’s firm has been the consulting heritage architect on the rehabilitation of the Architecture Centre, Coastal Church, YMCA, Jameson House and Hotel Georgia. Robert was a board member of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation from 1998 to 2008 and is a past chair.  He recently received the Metro Vancouver 2011 Architecture Canada Award of Excellence for his advocacy efforts in architecture.