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Did the Olympics Make Vancouver a Better City?

Urban thinkers Lance Berelowitz and Matt Hern debate the 2010 legacy, and what must come next.

By Lance Berelowitz and Matt Hern 11 Feb 2011 |

Lance Berelowitz is an urban planner, critic and author of Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination. Matt Hern is a rabble-rouser and author of Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future.

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Is my city your city? Hern and Berelowitz at Café Zucchero in Kitsilano. Photo: Justin Langille.

[Editor's note: This is the first round of a three-part conversation between Lance Berelowitz and Matt Hern about the future of Vancouver after the 2010 Olympics. Berelowitz is an urban planner, critic and author of Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination. Hern is a rabble-rouser and author of Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. While they live on opposite sides of town, they share a deep affection for their city and regularly meet half way to compare notes and drink.]

Dear Matt,

Now that the 2010 Olympic Games' first anniversary is approaching, I've been thinking about what has changed and what we might expect for Vancouver's future. What is striking for me is just how young this city still is, how similar it is to an adolescent at times: gangly, self-conscious, insecure about its identity, obsessed with its looks. And competitive. Vancouver seems perpetually to be seeking its true destiny, as if cities exist to perform some preordained role. Look at how our mayor is trying to brand Vancouver as the "Greenest City" in the world by 2020. Why do we need to be the greenest? By what yardstick will this be measured? Is it a competition? And if we win, does this mean everyone else loses?

While you and I come at these things from very different starting points, I suspect we both want many of the same things for our city: to be a place that nurtures creativity, embraces change, and provides an urban environment that is vital, enterprising but also supportive of a diversity of people and socio-economic conditions. Oh, and does all this with the least harm to our environment.

If the current aim -- assuming we buy the mayor's pitch -- is to become a more sustainable hub of innovation and creativity, and thereby somehow more attractive to global financial and human capital, which apparently we are competing with other cities for, then it seems to me that a key way to do this is to simply relax: stop over-planning and over-regulating how we live and what we can do. Especially in the public realm of the city. Ever noticed how many rules we have for what we can't do, as if we are not adults capable of making reasonable decisions for ourselves? I think this is what differentiates Vancouver from many of our 'competitor' cities: they are far more open and permissive and less uptight about the small stuff, and consequently feel more liberated and amenable as places to live and work and create. So guess where all that mobile human and financial capital goes?

Your most recent book, Common Ground In a Liquid City, seems based on the premise that in order to really understand the city you live in, you need to leave and view it from afar. There is great truth in this, in my experience. I was recently back in Cape Town (my birth town) and was struck by the differences in attitude to rules and regulations compared to Vancouver. Over there, with serious challenges ever-present (think HIV/AIDS, violent crime, massive unemployment, huge economic disparities, etc.), no one really cares if you ride your bicycle without a helmet on, or jaywalk, or smoke within six metres of an entranceway, or raise chickens in your backyard. The flip side is that the city is a hive of interesting, sometimes radical creativity. It feels like people are living large, and intensely. Not a sense you'd naturally associate with Vancouver, I think you'd agree.

Maybe the key lesson we took from our 2010 Olympics experience is that fewer rules and bylaws make for a more creative, engaging city. And that this in turn will attract and retain the kinds of capital -- human and financial -- that we need to become more sustainable.

I can hear your counter-arguments already: who needs global capital? Why should Vancouver compete? Who wins and who loses out in this game? Well, I am no ideologue, and will just say that I believe we probably have no choice: Vancouver can no longer just be the entrepot for moving Canada's natural resources -- forest products, minerals, corn, fish, etc. -- that it was for its first century. The world, and the economy, has moved on, and much as one might wish to romanticize all those well-paid unionized jobs that were once the backbone of the city’s economy, they aren't coming back. At least not in numbers sufficient to support sustainable growth. We will have to be smarter and nimbler, and yes, more creative. It might also be more fun.

I look forward to your response.



Hey Lance,

Good to hear from you. There's a tonne to respond to in here, but I am going to focus on one thread that strikes me as key to when we're thinking about the future of the city: what this place could be, what it should be.

I note a certain tone of resignation in your letter: that the world is changing and we're helpless, we just have to follow along and hope for the best. I reject the idea that neo-liberalism is the best we can do. We can make a better city: one that isn't just a playground for developers, realtors, speculators and the global elite. We don't have to roll over and show our soft belly to global capital.

