UBC and the Downtown Eastside: worlds apart

Based on a superficial knowledge of the University of British Columbia and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, you would think these two environments are worlds apart. UBC is known for its beautiful setting, close to the ocean,  nestled in the forest, a place focused on the life of the mind. The Downtown Eastside is known for its grittiness. It is emblematic of urban decay: homelessness, open drug use, and an open sex trade are its brand.

The University of British Columbia 

No matter which route you take to get to the UBC campus, you pass through the west side of Vancouver— the city’s most expensive residential real estate. Large, well-kept houses are framed by carefully-tended, artfully-landscaped yards. The sidewalks are usually empty of pedestrians. The scene is one of order and prosperity; the most obvious form of life is the shrubbery. Before reaching the campus proper, you travel through an extensive green belt: University Boulevard passes through a lush golf course; the other access routes pass by thick forest.

But then the green gives way to residential areas again, including a relatively new neighbourhood at the south end of campus where hundreds of condos and townhouses have been built on university-owned land. As you continue on, the institutional buildings of the university appear.

If you are on public transit, you get dropped at the bus loop where several different bus routes converge. You find yourself surrounded by young people carrying backpacks, walking quickly, seemingly knowing where they are going. But it is not the same destination. The lines of people coming off the buses criss-cross and head off in every direction. If you were to follow pretty much anyone, you would come across a new building being constructed. The sounds of heavy equipment and power tools form a backdrop to the snippets of conversation you might hear from those around you.

UBC construction

If you follow the majority of students, you will find yourself in the centre of the campus, where two impressive libraries face each other across a fractured series of courtyards that are strangely devoid of people. Unless you happen to arrive during the ten minute transition period between classes when the campus is suddenly alive with swarms of students moving from one building to another, you will find most people inside.

IKBThe Ike Barber Learning Centre is, for many students, the heart of the campus. It is a renovation and expansion of UBC’s original Main Library. The original four-storey stone structure is now flanked by glass-fronted extensions that house classrooms, offices, a theatre, meeting rooms, lounge areas, and a cafe in addition to the study spaces and book stacks you would expect in a library. There are banks of computers for students to use as well as comfortable chairs and sofas where students sit and chat or work on their own laptops or catch up on their sleep.

IKB inside staircaseAt most times of the day, it is almost impossible to find a place to sit in any of the lounge areas or the cafe. At lunch time, it is impossible to even find a chunk of floor to sit on and a section of wall to lean against. Everywhere you look, you see students eating their lunches, chatting in small groups, referring to their laptops as they work on assignments together, or sitting on their own talking on their cell phones. Everyone is busy doing something. The vast majority of people are under 30. The gender mix is about even. The racial diversity is striking. The overall impression is that everyone in the environment is young, healthy, and has a sense of purpose.