November 18, 2021

The Flood of ’48 and the Lessons We Learned

What you can see from the flood coverage in the valley, at least in some of the images, is that urban development stops just above the flood line.  The affected properties are likely in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

The decision not to build on the flood plain was significantly a consequence of the 1948 flood.  It led to the creation of the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board, which in turn led to the first regional plan and ultimately the ALR.  In short, we did learn from that catastrophe, and it resulted in the overall concept that has shaped our region: ‘Cities in a Sea of Green’ rather than suburbs in a literal sea.

The strategic planner for what became the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro), was Ken Cameron.  He and Mike Harcourt documented the story of the 1948 flood and lessons learned in “City Making in Paradise” – and so was the first person Viewpoint turned to when we asked: What lessons should we learn from the flood of ’21?


Ken Cameron:

British Columbia’s geography can be hazardous to humans, and there is a long tradition of the provincial government acting to reduce risks to people and property. The events of the past few days are a reminder that emergency planning and preparedness should be a continuous process at all levels of government and in the broader society.

The 1948 flood underlined the interdependence of the communities in the Fraser Valley and led to the creation of the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board. One of the Board’s first tasks was to map the flood plain of the river, which provided a basis for regulations limiting residential development in areas susceptible to flooding.

There were three principles at work here: (1) prevention of development in hazardous areas is part of the primary purpose of government, which is to protect the citizens; (2) regulation of land use to reduce risk, while difficult in the face of development pressures, has a far smaller financial and human cost than responding catastrophic flooding when it does occur; and (3) all municipalities in a region must cooperate in planning to reduce flood risk – otherwise the effort is pointless.

The 1948 flood was driven by the annual freshet of the Fraser River, in which melting snow is carried by the river to the sea. It was a relatively slow emergency, in that the factors that produced a larger or smaller freshet in any given year were relatively well known.

The 2021 flooding is different in that it comes from extreme weather events affecting a broad area that have been brought on by climate change, which – although now inevitable – are more difficult to anticipate and prepare for. Millions more people and billions more in property are at risk. The Lower Mainland is now a much more mobile and more far flung society highly dependent on transportation and utility services that can be severely damaged by extreme weather.

The lessons are, however, the same: (1) citizens have a right to expect their government to anticipate and mitigate risks to life and property. (Glasgow has just shown how far we have to go on this front); (2) planning and preparation for emergencies is far cheaper and less painful than responding to events when they occur; and (3) the various orders of government are all in this together and should be cooperating within the frameworks provided by widely-accepted plans such as the Livable Region Strategic Plan.


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  1. Except when politics get in the way – like when Richmond stonewalled GVRD approval of the plan (which needed to be unanimous) because it’s flood-prone and liquifaction-susceptible plain was not including in the plan’s “growth concentration areas”, which were areas with firmer footings on bedrock.

  2. Reader’s might be interested in Gordon’s article in 2014 about for flooding, and questioning construction that ignores it.

    The argument that we didn’t expect flooding, should not wash anymore. It wasn’t true now and was irresponsible then and now.

    Seven years later, things could have been much different.
    The leaders of that day and their supporters let us down.

    I also think we need to take a serious look at public finances, I’ve heard the cost of climate adaptation is estimated at 3% of GDP. We won’t be able to pay all of that on the never-never plan nor rely only upon insurance companies.

    I wish someone with detailed knowledge of the subsurface below the new planned St. Paul’s hospital site, could assure me that the location in the middle of what seems to have been a mud flat makes sense.

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