A (backhanded) ode to Vancouver

As I prepared to write my final installment of this column, I skimmed through my email inbox hoping to find something stimulating. I came across my daily update from the Spacing Ottawa blog, a faction of a magazine devoted to covering urban culture and development in major Canadian cities. I was surprised that the post of the day, entitled “Learning from Others,” was written by one of the writers who was visiting Vancouver.

Vicky Smallman, who lives in Ottawa, expressed her appreciation of Vancouver’s public spaces, noting that “it's easy to be envious of the big things – great parks, great transit, and so on. But what gets me going are the little things. Like public washrooms in playgrounds... open ones! In March! Or fenced dog runs tucked into unexpected spaces. Or street signs that clearly indicate cycling routes. Or orderly lineups at bus stops.”

In this column, I have been critical of Vancouver. Deservedly so, as Vancouver certainly has its share of faults, not limited to homelessness or fledgling support for its arts community, but also in terms of public space. However, it also does a damn large number of things right, and as a native Vancouverite, it’s incredibly easy to take those things for granted.

Many cities more powerful than Vancouver have struggled with their planning, and become almost notorious for it. The esteemed capital city of Washington, DC, which was known as the “murder capital” in the early 1990s, has seen crime rates decrease, but they remain shockingly high today. Australia’s capital city, Canberra, while maintaining relatively low levels of crime, is mostly ignored by tourists, and overshadowed by the coastal cities of Sydney and Melbourne.

Seeing your own city with fresh eyes is difficult until you actually leave it. Empirically, it made sense to me that Vancouver would not be included on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the top 50 “Global Cities,” which based its rankings on business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience, and political engagement. However, I had no real perspective for it until I visited Jakarta last summer, and experienced that bizarrely intangible quality that a truly powerful global city has.

Its success within Canada is remarkable, but Vancouver is still miles away from New York, or even Toronto, in terms of the business activity and political engagement that give a city global power. That said, it may not matter that Vancouver lacks political might on a global scale, since it still ranks as the world’s most livable city, a ranking that may be more important to residents.

Vancouver is often held up as a beacon of planning excellence.

Its “living first” strategy of integrating residential, business, commercial, and public space seamlessly in the downtown core is unique in its success.

It has also been mimicked in various locations. The famously opulent (and now famously indebted) Emirate of Dubai modeled a portion of its marina waterfront after False Creek, though in a decidedly more elaborate way.

For all its good and bad, Vancouver still has a million things to improve upon. I criticize this city because I do love living here. Whether I would prefer another city is irrelevant at the moment, and I only hope that perhaps one day Vancouver will be known for a vibrant arts scene and street life, rather than for zoning models.

//Natalie Corbo

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