It's hard not to watch what's going on in New Zealand over the last 48 hours and not think about what will happen to Metro Vancouver when the big one hits. Experts say it's not a matter of if, but when the region is struck with a big earthquake. If recent quakes in Seattle, Chile and now New Zealand are any indication of the destruction we might face, it's a rather frightening prospect.
As I poured through the hundreds of images streaming onto the Internet from yesterday's Christchurch quake, I couldn't help but think of what will happen to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and Gastown when our quake begins. If you're unfamiliar with those neighbourhoods, they are comprised of hundreds of older brick buildings that are far from being seismically sound.
In the case of the Downtown Eastside, many of those buildings also happen to be rundown single room occupancy hotels which house some of the poorest people in Canada. For years, the heritage advocates have lobbied city council to protect them from the wrecking ball as a means of saving some of Vancouver historical connections.
Meanwhile, poverty activists have also lobbied council to retain those old brick structures. They have successfully argued that taking them down could result in more people living on the street. There has been a groundswell of resistance from certain segments of the community for renewal (aka what they call gentrification). However, the unfortunate reality is that many of Canada's poorest citizens are also living in some of the most seismically unsafe buildings anywhere in North America.
Just look at the kinds of buildings that were hardest hit in Christchurch. For the most part they weren't the tall, glass structures built in the last 30 years in their downtown core. Rather, most of the buildings that tumbled down onto people and property were built long before there even was a seismic code for construction. That's why it's not a stretch to think that a similar sized earthquake could result in a major catastrophe in older neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside.
Trendy Gastown is Vancouver's oldest neighbourhood and it too faces an uncertain future. Although in the case of Gastown, many of it's older buildings have been upgraded to withstand earthquakes when the buildings were converted to new offices or condos. However, there still remains a number of older buildings in the area which will likely be heavily impacted when the ground begins to tremble.
It's hard for civic politicians of any stripe to look heritage and poverty activists in the face and say that a building should come down due to the fact it might kill hundreds of people during a severe earthquake. It's much easier to nod and allow these old relics to stand, and in many instances house people, rather than face the reality that some of them should be replaced with more modern structures.
Therein lies the conundrum facing civic politicians governing a city atop a major fault line. Stand up against a bunch of well organized community activists now, or face some difficult questions after the quake has struck. As you can imagine, it's always easier to roll the dice and hope that the quake doesn't happen on your watch.
It's clear to me after witnessing what's just happened in Christchurch that we need to look seriously at how many of these older buildings are going to come down in a major quake. We then need to ensure that as many of our most vulnerable citizens are housed in buildings that won't become a death trap. That means systematically taking many buildings down, while selectively upgrading others. Seismically upgrading all of our heritage buildings is a costly venture that no government or private sector entity would undertake. Especially when you consider we have so many schools and other public buildings that are on the wait list.
Unfortunately, after the dust has settled in New Zealand and we move on to other headlines, I think the status quo will prevail. Thousands of people in B.C.'s poorest postal code will continue to live in brick buildings that most civic politicians know simply won't withstand a major earthquake. I certainly hope that I'm wrong on this one for the sake of everyone who calls these heritage buildings home.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the citizens of New Zealand as they live through one of the worst tragedies to hit their country in the last 80 years. Let's hope that as many people as possible can be saved and that they will be able to begin the rebuilding process as soon as possible.
For more insight into the possible earthquake threat to poorer neighbourhoods, listen to Brett Mineer's story on CKNW.
What do you think? Should we be systematically tearing down these older buildings that are seismically unsafe? Is it a good use of taxpayer dollars to upgrade them all? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
- Post by Daniel