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Opinion

Did Olympics Shift People's Imagination for Vancouver?

Or was it just hype? What next, mega-city or village life? Our urbanists wrap up their tussle.

By Lance Berelowitz and Matt Hern 15 Feb 2011 | TheTyee.ca

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.

[Editor's note: This is last in a three-part conversation between Lance Berelowitz and Matt Hern about the future of Vancouver. 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,

Looking back on our previous correspondence, I am struck by how both our and other commentators' recent discussions keep coming back to why Vancouver somehow does not live up to the hype and public myths that we tell ourselves about this place. Too many pretty pictures of water and mountains get in the way of honest self-examination, it seems. I think there is something deeply conservative in Vancouver's collective sensibility: people here seem afraid to risk, take chances, be out in front. Whether that be in the cultural, political or social spheres. Vancouverites are very averse to avant-garde, cutting edge creativity or out-there individuality, and there is a strong streak of collective law and order restraint. Is this a Canadian thing? Maybe. I don't know.

I do know, however, that the really smart cities, the ones that are going to succeed in the rapidly approaching era of global climate change, peak oil and intense urbanization, are those that permit and even encourage creativity, diversity and unpredictability, versus those cities that over-plan, micro-manage and over-regulate their citizens.

Whatever surprises the near future brings -- and we can only guess at what these may be -- our chances of surviving and thriving depend on being nimble, flexible and adaptable. We need to build redundancy and resiliency into our cities, and Vancouver has not done a good job in this. Yet. We should be more vigorously protecting our productive farmland and enabling more people to grow food in urban contexts. We should be investing much more deeply and quickly in an extensive urban transit system that operates at multiple levels (local, citywide, regional, continental, etc.). For example, it amazes me that we still have no high-speed railway network in the Pacific Northwest, while Europe and Asia are decades ahead. We should be far more supportive of a much wider range of housing types and tenures in Vancouver, at much higher densities, which if done right, will make real inroads in both affordability and availability. Which in turn contributes to creating a more complete, diverse and vibrant society. We should be investing heavily in the arts and cultural sectors, as the world's smartest cities already do: they know the returns are handsome, in many cases far better than investing in other sectors of the economy.

We should be reorganizing our metropolitan region more efficiently: it makes no sense to have 21 mostly small, balkanized municipalities all offering similar services, or multiple police departments, etc. We should have a more responsive taxation system, both locally and provincially, to attract and retain start-up ventures, green businesses and research and development. We need more revenue tools at the municipal level, and a more functional local governance model than we have. Our universities should be embedded in the heart of our city, contributing more directly to the intellectual, scientific and creative culture of this place, rather than our major institutions of higher learning (UBC, SFU, BCIT) being in remote outlying locations as they are today. Imagine Paris without the Sorbonne, London without the LSE, or New York without Columbia, etc.

I could go on. Why is it that Montreal, a city with much more severe weather than us, manages to host the most exciting outdoor festivals all over the city year-round, co-opting that city's public realm in a way that Vancouver never does? Just ask the organizers of Vancouver's festivals about the hoops they need to jump through in order to close off a street, or sell alcohol in public. Or talk to restaurateurs who are trying to open up a new place about how long this takes here, or the archaic restrictions on what they can serve and where.

A society establishes rules and regulations as a way of managing risk and protecting the greater good. But what if the regulatory environment becomes overweening, threatening to snuff out the very things that attract people to a particular place and stimulate them to creativity? That, to me, seems a question that Vancouver really ought to be asking itself.

Best,

Lance

Good afternoon, Lance,

Thanks for this. I think it gets us closer to the heart of our discussion: with a year's worth of post-Olympic reflective distance, what could/should the future of this city look like?

Strikes me that we're in agreement in many ways about what a great city feels like, but not so much on how to get there. I agree that this constant self-reflection and navel-gazing critique of Vancouver from within is a bit weird. A few Mercer polls prop us and we presume the future of this wet little place on the edge of the continent is somehow of deep concern to folks the world over. Frankly the vast majority of the globe pays about as much attention and cares as much about our travails as they do about say, Stockholm or Perth or Oslo: not much. Hosting a Winter Olympics does very little to build a 'great' city or even raise our profile in any lasting way (despite what tourism hacks want to sell us) as Turin, Salt Lake City, Nagano, Lillehammer and Albertville (the last two decades worth, in reverse order) demonstrate.

Urbanists are thinking about Vancouver somewhat in terms of design, densification and urban growth, and that's understandable, in part because there is so much possibility here: just so much money drifting around, we have been largely able to support an ongoing influx of immigrants, and because it is such a young city.

