Vancouver’s Granville Island–once a polluted industrial wasteland–is now one of the city’s prime attractions for visitors and residents alike. A refreshingly interesting mix of shops, parks, galleries, an art school, and a world-class public market rose from the husks of old factories in what has been hailed as one of North America’s most innovative redevelopments.

It’s a first-class example of how a great district can emerge because local people identified the area’s unique potential and worked hard to create vital public spaces.

The foresight that went into revitalizing Granville Island showcases many of the principles behind PPS’s new Great Cities Initiative, which applies what we’ve learned working on public places to the wider mission of creating better towns, cities, and regions. To mark this big step for PPS, we are adding a new category to our “hall-of-fame” listing of the world’s Great Public Spaces: Neighborhoods and Districts. And we are pleased to announce that Granville Island is one of the inaugural districts to be honored.

Ships docked at a marina, with Granville Island in the background.

Why Granville Island? It’s a first-class example of how a great district can emerge, even in the most unlikely location, because local people identified the area’s unique potential and worked hard to create vital public spaces. The island’s status as one of Vancouverites’ favorite spots isn’t due to some ingenious stroke of master planning, but to the steady, patient progress of local organizations and businesses.

Thirty years ago the area was an isolated, 37-acre zone of fading factories and maritime businesses, squatting in the shadow of one of the city’s major bridges. Located in False Creek, a saltwater inlet now crisscrossed by colorful water taxis, the island was strategically located near downtown and Stanley Park across the water, and connected by a narrow stretch of land to up-and-coming neighborhoods on the city’s west side.

When the Granville Island Trust was appointed to guide the Island’s redevelopment in 1976, no one could have imagined what would sprout from its grimy shores. Today the Island is both a top tourist draw and a beloved neighborhood spot for the residents in nearby townhouses and high-rises. But the district’s industrial past is still easily seen in the tin buildings with huge factory doorways, cranes and rail tracks, and one remaining cement factory.

Many incubator businesses, like the Granville Island Tea Company, are located in the Public Market.

The Public Market–where local produce and a tempting array of pastry, meat, and other treats are available all year–is the heart of the island. It exemplifies the “Placemaking” approach to urban development that PPS has long advocated. On dry days, the joyful business of eating and drinking coffee spills out along the waterfront, where buskers, magicians, and other performers command large crowds. And it is just a short stroll from the market to a rich offering of bookstores, bistros, theaters, crafts studios, and numerous businesses catering to boaters.

The public market and adjoining area perfectly illustrate a concept that is at the core of our Placemaking principles and the new Great Cities Initiative: “The Power of Ten.” This means ensuring a wide variety of things to do in a place (ten seems the magic number) and then creating a variety of these kind of places within a district as a whole. People’s enjoyment of a place seems to increase exponentially based on the variety of things to do and see.

This water park, with Isadora's Restaurant in the background, is part of the Island's "kid-friendly zone."

Another great example of the power of ten is Granville Island’s Kids Market, home to 25 retailers and part of a larger “kid-friendly zone” that includes a duck pond, playground, waterfront park, walkways, water park, and the Crystal Ark (an exhibit of rocks and stones). The prestigious Emily Carr School of Art, occupying a number of buildings, is another unique set of places all its own, where students take over the streets for sketching and deep conversation. And that’s not all you’ll find.

Yes, there is an alternative to excessively commercialized redevelopment, and Granville Island offers perfect proof.

Each of Granville Island’s destinations is bolstered by the others, thanks to a network of walkways and pedestrian-dominated streets that make moving about the island fun and easy. Although a rather small slice of central Vancouver, it caters to many moods. The public market and adjoining docks where boats load are the “town square,” and a stretch of restaurants and bars provide boisterous nightlife, but you can also find a quiet bench to look out on the water or relax in the park that links Granville with the mainland.

Railspur Alley is part of the network of streets and walkways that ties the Island's destinations together.

By shaping this new district around local institutions and public spaces (including a remarkable community center that is home to numerous rowing clubs, public meetings, and yoga classes) instead of just shopping and nightlife, the Island has achieved, as one visitor to our Great Public Spaces website phrased it, “a sense of authenticity – the opposite of a Disneyland feeling.” Yes, there is an alternative to excessively commercialized redevelopment, and Granville Island offers perfect proof. PPS is thrilled to proclaim it as the first of our Great Neighborhoods and Districts.