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Metro Vancouver 1968 - An Amazing Window Into Regional Urban Evolution

Cool Analysis

Because I cut my teeth as young GIS analyst supporting land use planners, I am huge sucker for old land use maps. Recently, my old colleague Peter Russel from the City of Richmond found an amazing copy of Development in the Western Portion of the Lower Mainland Region, 1968. How amazing is this map? Well for starters, it is completely packed with information, its super well designed, and it was drawn up almost exactly 50 years ago!

While it's unlikely that the young draftsperson who constructed this map in 1968 actually reads LGeo's blog, if you are out there and reading this, then please know that your work has stood the test of time! Take a look at the gorgeous map below and tell me if you disagree. (full size 20mb version can be found here)

Now the reason why I really love this map, is that it provides an extremely valuable perspective on long range land use planning and the evolution of our urban environments. That is to say, if we know how much things have changed in the last 50 years, we can start to grapple with the profound challenge of figuring out the next 50. To do this, we can use a bit of fancy GIS and can run some fairly cool analysis on this map to figure out how things have changed.


The first thing you notice is how much influence the Fraser River had on the development of our region. In 1968, the original Port Mann Bridge had only been constructed four years prior in 1964, the Massey Tunnel had only been around since 1957, and only the venerable Pattullo Bridge had been standing since 1937. These lack of connections were likely one reason why the population south of the Fraser River was so small. Second, you can notice how agricultural lands are relatively unchanged since 1968, likely that is due to the implementation of the Agricultural Land Reserve which was established in 1974. Finally, notice the primacy of roads and highways on this figure. By the time this map was produced, our region was completely ensconced in the world of motordom. Cars were the mode of choice on this figure and it shows. Rail lines are shown but faintly and only fragments of the interurban lines can be inferred from the very interesting place names scattered throughout Metro's suburban communities.

Contrast this map with Metro Vancouver's Regional Growth Strategy map here. You'll note that roads and highways are completely de-emphasized with a focus instead on transit and multi-nodal development has supplanted land uses.

Use the simple application below to explore the figure. I've found that by fiddling around with opacity of the figure (or the extracted data), it becomes really easy to see what has changed. Once you are done panning zooming and overlaying, check out the discussion below for some insights into the evolution of our region.


As mentioned, this figure is full of information. The clear colors, well positioned labels and highly accurate mapping render this map well positioned to produce informational champagne. However, old figures like this one do not yield their information without a digital fight! I had to spend a fair bit of time, extracting, digitizing and correcting the data to transform the information from paper to silicon. All that being said and done, I've managed to create a reasonable dataset from this figure with the following standard (and very important caveats):

  • Extracting digital data from old figures is a profession in of itself. I'm not an expert in this area and I am sure that others couple likely do a better job. That being said I used a simple interactive supervised classification system coupled with some aggregation and manual correction to try and extract all the land use types. If you can't read GIS, in English what I did was pull the colours of the map and make some assumptions about things I couldn't see.

  • There is no way for me to easily verify the veracity of this figure. That is to say, some of the information could just be plain wrong, out of place or simply ambiguous. I just don't know because I was neither alive nor present in the Lower Mainland in 1968. So, calling all baby boomers: I insist that you check to see if Sullivan Station and Essondale were places. Also take a look at Sea Island, note the mystery community there?

  • All area totals are super approximate and based on my digitization. Therefore, please do not live or die on the fact that I've noticed there was approximately 427.5 sq km of agricultural land depicted on this figure in 1968. By the same token, please enjoy the fact that there was apparently 487.4 sq km of agricultural land in 2011 but do not quote the 546.3 sq. km total I've used that corrected for right of ways (more on that below).

So, what do we know about the Lower Mainland Land use in 1968 (note, this is chopped down to MV boundaries, and does not include the Northern Parts of West and North Vancouver as well as Bowen Island):

Somewhat interesting... But the temporal analysis is even more interesting. For instance, how much has the residential footprint grown? Have we really deindustrialized? what about outdoor space? To answer this, as mentioned I've done some work to get the 2011 MV Land Use data in line with the 1968 version. Some notes.

  • For both 1968 and 2011, I've conflated parks and recreation with no designation as MV 2011 has created this unfortunate category: Recreation, Open Space and Protected Natural Areas

  • Because the 1968 dataset does not have road right-of-ways (ROWS) as a designation, I've had to roll ROWs into all other categories proportionately in the 2011 dataset and inflate land use numbers by approximately 200 sq. km.

  • 2011 mixed use res/commercial has been reclassified to residential; and

  • 2011 extractive industries has been reclassified into no designation because that's how they were treated in 1968...

With those additional caveats in mind. treat yourself to 50 (...err 45 ) years of land use change!

So here are some fun takeaways for you to debate with me:

  • Residential land has increased by 211sq. km. or 80% Population increased by 1.5m (about 900,000 to 2.43m) or 170%, ergo we've sprawled out but we are also more dense than 1968 - despite an addiction to motordom!

  • Industrial land area has increased considerably, Notably, Vancouver's industrial areas have shrunk while Surrey's and NE Sector(especially along the Fraser) have grown dramatically.

  • The ratio of commercial to residential lands has slipped somewhat from 8% to 7% (this may be offset by an increase in industrial and mixed land uses), suggesting that commercial land use demand is linked to residential growth.

  • Lands considered as agricultural (who knows what the Non-designated lands were in 1968!) appears to have increased; suggesting that the ALR has been effective in preserving agricultural lands... (I would love to see more data on this to see if this is the case!)

I could go on, and there are probably many more facts and nuggets that you can glean from the data. So put on your analysis hat because I want to hear them! Please send me your comments, corrections and considerations; because information like what I've exposed above starts conversations that will inevitably allow for better planning and decision making.


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