On Hearing of the Death of Tom Campbell…..

On Hearing of the Death of  Tom Campbell…..

Environmental concerns lead many to believe that the ideal city should have a very high density core with pockets of high density throughout the surrounding suburbs. I discovered that this ideal was exactly the city we were achieving many years ago.

In the 1960s the neighborhood of single detached houses in the West End made way for over 200 residential towers. In pockets around the city like Kerrisdale, Kitsilano, near UBC, residential towers arose providing housing for seniors and young people, dramatically improving neighborhood environmental performance, increasing social diversity and keeping the price of housing in check. I was awestruck that any city government could have achieved this.

I came to understand that it was under the government of Tom Campbell that most of this was achieved. Strange. The writers of Vancouver history have always told a less than flattering story of him. As much as I searched I couldn’t find anything in the “official canon” that said much positive about this period. His was an era of political insensitivity and avarice and its end ushered in the “livable city”.

But the more I looked certain myths of the past seemed to dissolve. The election that replaced him is portrayed as about whether or not to build a freeway through the city. I have looked through the newspaper articles from that campaign and have found no mention of a freeway. The great freeway debates happened in the 1960s and the idea had been dead for some time.

What I did read was a lot about the West End and other developments. Most of the political parties opposed additional density in the West End and thought it was a terrible mistake in the first place. There was a big push from landowning residents to stop other people from finding housing in new developments like the Arbutus Mall. With the benefit of time we now understand that the end of the Tom Campbell era brought us rampant sprawl and community-destroying high house prices.

I became convinced I needed to talk with Tom Campbell. Several knowledgeable people believed he had passed away years earlier. My friend Chuck Davis insisted he was still with us but had given virtually no interviews since he left office.

I was in the Vancouver Archives building which was constructed under his watch reading Minutes from his Council meetings when I decided to wander into the green residential tower on the south side of the Burrard Bridge. I knew that Tom Campbell had built this building and that it currently provides one of the few affordable residences in that neighborhood. The people in the building had not heard of him but I got a contact for the management company. Eventually I talked to his son who told me his father was doing very well but didn’t do interviews. I left him my cell number.

Several weeks later I got a call from Tom Campbell himself. He was very clear to me that he didn’t want anything written about him. He said that when he was the Mayor it was his job to be in the media and like everything else he did in life, he did it with gusto. There was now no reason for him to be quoted. We had a wide ranging conversation about city government in the 1960s and how things used to be done. We spoke about the two efforts by professional planners to stop the West End which would have exacerbated sprawl. I told him that I believed that in terms of land use he had been leading the city in the right direction and that I hoped history would recognize him properly. He was clearly not interested in what historians thought.

Tom Campbell would probably agree with Henry Ford’s comment that “history is bunk”. I wondered if in some profound way he was right. There is no doubt that what came after him like the emphasis on the public realm and more voices in political decisions was positive and wonderful. And for those who bought homes early enough the “livable city” was a great achievement. For everyone else and for the local and global environment the outcome is less clear.

Our conversation ended too quickly. I had wanted to ask him about who was behind the freeway initiative, him or his Director of Planning Gerald Sutton Brown. In cities throughout North America it was professional planners who led the effort to build them. It seemed unlikely that such a government project would be his idea.

Tom Campbell’s city was one where the free market mattered and the signals of the price system were taken seriously. The exuberant and chaotic free market was expressed in the loud and boisterous neon signs that were cleansed shortly after him. Affordable housing was not achieved by creating “special” buildings with taxpayer money in a certain neighborhood for specific people but by allowing the forces of supply and demand and the inventiveness of design professionals to provide affordability through abundance. And as in every other industry that has delivered us unparalleled prosperity, it wasn’t a bad thing if someone made money doing it.

Perhaps I have a soft spot for an outsider from the Eastside who led a Westside-based party. Perhaps an admiration for a politician who genuinely couldn’t give a whit about what the chattering class thought about him. How refreshing when held up against a whole industry of hand-wringers whose sense of self-worth is dependent on the article written that morning. Here was a man who had opinions and was not afraid of expressing them. They don’t make them like that anymore. The city is a better place because of him.

Sam Sullivan
Feb. 6th, 2012



  1. Sam Sullivan: On hearing of the death of Tom Campbell | City Caucus - February 20, 2012

    […] Tom Campbell. Here he recounts meeting Campbell and reflects on his legacy. Thank to the Global Civic Policy Society for letting us share this post with our […]

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