Vancouver’s East-West divide, population density, political clout, and deeper issues at City Hall

East, West, Dowtown areas with Neighbourhoods

The balance of Vancouver’s population today is in the East of the city. In this article we examine whether population size by neighbourhood gives clout. We look at whether or not residence of an elected official affects representation at City Hall. We ask what really matters for voting patterns on City Council. And we ask if a Ward system would make a difference under the current setup. We find that the East – West divide may be an overly simplistic classification. We also ponder a question: Are neighbourhoods that already have high density the ones being singled out for further densification? (Sure likes like it.) We conclude that beyond the discussion of population size and density in different neighbourhoods, we need to go deeper into the specific biases and warping of our civic system if we are ever to get better representation at City Hall.

East, West and Downtown Peninsula population estimates

Historical and present East versus West disparities are fertile ground for debate about civic policies and dynamics in Vancouver. An area’s population density also has implications for future population and growth, so let’s look a little deeper. The 2011 Census showed that half of residents of Vancouver live in the East. The City of Vancouver has released detailed population figures for each neighbourhood. But for discussion purposes, let’s go beyond the East – West divide, and instead try having look at three areas. By our estimates, the population breakdown of the city is as follows: 308,000 (East), 203,500 (West) and 93,500 (Downtown Peninsula). (See bottom of article for a detailed explanation of the methodology used for this estimate.)

So now we ask a key question: Is the East vs. West distinction overly simplistic when discussing political representation at City Hall today?

2011 Estimated population breakdown by region

Council representation from the East, West and Downtown Peninsula

Do these three parts of the city have fair representation on Vancouver City Council, which consists of eleven votes (one mayor, ten councillors, elected at large — i.e., not formally representing any specific neighbourhood). Based on population, to be equitable, the East would have 5 or 6 members on Council, the West would have 3 or 4, and Downtown Peninsula would have 1 or 2.

But perhaps this whole line of thinking of where councillors come from is just a red herring, given the city’s current system of governance. We believe this discussion needs to go deeper. Our current civic system in Vancouver is characterized by (1) large political donations from the development industry, unions, and special interests that fund the expensive election campaigns of the two top civic parties (note that most municipalities don’t even have political parties), (2) small voter turnout, giving the party with just 18% of electorate’s votes an absolute majority of 8/11 seats on council in 2011, and (3) strong internal party discipline resulting on bloc voting by members of the party that happens to have absolute majority.

In part, this article is a response to a recent article in The Tyee, entitled Mapping Vancouver’s East-West Divide by Jonny Wakefield and Paul Bucci (Aug 23, 2013). Its byline states: “Battles between city hall and neighbourhoods have revived the age-old debate over wards.” The article includes a fascinating interactive map that shows the geographic distribution of the home address of all mayors and city councillors elected in Vancouver since 1960. Much research went into gathering this data. We won’t give any spoilers here, but the results are not entirely surprising in the evidence of which side of the city most of the elected officials have come from in the past fifty years (see the full article here).

Next question: Does location of residence affect Council voting records?

The current Vancouver Council for the 2011-2014 term has 5 members from the West side, 3 from the Downtown Peninsula, and 3 from the East side. So by this measure, the East side is under-represented. This is partly a result of the at-large voting system. But has the geographic location of Councillors’ residences affected their voting records? For example, does Shaughnessy resident Tony Tang have a different voting record from Hastings-Sunrise resident Raymond Louie? In this example, research by Grant Fraser showed that Louie and Tang had identical voting records. In fact members of the party with absolute majority nearly always vote identically, regardless of which neighbourhood they come from. Please see the article Independent or block voting in Council? The Failings of a Democracy for details.

Wards and more

There is clearly more to the story than the assumption that the geographic location of the residences of Councillors has any influence on their voting record. At least in the current Council, the geographic location of Councillors has not affected the voting record of the Vision Vancouver majority due to their block voting pattern. There is indeed much more to discuss than merely the merits of a ward or partial ward system. Changes to consider should include not only wards, but campaign finance reform, spending limits, and perhaps the banning political parties at the municipal level, or the introduction of proportional representation.

Density and development pressures

The map of density (PDF here) on city’s 2011 Census page shows that there’s more to the settlement patterns in the City than just East versus West:

Population density in Vancouver 2011

The neighbourhoods of Marpole, Fairview and Kitsilano clearly have higher densities than other neighbourhoods in the West. The Downtown and West End are among the highest in population density and make up only 5% of the City’s land mass. And there is yet another way to classify the city, this time, into 4 groups: Peninsula, West, Middle and East (please see Eye on Norquay article about density distribution here as well as Vancouver’s 22 Local Areas Over Time).

