Re-defining Heritage in Vancouver | Q&A with Javier Campos

April 02, 2015

Whether we grew up in a small town or a big city, each of us remembers characteristics that define the places we call home.

The City of Vancouver, with twenty-two distinct neighborhoods is now in the process of shaping what legacies future Vancouverites will remember with the development of the Heritage Action Plan. Heritage Conservation is what gives neighborhoods their own distinct personalities. It’s, for example, what sets apart the area around Commercial Drive from the West End, Mount Pleasant, or Chinatown. Over 25 years ago, planners in Vancouver established the city’s Heritage Register, a log of buildings and landmarks throughout the city that we should preserve. But the conversation about heritage has grown to encompass much more than just preservation of old buildings.

“What we’ve introduced into our thinking is the idea of change – a future for heritage – being more forward looking and sensitive to what’s going on in society”, says Javier Campos, president of Heritage Vancouver Society. In the development of Vancouver’s Heritage Action Plan, city planners are looking for public input on how to carry on Vancouver’s heritage in a way that encompasses these changes while paying tribute to our past. On February 27th, SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement and Heritage Vancouver Society invite you to join a panel discussion of how to shape the future development of our city. Javier Campos, president of Heritage Vancouver Society played a lead role in organizing this panel. He shares some of his ideas about heritage below: 

In her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” Jane Jacobs writes “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”


How does heritage conservation ensure that we develop our cities with everybody in mind? 

Part of our work with Heritage Vancouver is to advocate for heritage in addition to advocating for buildings, that is, to invite a discourse that is more sophisticated. If we think about heritage as being our whole environment – how we live, what we do, what our societal values are, while commemorating historical moments and respecting where we came from – the picture becomes much more interesting than just preserving old buildings. People get stuck on this architectural thing but its so much more about a social history environment. What we’ve introduced into our thinking is the idea of change – a future for heritage – being more forward looking and sensitive to what’s going on in society.

We don’t live in the same way as we did 100 years ago, so heritage should not just be about preserving old houses. For example, the reason why Commercial Drive works in my opinion is in the diversity of its people, its history and surrounding areas. Towards Victoria, we have higher priced single-family homes, near 6th Avenue we have more modest homes, we have First Nations populations, an industrial area near Clark, and what we get is a mixing of these people. It’s a mistake to just look at the drive and focus on buildings. When we look at preserving the character of Commercial Drive, we should provide enough for those segments of the population so that they can live here and we can retain the character. If you don’t focus on the people just look at bricks and mortar the buildings become empty shells with no soul.

Why is it important for the public to part-take in the conversations around Vancouver’s Heritage Action Plan? 

The Heritage Action Plan is going to shape the development of our city for the next 25 years. A lot of people associate heritage with an older demographic, but it’s important to get young people talking about heritage planning too. The preservation of the Waldorf – that was mobilized over social media. It was the younger, hipster crowd that fought for it and they never tore it down. If you understand heritage as where you live and what the ethos of what you preserve and what you don’t, it’s an important way to understand our city.

We have to accommodate a developing city and we have societal goals that evolve. For example, Vancouver adopted the 2020 Greenest City Action Plan, so those sustainability goals are a part of how we move forward and develop. We don’t want heritage to be strictly about conservation. I think that people should talk about heritage in the same way they talk about everything else that they build; they talk about energy performance, livability, sewage – heritage should just be a part of that discussion. We should ask for example, will a decision change the character of the neighborhood and is that a good or a bad thing? Neighborhoods can evolve too.

How can we convey some of those intangible characteristics of neighborhoods through tangible planning actions? 

There are elements of urban design that we can use to guide how a neighborhood evolves. For example, we can look at the composition of a neighborhood that works to see how it’s built. Granville Island will draw people in both at night and during the daytime because it has a balanced composition of bars and restaurants, but also cafes, storefronts and offices. Another example is Commercial Drive, which has irregular frontage, (the spacing between buildings and sidewalks), which changes how people interact on the streets. As long as you respect a certain set of parameters, what’s relevant is how you experience the streets, the sidewalks, and the atmosphere of the neighborhood. We create a set of rules to preserve what’s important because of people and history and then we allow things to evolve.

Join us on Thursday, April 16th, for Shaping Vancouver | What is Vancouver’s Heritage?

A panel of experts address what Heritage Conservation Areas are, how they are established and work in other cities, and the consequences of forming such areas. Panel members will discuss areas in Vancouver which retain distinctive heritage character, consider whether such areas should be considered for Heritage Conservation Area status by the City, and debate how sensitive to heritage character new developments should be. You can find the event information here.

Latest/Related Updates


Stay up to date

Get the latest on upcoming events by subscribing to our newsletter below.