"There is not much time to preserve this authentic community, often called “the heart of the city.” Pressure to gentrify the area is intense. But we are confident about the future of our resilient neighbourhood. That confidence comes out of a long tradition of struggle and successes by DTES residents to organize and advocate for ourselves."


- Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP)

Assets to Action: Community Vision for Change in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES)



Oppenheimer Park +

Community Activity House


mcfarlane green biggar

architecture + design / space 2 place




185m² (2,000 sq ft)


$2 million CAD


City of Vancouver Parks Board


population:  603,502

area:  115 km²



For more than three decades, only the richest  20% of Canadians have increased their share of the national income. The remaining 80% have watched their share grow smaller. More specifically, between 1997 to 2007, the richest one per cent of Canadians took home almost a third of all income growth across the country. This period marks the fastest economic growth in Canada since the 1950s and 60s, when the richest 1% of Canadians took home only 8% of income growth.


Vancouver has the country's most staggering wealth gap. It is the most densely populated city in Canada, and its cost of living is the highest in North America. But its percentage of low-income residents is higher than any other major city in the country. In September of 2014, the Broadbent Institute released a report that showed that the richest 10% of British Columbia's families has more than half the wealth of the entire province.





As its population grows and resources become more scarce, Vancouver's poor and middle-income families are struggling to survive on less.


Homelessness in Vancouver has been called a social crisis, one that has been accelerating rapidly over the last decade. As of 2011, roughly 2,651 people in Vancouver have been counted as homeless, forced to survive on government assistance and social aid.  It is well-documented that the homeless population  in Vancouver is frequently subjected to crime-related victimization, and many suffer from drug abuse and mental illnesses.


Many of the city’s most vulnerable people live in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Vancouver.  Within its boundaries are Chinatown, Gastown, Oppenheimer Park, Strathcona, Thornton Park and Victory Square.


While the DTES is most commonly associated with poverty, drug use, sex crime and violence, the neighbourhood is home to many families, elderly people and young professionals who defy the negative  stereotypes. The DTES hosts community events throughout the year including this weekend’s 34th annual Powell Street Festival – Vancouver’s longest running community celebration.


The DTES has a long and rich history  of community activism. Over the past decade, parts of the DTES have started to gentrify, causing tension between developers and locals wishing to protect the character of, and low cost of living within, the neighbourhood.










With a long history of politics and protests, Oppenheimer Park is one of the very few public green spaces in the Downtown Eastside.  Opened in 1902  as the Powell Street Grounds, it sits between Powell and Cordova streets in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.


Not long after opening in 1902, the park was renamed after David Oppenheimer, Vancouver's second mayor.  Oppenheimer dramatically shaped the city by building much of its infrastructure and championing its industrial development.  He dedicated Stanley Park in Lord Stanley’s honor, oversaw the construction of the streetcar system, and established what is now known as B.C. Hydro.  He personally funded Vancouver's water system installation, and donated money for Alexandra Orphanage, the YMCA, Hastings Park, and the land for B.T. Rogers to build a sugar refinery - the first manufacturer in the city.


The area around Oppenheimer Park was once known as “Little Tokyo”,  home to the Japanese-Canadian Asahi baseball club, formed in 1914.  Following the Japanese attack on Coal Harbour, and Canada declared war on Japan during World War II, people of Japenese descent within  the Little Tokyo community were moved into prisoner of war  and internment camps. They were released by 1947, but the Asahi team never played again.


Over the years, the neighbourhood has suffered from poverty and neglect. It is home to a number of SROs, single-room occupancy rentals with shared washrooms and kitchens that are seen as the last stop before homelessness. These run-down hotels are known for having bedbugs, rodent infestations, and being dominated by drug dealers. The current state of the SROs is so dire that a recent contest was held, sponsored by the city of Vancouver's Carnegie Community Action Project, to find the "Crummiest Cockroach Haven." The "winners" of the contest were three of the DTES neighbourhood's most notorious SROs.


In 2009, because of the severity of homelessness in Vancouver, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that homeless persons were allowed to camp in a public park if no alternative shelters are available. As such,  it has become common practice for local people to pitch tents and spend nights sleeping in the park, as long as they dismantle their tents in morning.



