April 13, 2022

Origins of The Grand Bargain

The origins of the Grand Bargain in the Lower Mainland trace back to the 1950s, when the concept of ‘Cities in a Sea of Green’ was articulated by planners like Jim Wilson at the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board (LMRPB), the organization that was established after the Flood of 1948 to direct the growth of the Fraser Valley.  (Yes, we did learn something from catastrophic flooding, and it shaped our growth thereafter.)

The idea was to concentrate density inside an urban growth area to take pressure off what we now call the Green Zone – lands for agriculture, for parks, for wildlife, for floods.  All this was formalized in what became the Livable Region Plans in their various iterations.

It also became the rationale for the other half of the Grand Bargain.  Local councils (Burnaby in particular) would concentrate urban density in a limited number of small areas in order to take pressure off post-war suburbia – the areas developed as the landscape of the Canadian Dream: the single-family home set in a separate Eden.

It began in the early 60s with various vision documents, one of which was Chance and Challenge, and which by mid-decade had been distilled into the ‘the Regional Plan Concept of Valley Towns‘.  In a letter recovered by Michael Gordon, the Executive Director of the LMRPB Vic Parker describes to Burnaby’s Planning Director Tony Parr the regional concept of ‘Valley Town Centres’ – all of which are familiar to us today as we travel along the SkyTrain lines or shop in our neighbourhood centres.

Here is that letter from 1965, ((illustrated at the end with a note by Ken Cameron, past strategic planner for the GVRD).

It begins by referencing the pillars of the regional plan: valley towns surrounded by farmland and open space, connected with rapid transit and highways, and then goes on to describe the five kinds of town centres:



Parker gets very specific on the size of these centres in population, floor area and land requirement, as well as services offered, right down to the corner store.  He also ties the preferred location of these centres to the transportation connections provided.


Parker emphasizes the need for a variety of housing types, especially apartments, to create real downtowns.  Eventually Burnaby would take these suggestions and produce an apartment zone strategy that it stuck with for decades, developing the skyline we see today of concentrated clusters of towers adjacent to intact neighbourhoods of low-density housing – most notably in places like Gilmore/Brentwood.  I expect Parker and Parr would be amazed at the resulting scale of their original vision.  (Let’s call it Burnabyism.)

Parker then goes on to list not only potential Burnaby Valley Towns but also those in adjacent municipalities.  This was real regional thinking that crossed over municipal boundaries.


Parker then discusses some foreseeable problems in the pattern he lays out, particularly the temptation for dilution from competition, notably along Kingsway where development might draw from the ‘Sears Area Centre’ – what became Metrotown.

(As a side note, Vancouver decided not to zone for new density along the SkyTrain line in East Vancouver in order not to draw development interest until Burnaby’s centres were well established.  That’s why Nanaimo and 29th still seem untouched from their pre-Skytrain character.)



We sent the letter to Ken Cameron, the region’s strategic planner who inherited the work of the LMRPB and his predecessors:

I do know that providing a coherent urban structure plan for Burnaby within a regional context was a significant focus for Tony (Parr) and one which was desperately needed.

I was exposed to this during the summer of 1970 when I was employed as a planning student by Burnaby to prepare a report on commercial development. At that time, Gerhard Sixta was employed by Burnaby, working directly for Tony on a separate floor to prepare an urban structure plan that was subsequently published as a book. …

The concepts outlined in Vic Parker’s letter later found their way into the Livable Region Plan Proposals in 1975 in the form of Regional Town Centres. …

These proposals included some of the important principles from Vic’s letter such as limiting the number of centres, ensuring a full range of functions (residential, commercial, institutional and cultural) and connecting them to each other and to the metropolitan core by rapid transit and good road access.

We also included “Valley Towns” in the update of the Lower Mainland Regional Plan that was approved in the early 1980s before Bill Vander Zalm nuked regional planning and cancelled all regional plans.


The urban structure vision for 1986 in the 1975 Livable Region proposals: town centres connected by transit and roads


For more on how Metro Vancouver achieved its vision in this essay by Zack Taylor in Neptis: Review of Regional Governance and Planning in the Three Regions



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  1. I’d disagree with the following sidenote:
    (As a side note, Vancouver decided not to zone for new density along the SkyTrain line in East Vancouver in order not to draw development interest until Burnaby’s centres were well established. That’s why Nanaimo and 29th still seem untouched from their pre-Skytrain character.)

    Vancouver developed the Joyce SkyTrain Station area which was physically closer to Burnaby than Nanaimo or 29th Ave. stations.

    The reason those seations were not developed was because the City was pissed off at the Province for “ramming” the SkyTrain elevated down the alley to the east of Commercial Drive (i.e. politics). That is reflected in the “Introduction” to the Nanaimo and 29th Ave. Station Areas zoning plans from 1987, available here:

    The Broadway Station Area Plan from 1987 is available here:

  2. To me, the idea of a ‘grand bargain’ has always had most to do with the residential conversion of brownfield lands, keeping developers profitable and happy while leaving established neighbourhoods alone. In the Vancouver context, it begins with False Creek and Coal Harbour in the ’60s and ’70s and the end of their working-class jobs and pollution. It continues through the Downtown South era of the ’90s and the de-industrialization of pockets such as “Arbutus Walk.” The creation of Vancouver as a white-collar and leisure city follows. Interesting, though, that the bastions of support for that policy – West-side neighbourhoods and their voters – have decreased influence as populations have declined and new residents vote in fewer numbers.

  3. the Grand Bargain?
    If we look at the land use patterns of metro Vancouver, the lower mainland, the Fraser River delta we see concentrations of settlement. The concept of Cities in a Sea of Green is a speculators dream come true. It is the concept itself, the ‘idea of the city’, that results in sprawl and dense town centres, a land use pattern with all of it’s transportation woes and far flung infrastructure that we see everywhere today. The concept of the city, not for example, the concept of ‘Villages in a Sea of Green’ was a fork in the road through a forest of green. We choose not to be intimately connected to our environment in a sea of villages in a sea of green. We choose to demolish nature in certain places deemed worthy of our presence and call it home, the place where we live. Of course the industrial revolution had everything to do with our choices and current circumstances today. It might even be argued that the ‘city; isn’t even a concept, it’s simply the result of industrial processes to which humans have adapted themselves.

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