October 17, 2019

The Grand Bargain, Illustrated


You won’t likely find “The Grand Bargain” in a planning text, even though it explains in a phrase the de facto understanding that has shaped many of the places where Canadians live.

The bargain looks like this:

This is North York* between the Sheppard and Finch subway stations – a one-block-deep corridor of high-density mixed-use development on either side of Yonge Street.

Go another block further and there is a cliff-face drop in scale, where single-family suburbia begins under a canopy of street trees.

Post-war Toronto and its suburban cities decided to accommodate density (those concrete towers especially) where there was primarily commercial and industrial zoning.  With the opening of the Yonge Street subway in 1954, the station areas made ideal locations, especially where there was already a streetcar village.

To deal with community blowback at the sudden change in scale and alienating architecture, especially if the bulldozing of existing residential neighbourhoods might be required, planners and councils struck a compact: we won’t touch a blade of grass in your single-family zones.  Your status will be maintained.

Hence the Grand Bargain: high-rise density, low-scale suburbia, little in between.  Massive change for one, almost none for the other, and spot rezonings thereafter.

On the other side of the country, something similar was going in Burnaby.  In the fifties, the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board produced a vision – ‘cities in a sea of green‘ – and provided the guidelines to go with it, notably where to consider apartment zoning.  David Pereira details the evolution of Burnaby’s commitment to the regional vision and its apartment zones, renamed town centres, in the 1960s.

That bargain when built out looks like this:

Burnaby’s bargain meant skylines of towers clustered around mega-malls.  In return, a largely untouched mountain park above, lakes and streams in a pristine valley below, in between: subdivisions of single-family homes.

Councils stuck with that deal over decades, giving certainty to both developers and communities, and avoiding contentious rezonings in sensitive areas.  It only came unstuck when expansion required the demolition of the previous apartment stock from the 1950s south of Metrotown.  The Mayor, Derek Corrigan, unwavering in his commitment to the model, lost perspective – and his seat.

But the bargain has been adopted in every corner of the region, in Metro strategies and Official Community Plans.  The results are most apparent along the SkyTrain lines.

As in Coquitlam:

And Richmond:

And even on the transit-deficient North Shore:

The City of North Vancouver has consistently supported the town-centre strategy, accommodating highrise growth in Upper and Lower Lonsdale (one of the best examples in the region), while the Districts of North Van and West Vancouver subscribe to only half the bargain, aggressively resisting even modest proposals for higher densities, assuming that the City of North Vancouver will take up the demand and ignore the naysayers.

The Grand Bargain is even the unstated premise behind Vancouverism: the creation of livable mixed-use communities at high density.  From Expo 86 to the 2010 Olympics, during which seven megaprojects were underway**, it has accommodated growth pressures on a small fraction of the city’s land, while avoiding the political unpleasantness of significant rezonings in built-out neighbourhoods, whether on the West Side, the East Side or even the West End.

Unfortunately, by the second decade of this century, it became apparent that the bargain could not accommodate three emerging pressures: affordability, equity and the need for a broader range of housing choices.

The current council has a dilemma.  Most councillors intuitively understand the existence of the Grand Bargain, even if they would not subscribe to it, since it assumes that neighbourhoods will be inequitably treated: some taking drastic increases in scale and population, others left largely untouched. But as they learn over three-day public hearings for a single apartment building or townhouse proposal, there’s a powerful expediency behind it.

The political capital it requires to change the scale and character of even a single block does not provide a significant return when trying to accommodate overall growth.  It becomes increasingly attractive to look for a few places where the city can pack in and stack up the density – just as we’ve been doing region-wide for more than half a century.  (And the First Nations MST development company will be there to help.)

Nonetheless, the City-wide Plan is charged with ripping up the Grand Bargain – even though the first image one sees on the site is as good as expression of the bargain as can be found:

There’s really not much choice.  We’ve used up the green fields and most of the brown fields; equity requires that we look to every neighbourhood to take its ‘fair share’ of growth.  We obviously need new forms of housing and tenure, different from what has come before.  And we need a lot more of it.

Problem is, there’s nothing explicit, certainly nothing legal, to rip up – except the expectations and trust of those who assumed that the bargain was implicit in the purchase of their homes, their right to secure rental accommodation, or the expectation that somehow, somewhere the city will find a place for them without changing the character or scale of the place they love.

Councils and planners never named the Grand Bargain, though all understand its existence.  NPA’s George Puil and COPE’s Harry Rankin had that in common.

All that could change with the City-wide Plan and a new zoning bylaw, but only if a half century of expectations can be discarded and a new bargain written.



*Urbanist Michael Beach goes into detail on North York via Streetview and YouTube here:


** Megaprojects from north to south: Bayshore Gardens, Coal Harbour, International Village, Concord Pacific Place, Arbutus Gardens, Collingwood Village, Fraser Lands.  There were also the rezonings of Downtown South and Triangle West on the peninsula, which accommodated hundreds of more units on smaller sites, and the Olympic Village.