The central branch of the Carnegie Community Centre, located at Main St. and Hastings St. in the DTES, opened in the 1980s. Owned by the City of Vancouver, it is a public building for local residents. It houses recreation facilities, an adult learning centre, an affordable cafeteria and a branch of the Vancouver Public Library. All services are free to members who pay $1 per year for membership.


In the late 1990s, the Carnegie Centre started a street program, which eventually found a permanent home in Oppenheimer Park. The activity house in the park runs educational and recreational outreach programs for people of all ages and backgrounds, and employs two full-time activity coordinators and several part-time staff members.


The staff supervises the park to make sure that it is safe for all residents, including the neighbourhood's children and elderly. They often deal with emergency situations related to drugs and violence. The head of the program is Sandy MacKeigan, a social worker that has worked with the Carnegie Centre for over 23 years.


"We are seeing more and more people in the park because as gentrification is happening, there's not a lot of places where people feel welcomed,  so they come to Oppenheimer Park," said MacKeigan. She says that they engage with up to two thousand visitors to the park on a given day.


"We work with a lot of diverse communities. It's not only those who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, because we have children and seniors that come to the park," she said. "It's always a welcoming space for whoever you are, and whatever you happen to be involved in."






Throughout the summer and early fall of 2014, Oppenheimer Park was the site of an Occupy protest, with tents pitched across the majority of the park. Protesters spoke up over the squalid conditions of the neighbourhood SROs. The occupation was led by Canadian First Nations people who argued that Vancouver, including its parkland, is unceded First Nations' land.


One morning in the early summer of 2014, a group of local residents camping in the park refused to take down their tents, despite repeated requests to do so by Carnegie staff members.


Within days, a clash occurred between Carnegie Centre staff and some protesters over the opening times of the activity house washrooms. It was deemed unsafe for the park staff to be on site,  and the Carnegie Centre's Oppenheimer Park branch was forced to close their doors to the public.


The occupation of the park went on for weeks. The number of tents grew quickly as more came to join the protest, many saying that living in the park was safer than boarding in an SRO.


It was not until October of the same year that the tents were forcibly dismantled by the police, who made five arrests in the process.




In 2009, a renovation to the small park and its modest activity house highlighted the vital role that this rare public space plays in the daily life of the community.


Local residents were skeptical when renovations were first proposed for Oppenheimer Park.  Though the park had fallen into disrepair, and was frequently subject to drug and other criminal activity, the community -- which is largely low-income -- feared the project would compromise their access to the park, and continue the wave of gentrification sweeping the Downtown Eastside.


In an effort to reverse this public perception, architect Steve McFarlane, principal of mcfarlane biggar architecture + design, together with landscape architects space2place, engaged in an intense public consultation in order to figure out the needs of the community before work on the project began.


A few guiding principals emerged from the public consultation. Oppenheimer Park's revitalization aimed to improve accessibility for all members of the Downtown Eastside community, and the park had to be safe, during the day and especially at night.



Oppenheimer Park, just after the revitalization.

 Photos by  Martin Tessler and  Jeff Cutler.

The architect's response was to design an activity house with a soft, curvilinear form to avoid dark corner and a wall of  glass that allows a high degree of transparency and clear views from the building towards the park. The building was clad with durable porcelain tile, a material often reserved for grander, civic buildings. At night, the glass is covered with an perforated aluminum screen that allows light to shine through even when the activity centre is closed.


The renovation included new public washrooms, universally accessible walkways, a children’s playground, a sports court with basketball hoop, a horseshoe pitch, a variety of patio spaces, picnic tables and seating areas, a central lawn area, newly planted trees and flowers, sub-surface drainage and a new irrigation system.


Perhaps the most ephemeral element to the design was the most critical. One of the central goals of the project was to bring a renewed sense of pride to the neighbourhood.


"I think there are two kinds of investments, there’s the city investment in believing that Oppenheimer Park should be revitalized and putting their energy and resources into making that happen," said McFarlane. "I think the larger investment, and the more powerful one and the more profound one, is the investment that’s come out of the community after the fact. The fact that that building has never been tagged is a very simple but powerful illustration of that," he said.


Amidst the threat of gentrification, poverty and social isolation facing the most vulnerable residents of the DTES, Oppenheimer Park represents a place of prospect. With its modest but dignified building, dedicated staff and diverse, grassroots community, it remains a place where something good can still happen, despite all other uncertainty.