Pandemic Urbanism

May 15, 2020

Testing Resiliency in an Urban Core, Medium Density Co-op

By Jenni Pace (
PhD Candidate in Architectural History, UBC; Vancouver Heritage Commission

The author will give this presentation at the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium in a session titled “Urban Form Beyond the Norm,” from 10:15 – 11:15 AM on May 29, 2020.

Half a century ago, tenants and property owners in Vancouver’s Chinatown-Strathcona neighbourhood fought and won a cataclysmic battle against an outside enemy. This politically marginalized group of citizens (S.P.O.T.A.) organized to defend their right to place near the urban core, forging culturally hybrid strategies of opposition and design. These included halting the development of a freeway and tower in the sky-style social housing, which were replaced by a grassroots program of infill and rehabilitation aimed at securing private family space while strengthening community supports.

Arguably the most radical component of the program was Mau Dan Gardens, a medium-density housing co-operative developed with a mix of tenure types, a health clinic and day care facility. Through a community-based process, S.P.O.T.A. forged an innovative, ground-oriented design typology defined by private gardens and pedestrian footpaths converging on communal social space.

This assembly and the neighhourhood at-large have faced many tests in subsequent decades, perhaps none as critical as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has greatly exasperated the pervasive crises of wealth inequality and opioid addiction. This presentation expands my research on the community design process, drawing on individual and collective experience to understand how the original concept is withstanding. It will conclude with some preliminary thoughts on which features merit broader application, and how the original plan might be evolved to further support community resilience.