More than 40 years ago, Strathcona residents Walter and Mary Chan launched an initiative that defied the bulldozers, stopped freeway development and set a new direction for urban planning in the Vancouver. Determined to save their neighbourhood, they founded SPOTA — Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association. The couple’s efforts to save large swaths of the city from demolition in the 1960s and ’70s were recognized recently by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation. A tribute mosaic was unveiled in front of the Chan’s turn-of-the-century Keefer Street home.
As a girl, Shirley Chan campaigned with her parents going door-to-door to canvass opposition to the freeway plans and organized a network of block captains to keep residents informed. That community activism has remained with Chan in the years since. An established leader in the Chinese-Canadian community, the Vancouver native has held leadership roles in community-based advocacy, national housing, health and sustainability programs and inclusive social and economic development. With the proposed removal of the Georgia Viaduct, Chan’s neighbourhood once again is faced with the possibility of increased traffic and another confrontation with city planners.
Describe some of the measures you and your parents took to save the community from destruction?
My dad chaired the founding meeting of SPOTA. At home we talked about how wrong it was for the government to do this to its low-income, non-English speaking citizens. We agreed that we had to make the fight a priority. We held many meetings in our family home to strategize who to involve and how to move forward. SPOTA lobbied city council and provincial and federal leaders to stop the urban renewal plan. In the end, all that was built was the Georgia Viaduct.
Why was it so important to your parents?
This was our last opportunity to stay in our homes in the area next to Chinatown. The area needed protecting from the city’s transportation plan, a freeway plan where five of six options had the north/south and east/west freeway connectors running through Chinatown.
What are your thoughts on the proposed removal of the Georgia Viaduct?
I would like to see the viaducts removed and the land returned for better uses like for parks or housing. How traffic will be re-routed will have a huge impact on the neighbourhood. Thus Strathcona must be intimately involved in the process of determining how this traffic will be managed so that the removal of the viaducts reduces rather than increases traffic through Strathcona.
Traffic is a major issue for residents and for the city. How do you think the issue of moving people in and out of the city should be addressed?
I believe that we should focus our efforts and finances on moving people rather than cars. New York City has been adding population without adding cars. We should look at their growth model and emulate their approach of improving transit to move people and leave roads to moving goods.
Biggest lesson learned?
It is possible when people work together to have an impact on the public decision making process. We just need to find the common goals and objectives. The Minister of Urban Affairs, the Hon. Robert Andras, stopped the demolition of Strathcona and the freeway plans by telling the city he would not approve funding for any program that did not have the support of the people affected.
What does success look like?
Citizens being consulted on matters that affect their lives; understanding that houses are more than bricks and mortar; and preserving a neighbourhood for the people.
One lesson you’d love to give others?
Believe in your cause and build your alliances as broadly as possible.
One thing you could change about the world?
Citizens care about the planet and the legacy they leave for future generations and species.