ANY DECENT STUDENT OF history knows that all across North America, cities and towns sit atop land effectively plundered from its original inhabitants. Many of our continent’s best-loved cities, perched on its prolific rivers and sheltered harbors, were once thriving tribal towns and settlements until they were wrested away by coercion and force.

As we continue to reckon with our country’s own complicated history, a landmark real estate deal in Canada may paint a picture of possible progress, as one First Nations tribe embarks on a project of massive scope in one of the world’s most expensive cities. It’s a story that illuminates a number of forces that shape urban life in 2020, as the project is informed by both the weight of colonial history and the pressures of a rapidly globalizing present.

After many years of negotiations, the Squamish Tribe of British Columbia has recently approved a plan to establish Sen̓ áḵw, an 11-tower, 6000-unit residential project in Kitsilano, one of Vancouver’s trendiest downtown neighborhoods. Slated to break ground next year, the unprecedented development will also be exempt from provincial rent controls, building codes, height restrictions, and certain taxes, creating a uniquely blank slate for rethinking a prized swath of the city. Administered entirely by the Squamish Nation, the project promises to both dramatically transform Vancouver’s skyline and improve the fortunes of a long-oppressed group —ultimately bringing in billions of dollars of revenue for the tribe over the next century. It’s a decidedly modern turn of events in a long-simmering conflict between Canada’s governments and its original inhabitants.

Located at the foot of the Burrard Bridge, the undeveloped parcel of land that will comprise the Sen̓ áḵw project has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between the native Squamish tribe and British Columbia’s provincial government. Originally a Squa-mish fishing village, the land was officially designated a tribal reservation in 1868 and expanded in 1877. However, in 1913 the province reneged on its deal to clear the way for industry and infrastructure in a rapidly expanding city. British Columbia annexed the Squamish territory and displaced the Squamish residents, shipping them away on a barge. In 1977, the Squamish embarked on a decades-long court action to reclaim ownership over the lands, culminating in a 2001 settlement that awarded the tribe nearly twelve acres of Kitsilano, a sliver of undeveloped land that then stood in the center of one of the world’s most in-demand cities.

Conceived in partnership with the developer Westbank, the ambitious project is designed for maximum density, sustainability, and to encourage the use of public transit by minimizing resident parking allocations. All told, Sen̓ áḵw will create 3.4 million square feet of housing, with the majority (between 70% and 90%) of the units designated as rentals. The 11 irregularly shaped towers—ranging in height but reaching up to 56 stories—will share dramatic angles, jutting balconies, and plenty of lush green life on their balconies and roofs. The proposed development of the Kitsilano area may prove influential, as it has already sparked speculation about a domino effect, inspiring further high-density development.

A flood of new housing could not be time-lier for Vancouver, a city that has been besieged by a housing crisis for more than a decade. A magnet for both Canadian migration and international interest (including a huge percentage of Chinese investment), the well-situated city simply hasn’t been able to keep up with demand. Last year’s announcement that Amazon would establish its HQ2 in the city certainly didn’t help matters much, ushering in a new class of well-paid workers into an already competitive market.

As communities around the world consider options for reconciling and restoring their relationships with their territories’ original inhabitants, Sen̓ áḵw is sure to drive a worthwhile conversation. While the windfall the modern Squamish will eventually see from the project doesn’t reconcile a century-old displacement, the project, with its responsible environmental stewardship and contribution to more equitable housing conditions, may well serve as a best-case scenario for a meaningful attempt at making things right. Not only does it allow hundreds of the Squamish Nation to return to the land their ancestors once knew. It also helps create homes for thousands of others in a city where housing is hard to find.

Originally published in:

THE NETWORK / MARCH-APRIL 2020 – Amazing Buildings