I really like the way you have talked about urban vitality over the years and think you are exactly right in that Vancouver needs to quit trying to choreograph public spaces. It's one of the first things people notice upon arrival: how regulated our public sphere is. Something as simple as allowing food carts is a great move in the right direction. Good, cheap street food is essential to nurturing the street life of the city and we need hundreds of carts like even Portland has. But even now our City friends can't seem to help themselves in trying to marionette what that 'street' culture will look like. Our current experience with street food further emphasizes even more starkly how badly our city's obsessively compulsive regulatory twitch needs to be chilled out.

But vitality can't be just another piece in our branding effort -- otherwise it just fades into the same theme-park banality you can find in Dubai or Waikiki. The Olympics showed us that a corporate feeding frenzy securitized by a billion-dollar cop budget (and a billion restrictions and security zones) has nothing to do with vitality, just spectacle. That project was highly successfully in moving massive amounts of public capital into private hands (and only very certain kinds of corporate hands -- even the small businesses along Robson and in Gastown got hammered) in a steroidal simulacrum of vitality.

That's not the kind of vitality I am interested in at all -- and I don't think that's what you’re talking about either. We know what an alive city feels like and it is always one built by millions of actors, all kinds of people participating in public life, people participating in common places, running into strangers, encountering people who don't look, act, talk, or think like you do.

And we're not going to get that by prostituting ourselves to global capital. KPMG recently rated Vancouver as the most business-friendly city in the world! We have a lower corporate tax rate than anywhere in North America, so clearly that's not going to get us a vibrant city -- but that's already pretty obvious. We're never going to get the "interesting, sometimes radical creativity" where people are "living large, and intensely" that you talk about in a tepid, bland, regulated city full of ubiquitous transnational outlets.

I'll submit to you that Tofino is on exactly the right track when they passed their no-franchises bylaw, mimicking one that's in place in Port Townsend, Washington. That's a great example of a municipality asserting itself -- understanding what makes a place uniquely alive and refusing to be run over. I would also add one quick thing here: that any conversation about vitality has to include getting people out of their cars. We've talked about this often -- there is no way to have a great neighbourhood with four lanes of traffic pouring through it. Maybe the very best thing a city can do to nurture its vitality is to push people out of their cars and pull them onto the street with bike lanes, walkable streets, dense neighbourhoods and stuff to do in the commons.

What do say you to that?

Peace. Matt


Dear Matt,

It is not resignation that you detect, but rather an acknowledgment, even embrace, of the creative possibilities of post-industrial urbanism. Of course we can make our city better. Bike lanes, walkable streets, dense neighbourhoods and a healthy public commons? No argument there. And yes Vancouver needs to be much more than a playground for global elites. But we cannot turn back the clock to some idealized preconception of what this city was once like. In fact I submit that Vancouver is far more interesting today than it was say 30 or 40 years ago; more ethnically diverse, more economically diversified, and just plain more vital and culturally stimulating. But we have a ways to go, no doubt, and yes we need to find space for all kinds of people including the less privileged and the marginalised.

The sense of living large that I remarked on in Cape Town comes with a heavy price. You surely can't be suggesting that we welcome the social, economic and criminal dysfunction that underpins that sense? What I am saying I guess is that Vancouver could have its cake and eat it. If we relax the rules by which we govern ourselves and trust folks to make decisions for themselves more, rather than the overweening nanny state mentality that Vancouver seems to have developed. And I don't think it really matters who we vote for locally by the way; it is a collective will that is required.



Good afternoon Lance.

I'll be brief (!).

Mostly I think you're right here. We should mistrust, or even disdain, idealized renditions of the city's past. Nostalgia is just lazy and a pain in the ass. Vancouver is most definitely more interesting and alive than it was when I arrived 20 years ago. My neighbourhood on the Drive, for example, is way more fun than it has ever been. There is actual nightlife, music most every evening from multiple cafes, people on the street, dancing is even allowed occasionally. But it's also severely less affordable, and we need to turn back that tide pronto, because with gentrification we also inevitably get a vastly more boring city.

And towards that, honestly yes, I am hoping for a little dysfunction. Vancouver badly needs some grit, some underground economy, some funk, and with that, for sure, a little danger. If people want hyper-securitized theme park, then let me suggest Orlando. If they want to live on a golf course, Palm Springs isn't far away. If they want a totally predictable, perfectly safe community where nothing happens, may I recommend a gated retirement compound?

A good city has to be about constantly running into people who don't look, think, act or believe like you do. A great city is full of serendipity and unexpectedness; constantly surprising, challenging and sometimes scaring you. We have to embrace a radical pluralism and that means being uncomfortable, a little fearful at times, and embracing difference, not trying to scrub the city clean of it.

Peace. M.

On Monday: Are bike lanes a big deal? Do we need more parks? Is downtown a disaster or a dream?  [Tyee]

Read more: 2010 Olympics

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