Taking a closer look at the legacy of Harland Bartholomew and his plan for Vancouver


Harland Bartholomew is a name from Vancouver’s past that has come up a lot lately, and not in a good way.

The American was a civil engineer who became a well-known advocate of city planning before it was even a profession, and he had a role in the design of more than 500 cities – including early Vancouver. Vancouver was made up of three municipalities at the time, including Vancouver, South Vancouver and Point Grey, and commissioners decided they needed a comprehensive plan for Vancouver and the region.

The pioneering city planner, who was well known by that time, was going to bring order to the region. The Bartholomew Plan, as it’s known, was completed in 1928 but was never officially adopted by the Vancouver Town Planning Commission who’d hired the St. Louis-based firm. As a result, some of the ideas were ignored; others were implemented, helping develop the city that stands today.

But it’s that prescribed order that critics of Mr. Bartholomew now cite as doing irreversible damage to a growing city. His zoning recommendations, particularly around single family homes was too rigid, and as a consequence have thwarted the potential for healthy density that would have otherwise occurred over the decades, says Sam Sullivan, Minister of Legislative Assembly for Vancouver-False Creek. Mr. Sullivan also sat on Vancouver city council for 15 years and served as mayor from 2005 to 2008, and he’s long argued for significant density.

Before the Bartholomew Plan came along, he says, Vancouver’s housing system had the ability to respond to market forces. He blames the plan for forcing people into rigid single-family lot areas. Many blame that emphasis on single-family lots as creating exclusionary zoning, a way to segregate by class. Because racial minorities at the time were often low income, it also had the effect of segregating by race. As a result, the Bartholomew Plan has lately become synonymous with class-based discrimination.

“He basically drew lines around where all the borders were, and he said, ‘for the next 100 years it stops here, we aren’t going to have any more moving boundaries.’ So he basically froze the single-family guys right in place and basically it hasn’t moved since 1928,” Mr. Sullivan says.

Mr. Sullivan created a YouTube video for his Kumtuks channel that explains how Mr. Bartholomew introduced top-down thinking in an otherwise British style, organic garden city arranged around a grid pattern for the streetcar system.

“I think Bartholomew has been a disaster. I would have loved it if we had an organic system. He stopped the incremental gradual densification that would have normally happened in an organic city and he froze it in place. And the people who were wealthy loved it, and the people who were not quite wealthy didn’t want their area zoned. Nobody really wants change, but when you do it for 100 years then it gets really dysfunctional. Now you get the prices we have and the sprawl we have. … If Bartholomew hadn’t come around, the downtown would have slowly and surely grown a bit more and it would be encompassing more areas.

“Now you get the high house prices, and it’s completely unresponsive. Our land use cannot respond, whereas normally if you had a $2-million Strathcona house, and that existed without zoning, there would be a fast response. You would suddenly get taller buildings and apartments would pop up all over.”

Nobody would suggest that Mr. Bartholomew was a progressive, championing the rights of minorities. He was a man of his time; massive social change was still to come. There are suggestions of elitist thinking in the 1928 plan, such as when he speaks of people of a “higher class” who will one day move into the False Creek industrial area. But to blame the Bartholomew Plan for Vancouver’s over-emphasis on single-family houses – and wealth disparity in general – isn’t entirely accurate either, say others who’ve studied the plan in detail.

We have to remember, says urban planner and former city councillor Gordon Price, that the plan was never officially adopted. Mr. Price plans to write about the topic on his Vancouver blog, Price Tags.

“If you think Bartholomew was the evil genius behind all of this, you have to assume that his plan was implemented. But no, it wasn’t. That suggests to me that it wasn’t [adopted] because it simply wasn’t necessary to do so. The assumptions behind the plan were already in place.”

Mr. Price, who possesses a leather-bound copy of the plan, says critics are attributing too much power to Mr. Bartholomew. It was the town commissioners who were pushing to protect single-family housing zones and Mr. Bartholomew was responding to their wishes, Mr. Price says. They already had created zoning in the municipality of Point Grey, for example. And according to data in the Bartholomew Plan, there were 23,079 single-family dwellings already built in Vancouver, with an average of 4.5 persons per dwelling, or 72.3 per cent of the population. By contrast, there were 662 apartment buildings that housed 12,764 people, or 8.9 per cent of the population. And according to the 1921 census, 65 per cent of the city was renting – almost all of them in single-family homes (from Jesse Donaldson’s book, Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate).