While we talk about population density, here is another question. Are neighbourhoods that are already high density areas being singled out by city planners to accelerate their further densification? The main targets of official planning exercises appear to be East Vancouver as a whole, the West End, Marpole, and the Downtown Eastside. And signs are appearing that Kitsilano will be next in line for a community planning exercise.

Clout at City Hall and Population Density: What relationship?

Is the balance of power in the West or in the East, or is it equal? Or is there an inverse relationship in terms of population density to influence at City Hall, with the lowest density neighbourhoods having the most clout? Is clout measured more in the varying levels of involvement in civic affairs for residents living in different parts of the city? More research and discussion are needed about whether the ‘East’ has the same political clout as the ‘West,’ and what are the disparities in civic services provided to each of the areas of the city. That’s for future work.

Caveats about comparing population densities – Industrial Lands

Analysis of the density map requires more than a mere East – West comparison. A comparison of population densities between neighbourhoods requires some degree of “normalization.” A few communities have substantial tracts of industrially-zoned land, and these should be subtracted when comparing the population densities of one neighbourhood to another.

In the traditional city land base comparison, the city’s land is approximately 50.5% in the East, 44.8% in the West, and 4.7% in the Downtown Peninsula (including the West End).


Discussion about the need for wards raises a lot of worthy issues for consideration. But from our review here, we conclude that beyond the discussion of population size and density in different parts of the city, we need to go deeper into the specific biases and warping of our civic system if we are ever to get more equitable representation and decision-making at City Hall.

REFERENCES: Methodology to estimate the population of Vancouver by region

The dividing line between East and West goes through three of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Population estimates for the eastern and western parts of the Downtown, Mount Pleasant and Riley Park were needed; unfortunately the City of Vancouver has not provided this level of detail. We’ve classified any of the city’s land east of the zero line of Ontario Street and Carrall Street as the ‘East’. The Downtown Peninsula includes the West End and the portion of the Downtown neighbourhood west of Carrall and north of False Creek. Stanley Park is leased from the federal government and hence it is not technically part of the city’s land base. The ‘West’ is any part of the city south of False Creek and west of Ontario Street; this doesn’t include the UBC Endowment Lands.

The table below shows the population figures from the 2011 Census for all of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. The Downtown, Mount Pleasant and Riley Park figures contain our estimates for the columns under East / West / Downtown Peninsula:

Neighbourhood 2011 Census East West Downtown Peninsula
Arbutus-Ridge 15908 15908
Downtown* 54690 5701 48989
Dunbar-Southlands 21754 21754
Fairview 31432 31432
Grandview-Woodland 27297 27297
Hastings-Sunrise 33992 33992
Kensington-Cedar Cottage 47471 47471
Kerrisdale 14732 14732
Killarney 28458 28458
Kitsilano 41371 41371
Marpole 23832 23832
Mount Pleasant* 26400 21620 4780
Oakridge 12443 12443
Renfrew-Collingwood 50495 50495
Riley Park* 21794 13818 7976
Shaughnessy 8807 8807
South Cambie 7682 7682
Strathcona 12170 12170
Sunset 36286 36286
Victoria-Fraserview 30711 30711
West End 44543 44543
West Point Grey 12803 12803
Total 605071
Estimated totals 308019 203520 93532

*straddles East/West divide, very rough estimates based on residential area and zoning to adjust population as a percentage for East/West sides of Ontario & Carrall Streets

The approximate Vancouver population for 2011 rounded to nearest 500 by region was as follows: 308,000 (East), 203,500 (West), 93,500 (Downtown Peninsula/WE).
Statistics Canada and the City of Vancouver should theoretically be able to provide a more accurate number by splitting the populations of the Downtown, Mount Pleasant and Riley Park into figures east and west of the City’s zero line.

One thought on “Vancouver’s East-West divide, population density, political clout, and deeper issues at City Hall

  1. People seem to think of densification as some kind of punishment. The pain of densification should be shared equally by all residents, so the logic goes.
    I don’t think densifying is a bad thing. It brings amenities and drives down housing costs. Densification near science world is bringing a new park to NE false creek.
    Besides, it makes no sense from a planning perspective to spread out density. Then it’s not density. Yes – neighborhoods that are already dense are getting denser. Neighborhoods that are near rapid transit or other amenities should continue to densify. It would be lousy planning to stick a bunch of new residents way out in West Vancouver. We should put them in the East – where the rapid transit is.

    It’s not about protecting the rich from densification. There are lots of expensive neighborhoods along Cambie. Those neighborhoods need to densify quite a bit.

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