More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About The Often-Puzzling Urban Geography of Vancouver And Its Outlying Suburbs!
or: "Why West Van is not the same as the West End is not the same as the West Side."
The City of Vancouver has for the most part (excepting the peninsula which is its "downtown" area) the shape of a quadrilateral which has in recent years become built up and denser because, unlike its surrounding suburbs, it is surrounded on all sides, either by natural barriers (Burrard Inlet to the north and the Fraser River to the south) or chafing against the boundaries of other municipalities (Burnaby to the east and - there's a story behind it - Pacific Spirit Park and the properties of the University of British Columbia to the west, UBC - surrounded on all other sides by the Pacific Ocean - being nominally part of New Westminster, located itself well to the south-east of Vancouver proper.) From inlet to river, Vancouver cleanly abuts Burnaby along the aptly-named Boundary Road, while its border with UBC is Blanca Street from the beach south to 16th Avenue, at which point it makes a swerve and Camosun Street becomes the border.
With only a few exceptions (the pre-dating-Vancouver Kingsway diagonal cut linking the port of False Creek to the then-capital New Westminster, the hills at 25th Avenue and the maze of twisty little passages that is the moneyed enclave of Shaughnessy) the City of Vancouver, having been planned before the proliferation of the automobile ate civic engineers' brains, differs from its suburbs in its adherence to a simple grid layout of streets. Vancouver is divided by Main Street into the West Side (from UBC to Main) and the East Side (from Main to Boundary, and often semantically extended, on account of its uninterrupted and continued shared streets such as Hastings, to include Burnaby). It should be noted that Main Street doesn't actually bisect the city, an honour belonging to Ontario Street (and Abbott Street downtown) - an important distinction to keep in mind given that latitudinal addresses in Vancouver are determined counting up according to their distance from Ontario, which is counted as the zero-hundred block; the totally random street address 3655 West 38th Avenue, for instance, would be located on 38th Avenue approximately 36 blocks west of Ontario.
Outside the slanted Downtown core, Streets tend to run North-South and bear the names of Canadian provinces, Trees and similar Proper Nouns, while Avenues run East-West and are numbered in ascending order the further south they are (so 4th Avenue is near the beach at English Bay while 70th Avenue is so close to the Fraser River you can smell it). A few avenues also bear proper names of their own - 25th Avenue is usually referred to as King Edward Avenue while where 9th Avenue should be is the thriving urban corridor known as Broadway. (These Avenue-naming guidelines apply to perhaps three-quarters of Vancouver - aside from the shore-hugging Cornwall Avenue and Marine Drives, they're in effect throughout the entirety of the West Side and the East Side up to 1st Avenue, where rather than counting into the negatives or employing boring old alphabet avenue names proper names are applied resulting in interesections such as "Renfrew and Georgia" - no big fat hairy deal.)
Vancouver's Downtown area, oriented to the jaunty northeast, is all streets intersecting with streets. A crafty inlet, False Creek, separates Downtown from the rest of the West Side (though the "creek" is crossed by the Burrard Street Bridge, the Granville Street Bridge and the Cambie Street Bridge) but the inlet terminates around Main Street (right where Science World is located) where Downtown joins up normally (save a correcting 45 degree bend in all the connecting streets) with the bulk of the East Side. Though almost half of this vestigial Downtown peninsula is occupied by Stanley Park, what remains is subdivided still further - the primarily residential (and famously gay-friendly) West End neighbourhood is located between Stanley Park and Burrard Street. Most people will tell you that there is no East End, but what fits the bill is Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside down by the docks near and around Main Street.
Getting out of Vancouver into its suburbs is eyes-closed easy in some directions and only-one-way in other directions:
There are three choices available when heading north, crossing Burrard Inlet:
- You can take the stately and harrowing Lion's Gate Bridge through Stanley Park and over the First Narrows crossing, which will deposit you at a juncture on the other side where you can choose to drive (trust me, you're not crazy enough to walk or bike the Lion's Gate) left to the distinct suburb of West Vancouver or right into the hilly domain of the City of North Vancouver.
- Your second choice is to drive up Cassiar Street (a couple of blocks east of Boundary) on to the Ironworkers' Memorial Bridge (aka the Second Narrows Bridge crossing, as it does, the "Second Narrows") and across where you are again posed with a choice - left into the City of North Vancouver, or right to the confoundingly-similarly-named District of North Vancouver. The south end of the Ironworkers' Memorial bridge is tremendously close to the former grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition, while the north end of the bridge puts you a stone's throw away from the Phibbs Exchange bus loop and two stones' throws away from Capilano College. The north end of the Lion's Gate, on the other hand, puts you near a massive trailor park. Crossing the Second Narrows bridge on a bicycle or on foot is less of an abandon hope all ye who enter here venture but still a teeth-clenching endeavour.
- The third crossing of the Burrard Inlet is of course BC Transit's SeaBus ferry service, transporting one (with one's bicycle, no less!) from Waterfront Station in Downtown Vancouver to Lonsdale Quay, smack dab in the center of the City of North Vancouver.
Ostensibly you could also drive around the inlet instead of crossing it, but as the Indian Arm of it veers north for quite some distance presuming you're-not-a-vampire-and-can-cross-bodies-of-water it is inadvisable.
Heading south from Vancouver the North Arm of the Fraser River needs to be crossed, a task for which there are a few options available:
Crossing east from Vancouver into Burnaby is a trifling matter, requiring only the passage across the bustling thoroughfare of Boundary. Most major Vancouver streets link up directly with analogues (sometimes even sharing the same name) in Burnaby.
Finally, departing Vancouver to the west is a bit of a tricky affair - 4th, 10th, 16th Avenues and both Northwest and Southwest Marine Drives pass around or through Pacific Spirit Park and meet up in UBC, where you are forced to find parking and hobble down the notorious staircase of Wreck Beach before wading out into the Pacific Ocean, leaving only a trail of sad bubbles in your wake.
According to the City of Vancouver, the land in the city is divided up among the following official neighbourhoods:
The provincial government, through Elections BC
, prefers to divide up the city according to a simpler scheme, resulting in the following electoral districts being contained within the City of Vancouver:
The Federal Government's reduction of us is even simpler; according to them, Vancouver consists of:
Truly, mere words can only tell so much. Come visit!