The Great Beyond

When I arrived in Vancouver, on August 31, 2001, people had already been talking Olympics for three years. One of the first bumper stickers I noticed as I crawled along the Trans-Canada toward my new shoebox apartment in Yaletown read, “I’m Backing the Bid.” By July 2, 2003, when Vancouver was officially named host of the Games, “2010” had become accepted shorthand for this city’s “world-class” potential, and the unofficial deadline by which our city would be transformed forever.

To me, the use of the Olympics as the benchmark for our bright, shiny future-a city based on how we want the world to see us, rather than how we see ourselves-seems misguided. As intense as the love affair with the world may prove to be, it won’t last. By March of 2010, the international media will have packed up and shifted their affections elsewhere: to the World’s Fair in Shanghai; then to South Africa, host of the 2010 Fifa World Cup; then to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and beyond. And all we’ll have to show for this “transformative” event-beyond a global brand and some “world-class” prices-will be an expensive train to YVR, some expansive blacktop to Whistler, and boxes and boxes of leftover tuques and T-shirts.

The question is whether we seek to become a tourist city, built primarily for others, or a sustainable community built primarily for ourselves. “The Tourist City,” according to Yale University’s Susan Fainstein and Dennis Judd, completely alters the equation of city-building: trading true public works and community-oriented projects for quasi-private “infrastructure development-hotel building, improved transportation, the renovation of historic façades, convention centres, sports venues and other entertainment centres.” Things that make Vancouver, in short, a more pleasant place to visit. The tourist city and the sustainable community are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the latter emphasizes the preservation of resources-environmental, social and cultural-that make living here worthwhile for the broadest spectrum of citizens.

Figuring out how to build a tourist city is easier than figuring out how to build a sustainable one. You can draw up plans for a tourist city: zone land, enact legislation, and build hotels, roads and stadiums as the market demands. Vancouver excels at planning; our previous chief planner, Larry Beasley, is now an international superstar, consulting to governments in San Francisco, Toronto and Dubai. Indeed, the city’s current director of planning, Brent Toderian, in a roundtable discussion on land use at UBC Robson Square in late June, admitted that “Vancouver is probably the most planned city in North America-and perhaps has the most planners per capita, too.”

For Lance Berelowitz, himself an urban planner, author of Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination, and editor-in-chief of Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Winter Games Bid Book, the preponderance of planning and planners in Vancouver is “quite troubling.” “For me,” he said in an interview with The Tyee in 2005, “the great cities I’ve lived and worked in are the cities that are quite messy, quite organic.” He laments the lack of rough edges in Yaletown and Coal Harbour, with their orderly ratio of condos to retail to parks. “We seem to be moving towards this kind of cut-out city that’s like a backdrop for a natural setting that we love and admire so much. What I want so see more of-and I think will come over time-is the patina of age and human interaction.”

But what makes such human interaction sporadic and unpredictable is that, in a tourist city, very often when the lights go out, nobody’s home. In Coal Harbour, Toderian estimates, 25 percent of the units are “investment properties”-second, third or fourth homes, mostly owned by foreign buyers (many of them Asian, European and Middle Eastern) seeking a safe haven, or North Americans (lately, many from Alberta) wanting a foothold in this “most livable” urban centre. In a tourist-oriented city, protecting views, cleaning up streets and saving parks is paramount.

Think of the outpouring of affection for Stanley Park after the storm last December that felled tens of thousands of trees. As John Vaillant observed in this magazine in May, “It seems strange to say aloud, but for many Vancouverites there is a sense of death and loss that is not so different from learning that a friend or family member has been killed.” Think about any equivalent outpouring for the people sleeping on our streets, for the women of the Downtown Eastside, for the longtime Vancouver families no longer able to pay Vancouver prices. Think hard.

So how do we shift the paradigm? How do we start talking about the city’s heart and soul, rather than just its Botoxed face and augmented chest? How do we plan for the type of city we want 40 years hence? One of the biggest obstacles is political: planners are king here because our politicians allow them to be. Our at-large municipal system-unlike the ward system, with defined constituencies, which you find in most major cities-gives a free pass to city councillors. We select our council from a list of 100-plus candidates every three years, and they thank us by answering to “the city at large”-not to the widower in Strathcona trying to save the local seniors’ centre from destruction, not to the South Main sculptor trying to find a spot for his public art, not to the young couple in Yaletown trying to get a playground built near their condo. Such quotidian concerns become the domain of bureaucrats and enforcers, while politicians turn their attention to the “big picture” stuff like EcoDensity, Civil City and the Olympics.

That said, having the most planned city in North America isn’t necessarily bad. We’ve so far largely bucked the Canadian (and North American) trend of exporting residents to the suburbs. We’ve shortened our commutes and lessened our ecological footprint with denser communities. According to UCLA prof Matthew Kahn, who also spoke at June’s UBC roundtable, “Superstar Cities” such as Vancouver, New York and San Francisco may indeed be turning into resorts for the upper-middle class, but that could prove to be a good thing. “It’s a free lunch,” he told a local reporter, “with these people moving in, paying taxes, and demanding no services at all.”

Except that, with each passing month, that lunch becomes less “ours” and more “theirs” to eat. We become squatters on land deeded to a roving international elite-unable to afford the rent, unable to find the jobs that pay the rent, unable to influence the choices shaping our destiny. More than 40 years ago, Jane Jacobs said that the “point of cities is multiplicity of choice.” If Vancouver is to survive as a sustainable community, we have to start carving some space for ourselves in this Superstar City so that, 40 years on-after the Games have long gone-we still have that choice to call it home.