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Vancouver Versus Portland, Round Two

A Seattle-based livable cities wonk jumps into the middle of the debate.

Clark Williams-Derry 15 Sep

Christine McLaren reports for The Tyee and others about urban design and sustainability.

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Portland, Oregon: Wish you were here?

[Editor's note: Christine McLaren’s three-part series comparing Portland favourably to Vancouver drew a big audience on The Tyee and lots of attention elsewhere, including something of a rebuttal on the Daily Score blog of Sightline, an urban sustainability think tank in Seattle. Here's the article, along with McLaren's response.]

Which is the better place to live, Portland, Oregon, or Vancouver, British Columbia?

Well, Vancouver keeps getting high marks in international surveys of urban livability. Yet a few weeks back, the B.C.-based online magazine The Tyee ran a series of lively and well-written articles by Christine McLaren arguing Portland bests Vancouver on some key measures of quality of life.

Since I live in Seattle, I don't really have a dog in this fight. And in principle I love this sort of inter-city cage match since it focuses people's attentions on what other cities are doing right, and how we can improve livability in our own backyard.

Still, after diving into the numbers a bit (I admit it, I can't help myself) I feel like I just had to add my two cents to this debate -- and point out a few places where I feel like those articles are off base.

Now, to be fair, I think that McLaren gets many things basically right. Take bicycling: McLaren argues that Portland has a much more bike-friendly culture and infrastructure than does Vancouver. And I can find at least some numbers that seem to back that up. For example, Portland has slightly higher rates of bike commuting than does Vancouver: within the Rose City itself, about 3.9 per cent of commuters get to work on bike; the figure is just 3.1 per cent in Vancouver. (Note, however, that Alan Durning, who runs Sightline, has a different take on bike-friendliness in Cascadia.)

What about folks in jail?

But then there's homelessness. McLaren points to Portland's recent progress in tackling its own homeless problems as evidence that Vancouver's homeless policies and funding sources simply aren't up to snuff. Perhaps that's right. But focusing on a few of Portland's successes misses a huge and somewhat hidden blemish in the Rose City's homeless record: Portland puts vastly more people in jail than Vancouver.

The numbers on homelessness rates themselves are a bit dicey. Both cities do one-night counts of their homeless population (here's Portland's, and here's Vancouver's). But the counts are hard to compare directly, since they were done on different dates, used slightly different methods and definitions, use different geographic boundaries, and could have different error rates. Because of the methodological confusion, I'll call the numbers on homeless rates a draw -- while noting that the raw counts found that Multnomah County alone, with only 714,000 residents, had slightly more unsheltered homeless folks than all of Metro Vancouver, which is three times Multnomah's size.

But the difference in prison and jail populations between B.C. and Oregon are simply staggering, and subject to none of the data confusion that surrounds homeless counts. Oregon's state prison system houses almost 14,000 inmates, and Portland's jail population tops 1,300. In contrast, British Columbia has more total residents than Oregon, yet only about 2,700 total inmates in its jails and prisons. Apples to apples, Oregon imprisons more than five times as many people as B.C. And, of course, many of Oregon's prisoners are locked away for drug crimes -- which is at the root of many of Vancouver's most public homelessness struggles.

The bottom line: including Portland's large and growing prison population puts the city's "success" in homeless policy in a different light. Portland's homeless problem may seem less pressing, but that's largely because -- as is completely typical in the United States -- Portland locks a large portion of its homeless problem in jail, where it's harder to see.

Unemployment is good?

Then there's the argument that Portland's simply a better city if you're young, creative, and underemployed. Compared with "Blandcouver," McLaren argues, Portland is cheaper, more interesting, less obsessed with money, and has a better bar scene. And she suggests that Vancouver's faults have driven young people out of the city.

Perhaps she's on to something -- and having graduated from the "young, carefree" demographic myself (sigh), I'm perhaps not the best person to judge.

But this is one of the first times I've run across a paean to high unemployment: "The city is full of semi to un-employed twenty-somethings happy to work casual hours carting coffee beans in exchange for an easy lifestyle." By the official counts, she's right -- there really are a lot of Portland residents who can't find work. Nearly one out of every eight Portlanders who wants a job can't find one right now. In Vancouver, it's just one in 14.

While "funemployment" can be okay if you're young and carefree, if you're on the brink of homelessness, or have someone depending on you for financial support, there's nothing fun about it. And that's especially true if you get sick: every single resident of B.C. has health insurance, but one in six Oregonians has no protection against the financial risks of illness.