The real estate industry had been thriving long before his plan, and speculators and investors saw the demand for detached houses among both owners and renters. The wealth divide was already under way.

And Vancouver has a long history of protecting single-family zoning, including Mr. Sullivan’s time on council. During the Depression, many Shaughnessy mansion owners couldn’t pay their mortgages so the homes became rooming houses, and although illegal, the city turned a blind eye for decades. They provided affordable housing, central to downtown.

“When I got on council in the 1990s we were shutting down these Shaughnessy rooming houses,” Mr. Sullivan says. “I was thinking, ‘What are we doing?’ I met someone who said it was a huge war between people who owned and people renting out their places.

“They were slowly but surely moved out, a determined effort over the years to shut them down. It was terrible when I think about it.”

But in the 1920s, owning a house was a possibility for the average income earner, which drew newcomers to the region. In his plan, Mr. Bartholomew writes: “That the one-family dwelling is the desirable unit for happy living is the general consensus of opinion of all authorities.”

The house was an icon that many working people could afford in those days, Mr. Price says.

“We had land and a transportation system that opened up that land. We were dumping housing into the market. This is the demand-supply argument that rages today.

“He did not create zoning, nor did he bring in anything that would suggest we do anything differently than the people who hired him to do what they wanted.”

Interestingly, Mr. Bartholomew touched on the topic of affordable housing in the Plan. He said “the housing problem, as outlined by some, can only be solved when the city or state is in a position to guarantee to every individual householder a wage sufficient for the payment of a reasonable rent.

“While town planning can go far to create and maintain desirable housing conditions, it is beyond its scope … to concern itself with the very important economic problem.”

The 310-page plan is available online thanks to architect Bing Thom, who died in 2016. Mr. Thom considered the plan important enough to fund the digitization of it, along with all other Bartholomew reports, says Andy Yan, who worked for many years as a planner for Bing Thom Architects. Mr. Yan says that the regional governments spent the equivalent of $1.1-million in today’s dollars over three years for the plan.

The majority of the plan concerns itself with transit, largely because Mr. Bartholomew believed Metro Vancouver would grow to one million people by 1960.

He was a supporter of walkability and livability (later, he would become more car-centric). The plan says that no resident should have to walk more than a half-mile to a public park, and all schools were to include generous playgrounds. His staff drew elaborate, detailed illustrations of playgrounds. In fact, the section of the plan devoted to zoning doesn’t begin until page 211, and it’s relatively scant. There’s not much on housing, either.

“I think some people are desperately trying to make him a rogue engineer-planner,” says Mr. Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. “It’s just really easy to blame somebody, especially when they’ve been dead for 30 years and their work is almost 100 years old.

Mr. Yan also has a leather-bound original edition of the plan, and he believes that Mr. Bartholomew merely reflected the city’s values – including an early obsession with preserving property values. The plan, he says, wasn’t all bad, and we can thank the planner for a few things that came to define Vancouver.

“He’s not a hero, but he’s not necessarily a villain. He leaves a legacy of public schools, parks and the transit system, because he created the bones for that infrastructure. My own public elementary school was one of the schools built according to the Bartholomew Plan.”

Mr. Yan recently unearthed a newspaper article from 1944 that appears to reveal a key motivation that the authorities of the time chose to focus on single-family dwellings more than apartment buildings. Mr. Bartholomew had returned to Vancouver at the time to work on an updated plan, and he gave a talk to the Kitsilano ratepayers about the post-war rebuilding effort. He said that “expansion to outlying districts,” or sprawl, would be halted. They’d build density by rebuilding slum areas in the inner city and rehabilitate “blighted” areas between city and suburbs.

He said that uncontrolled expansion decreased property values. Vancouver, he said, had zoned property for apartment dwellings in excess of its needs, threatening those land values.

“More land has been set aside for these purposes than will be needed for years, and this doesn’t create new values,” he told the audience.

“That tells you something – that it was about speculation,” Mr. Yan says. “There’s this tension between those who want to live here and real estate speculation, and there always has been that tension. The fault is not among the stars, it’s within ourselves.”



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