Saturday, 14 June 2014


Nantes is a lovely medieval town in Brittany, roughly the size of Vancouver. I was there two weeks ago and had lunch with a ninety year old architect. He was at home the night Nantes was carpet bombed after the Normandy Invasion. “There was,” he says, "a lot of noise. It lasted about 20 minutes. When it stopped there was only one house left standing in the town centre. We thought that it was the Germans who were bombing. Actually, we learned later, it was the allies who somehow missed their military targets.

He was interested to learn that it took investors  more than a year to demolish about 1000 Vancouver houses. The Allied armies accomplished this for Nantes in under 20 minutes.

There are other parallels. 

The Allies,  criticized by some Americans for taking out the entire residential town centre, explained that they had to destroy it in order to save it. Facing similar criticism, Vancouver politicians  have  instructed us that the demolition of character homes in Vancouver is necessary to produce better, healthier, more diversified and denser neighborhoods with a variety of housing types.

Paradoxically, Vancouverites seem to be more upset about the demolitions than were the surviving residents of Nantes. They welcomed the Americans with kisses and flowers. In contrast, Michael Kluckner, the author of Vanishing Vancouver says, “There are all kinds of anger type issues that are rolling together *** there’s a general sense that people are frustrated with things just not working,” he continued. (Globe and Mail, Friday May 30, 2014)

Both President Francois Hollande and  Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, have to deal with immigration issues and cultural conflicts.

There are today a great number of Chinese tourists in France, some of whom are investing in vineyards and castles. These investors do not demolish heritage buildings because Napoleon outlawed the practice. To the contrary, the French provide grants to owners to restore old castles.  

The problem for the French government is that the Chinese tourists do not use credit cards. They carry their castle money in their pockets. As a result, they are the preferred victims of pickpockets and thieves. 

 Quite naturally, they complain about their safety.

About two weeks ago, President Hollande suggested that the Chinese should stop whining. He told them to bring in their own police force to protect them while in France. The French media said that this suggestion proved that the president was as dumb as he looked. (The French are sensitive about foreign police forces occupying their country.)

The French dealt with the demolition of Nantes' town centre by restoring it in its original style. It took a while. Of course they preserved the one house left standing. Below is a picture of downtown Nantes taken two weeks ago.


Investor led demolitions are more subtle than bombing.  For one thing, there is more than one house left standing. This gives the planners and engineers the chance to create heritage classifications and to recycle the components of demolished homes. The June 3 report from the General Manager of Engineering Services notes at p. 4 that “By using deconstruction techniques, wood and other materials can be separated, sorted and can be more easily reused and recycled. For example, if 80% of wood from a typical pre 1940’s one/two story family home is captured for reuse or recycling an additional 40 tons of waste could be diverted from landfill per demolished home.”

The Strategic Analysis section seeks to encourage retention of pre 1940s homes by increasing the burden on demolition which the report calls deconstruction. “The rationale for this additional recycling requirement is to recognize that character homes often have more character elements and material features that can be salvaged, reused, recycled and kept out of the landfill.

Strategic Analysis will be required to deal with preservation of new components in old buildings. In 1978 Vancouver's Heritage Advisory Committee would not allow alterations to Umberto's restaurant.  They did not want to lose a part of our heritage described as "finely turned balustrades." Umberto, however, produced the invoices to show that these 'character elements' had been made five years earlier. 

Another issue is what to do with old components like getting nails out of old floors. If salvaging costs more than the value of the materials salvaged the stuff will just lie around and rot.

The Allies may have had a strategy as well to retain ancient homes by focusing on military targets,  but the bomb sight technology was not up to the task. As to recycling, I could find no statistics on how Nantes recycled the stone in the downtown but they probably did.

Vancouver ingeniously proposes to pay for recycling by moving stuff around in the budget. Even if that doesn't do anything for heritage, it promotes the more important Green Action Plan. 

All of this demonstrates the enormous advantages of a local government run by public relations specialists.

The engineering report says, “Additional resources may be required to implement certain aspects of the proposed C &D Waste Diversion Strategy; however any near term expenses will be covered through re-prioritization of existing budgets. Any financial implications not noted will be identified and proposed as part of the 2015 operating budget process

Re-prioritization is a technical term for robbing Peter in one department to pay Paul in another.

 Just as there were critics of the carpet bombing of Nantes, Vancouver has its own neighborhood fussbudgets. They say that the pre 1940 deconstruction rules might actually increase the rate of demolition of pre 1940 homes. They whine that the character designation was arbitrary and that existing density bonuses encourage destruction. They describe the whole thing as “poorly thought out.” 

They are right.