Of course, unemployment trends can turn on a dime -- and Vancouver's current employment rates may owe more to the Olympics than to anything else; the city could be facing some severe aftershocks once the games are concluded. Regardless, while I have no problem with celebrating Portland's mellow, laid-back vibe, I think there's a danger in being complacent about unemployment; for a lot of folks, it's not an opportunity to be enjoyed, but a pressing problem to be solved.

Where are young people going?

Then there's the contention that young people are hightailing it out of Vancouver -- a claim that, as far as I can tell, occupies some sort of weird middle ground between deception and nonsense. Says McLaren: "Since 1996 the population of young people in Metro Vancouver has actually decreased by 10.1 per cent." Yet data on the website of B.C.'s statistical agency shows that the only absolute population declines have been among kids ten years of age and under.

And that's entirely due to broader demographic trends that are prevalent throughout the province: starting in about 1995, British Columbia's fertility rates started to fall. The steepest declines were among teenage girls: birth rates in the 15-19 age bracket fell by more than half over the period. Today, an Oregon teenager is more than three times as likely to have a baby as a B.C. teen. So to a large extent, the decline in "young people" that the article bemoans is largely the result of the rapid progress B.C. has made in reducing teen births -- a trend that's hardly worth criticizing, in my view.

Besides, compared with the rest of the province, Vancouver's a veritable magnet for the under-30 set. Between 1996 and 2008, the under-30 population in greater Vancouver increased by 54,000; in the rest of the province, under-30s declined by 40,000. The only thing that I can think here is that McLaren and I are looking at different numbers, since I just don't see how it's possible to argue that young people are abandoning the province's largest metropolis.

Lighten up on Vancouver

I don't mean to be too harsh -- McLaren's articles are entertaining and well-written, and have stimulated a lot of worthwhile discussion. And there's no question that there are things that Vancouver could be doing better, and some things at which Portland excels.

But for any Vancouver doomsayers out there, I think a reality check is in order: by my count, the city's doing better than some of its critics would have you believe.

Christine McLaren responds:

Clark Williams-Derry took the time to present an insightful and well thought out rebuttal to a series I wrote a few weeks back comparing Portland to Vancouver.

He presented some great points in his critique. While I argued that Portland's system for dealing with funding towards homelessness is far more effective, he argued that Oregon also puts more than five times more people in jail than B.C. It's a statistic I'm more than happy to say is a dark spot on Portland's shiny livability slate.

But coupled with Williams-Derry's further assertion of Vancouver's superiority due to the fact that "every single resident of B.C. has health insurance, but one in six Oregonians has no protection against the financial risks of illness," I can't help but partially agree with the observation that one of the commenters at the bottom of the page points out: that all of the Portland problems that Williams-Derry points out "are actually USA problems."

Some commenters on the Daily Score blog also were quick to agree with me that it is in fact more difficult to be young in Vancouver. They say, however, it is not necessarily because it is cheaper and easier to live a casual, less-career oriented lifestyle. (Which Williams-Derry misconstrues as a "a paean to high unemployment" on my part.)

Instead, as commenter "Kelly" points out, "What Portland has over Vancouver is an enormous sense of civic pride and community engagement -- resulting in grassroots initiatives and creative problem-solving that enlivens the city and gives it heart."

Another commenter also accurately points out that in the Vancouver region many "young people have no choice but to move to the suburbs, because the city has become a place for the rich only," and that Surrey and surrounds are growing much faster than Vancouver.

And yes, as Williams-Derry suggests, he and I are looking at different numbers when it comes to Vancouver's dwindling population of people between the ages of 25 and 34 (a 10.1 per cent drop in since 1996). Anyone believing Williams-Derry that my quoted number "occupies some sort of weird middle ground between deception and nonsense" can look for themselves on the 2006 Census population released by Statistics Canada.

Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful for the lively debate, and I'd be the last person to argue that Vancouver has nothing going for it. There's a reason I live here.

But in the end, perhaps the last and most even-handed commenter of Williams-Derry's piece should have the final word:

"Everything that is great about Portland is not in Vancouver and everything that is great about Vancouver is not in Portland," "Larry" wrote, adding, "I propose we figure out how to combine the two cities to make what would clearly be the best city in the world."  [Tyee]

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