Vancouver’s former top city planner for the Downtown Eastside is being remembered for his contributions to inclusive city-building following his death on Sunday.
Nathan Edelson died in Vancouver at age 76 after a short illness.
A city planner for 25 years, Edelson was also the founding director of the community organization Little Mountain Neighbourhood House, and a longtime advocate for co-operative housing, Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents, and heritage protection for Vancouver’s historic Chinatown.
Mourning his friend, B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman — who represents the Vancouver–Fairview riding where Edelson lived — remembered Edelson’s “sense of humour, his gentleness and his vision.”
“So much of what makes Vancouver and Vancouver communities wonderful places to live — most people will never know the way that Nathan touched their lives by helping to shape that,” Heyman told CBC News on Monday.
Heyman said he befriended Edelson and his late wife Norma-Jean McLaren just over a decade ago, after he met them while door-knocking in his riding.
What shone through about Edelson’s approach to planning was his view that cities must not only address residents’ immediate needs but also carefully plan for the future, “not just to put a Band-Aid on the problem, but a vision of better neighbourhoods,” Heyman said.
WATCH | Former Vancouver senior planner Nathan Edelson gives a speech in 2014:
‘He led so many efforts that mattered’
One of Edelson’s closest friends and colleagues since the late 1970s was Vancouver’s former chief city planner Larry Beasley, author of Vancouverism, which details the city’s transformation between Expo 86 and the 2010 Olympic Games.
Beasley said Edelson represented a new era when visionary urban planners began to take inspiration from grassroots activists and community leaders.
That ethos shone through, he said, in Edelson’s time as founding director of Little Mountain Neighbourhood House — which was established in 1978 — and later in his close engagement with the DTES community.
“Nathan was one of the urban heroes of that generation of city planners and community activists,” Beasley told CBC News. “He led so many efforts that mattered — not only the DTES work, but also the legalization of secondary suites and so much more.
“He was a true hero of the Vancouverism generation.”
Some of the initiatives Edelson oversaw in the DTES and Chinatown included the renewal of Victory Square and the creation of Chinatown Memorial Plaza; job training programs; converting hundreds of private single-resident occupancy rooms into public housing; meetings between low-income residents, grassroots organizations, retailers and workers in neighbouring Gastown; and implementing “revitalization without displacement” as a city goal during his tenure, Beasley recalled.
Edelson approached his planning for the DTES with a basic respect for its residents, family friend Alasdair Butcher said — an approach that led Butcher to follow in his mentor’s footsteps into affordable housing planning.
“As a senior planner, you could just look at that and put your pencil through the map and say, ‘Well let’s just start over,'” Butcher said.
“But he understood it from the street perspective, the community level, how important those spaces were — particularly in neighbourhoods like that, what people have been through, and how they end up there.”
Neighbourhood centres ‘key to successful communities’
Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Edelson came to Canada around 1972, according to family members, after studying geography at Penn State University, and regional science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Edelson’s younger sister Lynn recalls their upbringing in New York City. She said he was a great though messy cook, and loved making large meals — whether for guests or during his years living in communal housing.
“My brother was a scholar and a gent,” she said. “I always said my neck hurts from looking up to him so much. He was like the perfect older brother.”
Edelson went on to teach at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, starting in 2003, sometimes teaching classes together with Beasley.
In a 2019 lecture at Simon Fraser University, Edelson said ending homelessness for good should be every city’s priority — especially a city as wealthy as Vancouver — followed by affordable and accessible housing for its workforce.
“Neighbourhood centres are the key to successful communities,” he told the audience four years ago. “We’re trying to do community development planning, not just building buildings.
“We need to put a focus on … reflecting a diversity of incomes and a diversity of needs.”
WATCH | Edelson speaks at Simon Fraser University in 2019:
As his sister put it, that was consistent with how he lived and worked.
“He absolutely believed that everyone was entitled to a shot at things,” she said, “and the injustice of some people having more of a shot.”
Edelson cared for his wife Norma-Jean McLaren, who had dementia for seven years before her death last year.
He approached that role with the compassion, integrity and persistence he showed in his professional life, Beasley said.
“He had such tenacity,” he said. “In the last few years, he took care of his wife and was totally dedicated to her in a way I’ve never seen in another person.
“But that was just indicative of Nathan. Whenever he saw something that needed doing, Nathan was the person to do it — and he would stay with it.”
His stepson, Mariner Janes, told CBC News that Edelson “was driven by a desire to make life better for every person,” serving as a “wise and patient mentor” to many community leaders and peers.
“His deep compassion for all people living in a community guided his inclusive, progressive work in city planning and beyond,” Janes said. “[He] will be remembered as a true community leader.”