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  1. You could add Citygate (which has a higher residential density than most of Downtown), and more recently, Marine Gateway to the list of Megaprojects – at least in the City of Vancouver. In future the Oakridge Town Centre will be another higher density cluster, and the Collingwood Village cluster has been expanded to Joyce Avenue. There are also higher density buildings coming to East Hastings as a result of the DTES and Grandview Woodland Plans, although they’re not necessarily point towers.

    Some developers have aspirations for West Broadway to add significant height and density with the arrival of rapid transit. (As we know, there are strongly opposed views to that idea, especially in Kitsilano and Point Grey).

  2. The main pic above shows Hwy 401 running east-west at the top, so we’re looking south (southeast actually). There are about 5 or 6 blocks of buildings south of Sheppard on that portion of Yonge, and then 5 or 6 blocks north of Sheppard. You can see remnants of “old” North York city hall at the left frame edge.

    Beyond that, continuing north to Finch, there’s another 8-10 blocks of buildings you’re not able to see – a mix of high-rise office and residential, and 2-level storefront retail, with scattered parking and strip malls throughout. The total 2km stretch of Yonge from Finch to Sheppard does include some paint and signal/curb-style infrastructure for pedestrian and cycle traffic, but it’s essentially a 6-lane inner city highway cutting through a mini city that, 40 years ago, did not exist.

    By contrast – and to your point Gord – the scale and character of the surrounding SFH residential neighbourhoods have not changed. It is indeed very similar to Burnaby, Coquitlam, and Richmond. I spent 5 years living near North York city hall area in the late 1980s (today it’s part of the megacity of Toronto). North York still had century-old landmarks back then, many of them 1- and 2-level retail buildings, including the character-rich one-offs, like the funeral home and the hardware store, for example. Those often had impressive brick facades and original beam construction from the mid-19th century, or earlier.

    Two of the greatest shocks I had returning a decade or so later were (a) the loss of many of those historical structures, and (b) the significance of this change to Yonge Street. It seemed like a sheer wall of buildings and billboards amidst a sea of cars, and the shock I felt comes back every time I see an image like this one.

    Nothing wrong with any kind of high-rise, and the impacts of increased density brought on by the greater capacity and mix of use are ‘just change’ in one nutshell. But there’s always a middle ground between two extremes, and that middle ground is usually quite broad with possibility…certainly broader than all that which bloomed on this stretch of Yonge Street in the ’90s, and how it (apparently) continues to grow today.

    Do a Google Streetview tour – Yonge St in North York is un-inviting and charmless on so many levels. And when compared to Vancouver…well, just start with the subway stations. Then look at the new hi-rises. Compare podium styles, sidewalk widths and amenities…we’re not perfect, but Vancouver seems to get it righter more often than not.

    From my perspective as a 25-year resident, Vancouver seems to consistently leaven new development with purposely subtle degrees of densification and gentrification – more people, services, and public benefits than before, but never too much. Some will say we’re doing not enough. My Kensington-Cedar Cottage still retains its ‘scale & character’; I’m waiting for type of development at Cambie & King Ed corridor to spill over this-a-way. Others, though, still push for their deck, their view, their parking, and its so disappointing, such a reminder of North York’s Grand Bargain, and the result.

    And so the activist part of my brain pushes back – “too slow, not enough”. But given the North York example, maybe there’s value in defining, and then applying, just enough conservatism (ugh, I know) to still be the Vancouver that’s seemingly done it right.

    You mention some great examples — Arbutus Walk, Olympic Village, Yaletown, Gastown, City Hall, plus anywhere within shouting distance of a poodle on a pole. But I also want to reinforce the value of successful efforts to retain, recover and acknowledge our history — for every charming Aristocrat Cafe we lose, we seem to hold onto a Roundhouse, a Ballet BC, a 312 Main. For every year delay replacing the social housing lost at Little Mountain a decade ago, another temporary modular housing development pops up in the most unlikely, and deserving, part of our city.

    Whittling away at and reshaping the Grand Bargain seems to be about allowing more people to apply design innovation and problem-solving to so many more places, in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. (Yes, I said poodle on a pole.) None of this has seemingly occurred in this part of North York, and of course the worry is that it may not happen in some Lower Mainland municipalities until it’s too expensive, and too late.

    I do think you can sometimes go home again, but I wouldn’t do it if you paid me.

  3. Thank you, Gordon, Colin and others for you insightful comments and informative city photographs. I really want more affordable and low-income available housing in Vancouver and metro areas but not all high rises. Town houses and row houses are good as well. Diversity is important and providing knowledge to all residents to better understand what’s good for ALL is good, indeed, for all.

  4. This is why I wonder why the push to extend Skytrain to UBC has met with so little opposition. So many are enthusiastic about the idea. Maybe west side residents envision that an extension of Skytrain, if underground, won’t affect their neighbourhoods–though economic pressures will ensure it does, sooner or later. Perhaps the single-family residents are counting on development taking a long time for these pressures to build, as, with the Expo line, we have yet to see much density created (yet) around the Nanaimo or 29th Ave stations, and it has been over 30 years since that line went through. When development comes though, it can come fast, as around the King Edward Station — our neighbourhood!

  5. Pingback: Origins of The Grand Bargain | Viewpoint Vancouver

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