That said, I think we should be really critical of the supposed ahistoricity of the city. As my pal Charlie Demers points out (in his terrific book Vancouver Special -- if you haven't read it I highly recommend it) the desire to paint Vancouver as a tabula rasa ready to be 'invented' suits a very particular ideological stance, one which sees every empty lot as a profit opportunity and conveniently writes out working class, immigrant and native histories as irrelevant and highly inconvenient. As you know, for just one example, as late as the 1880's there were three villages within Stanley Park, all of which had to be forcibly relocated to make way for the park and the construction of its 'unspoiled nature.'

In the rush to imagineer 'the Best Place on Earth,' and giddy with the seemingly endless profit-generating capacity of the city, we have come to believe that master-planning, close regulation and civic sculpting can choreograph any kind of city we want. But it's simply not true. I've lived in East Van for 20 years now, and for plenty of good reasons. There's lots that's lovely about the city and plenty to be genuinely proud of, but I think there are threads and tendencies at play that are actively undermining so much good work, and most of those are a product of arrogance.

There are also some really encouraging and exciting threads emerging here too, and most of those are products of humility and inefficient participatory culture. When you say that "We should be reorganizing our metropolitan region more efficiently: it makes no sense to have 21 mostly small, balkanized municipalities," I can hardly disagree more. If we want a participatory, vibrant, funky cultural and social milieu it's not going emerge from 'efficient' political decision-making: it will require a similarly vibrant political milieu that encourages a deliberately messy, participatory, inefficient access to decision-making.

I think we need a whole lot more of what you are calling non-sensical. We need to look to innovative places like Porto Alegre and Curitiba in Brazil and embrace a real participatory budgeting process that goes far beyond a tepid consultative process. We need to move past the tepid 'community visions' process and give neighbourhoods actual power. It's terrific that Vancouver has 23 distinct neighbourhoods, and I would love to see each with a little City Hall, each with a functional, funded and empowered community council. We need to aggressively seek ways to have everyday people participate in the decisions that directly affect them, to flatten the power that governs the city, within institutions and between them.

What I am describing is a democratic mess: slow, inefficient, often infuriating, but a whole lot better than the smooth hum of neo-liberalism, and surely a whole lot more fun.

Peace. Matt

Hi Matt,

Charlie Demers' book Vancouver Special occupies a special place on my bookshelf, along with your latest.

We can agree that hosting a Winter Olympics does very little to build a great city or even raise our profile in any lasting way. No, what I found interesting about the Olympics experience was how it opened the eyes of many Vancouverites to other ways of organizing ourselves and our city's public realm. Granted it was highly controlled and over-monitored. But I also saw a glimmer of what it would be like to live in a city that loosened the reins on public life and allowed us to actually use the public realm in vibrant, intense, even chaotic ways. I believe you did much the same yourself, if I am not mistaken (with protest marches, demonstrations, etc.). I do believe in the paramount importance of democratic societies having public space for all forms of expression, even when some of those challenge the very power structures that regulate them. Healthy democracies need a public commons.

Maybe I have not been very clear. It would not be the first time. Or perhaps it is just the apparent incongruity of a professional "planner" advocating less formal planning that confuses you: I too want to see a more 'messy' democratic tradition emerge here, as we (hopefully) mature and depend less on regulations and proscriptions and more on our instincts for vital urban life. As you said at the outset: the mark of a truly healthy city is when all kinds of people participate in public life, in common places, where I can run into strangers and encounter people who don't look, act, talk or think like I do. People like you, for example. In my ideal Vancouver not only is there place for diversity of opinion, but it is nurtured, even celebrated. My Vancouver would be impoverished without conversations like this one, for which I am genuinely grateful.

You and I may come from different places ideologically, but that is okay, and perhaps the gap is not as wide as I imagine. What I hope happens with publication of this correspondence is that others read our words and feel a little more engaged in thinking critically about where our city is heading (for better or worse!), and are inspired to contribute to a thoughtful public discourse in which a multiplicity of viewpoints can be heard. Thank you for your thoughtful responses, and I look forward to continuing this dialogue by other means, that is to say, over a beer at one of our respective neighbourhood's local bars.

Cheers,

Lance

Morning, Lance,

That's a great line: 'where a diversity of opinion is nurtured, even celebrated'. That's very nicely put, but no small trick, in part because a city that celebrates difference also has to work very hard to make sure the material conditions are in place to allow those differences to carve out spaces for themselves: small theatre companies need to be able to afford rehearsal spaces, cheap bars need to open, people need common gathering spaces that are not by-lawed into torpor, public events, festivals and protests need nurturing, etc.

And of course most urgently here, there has to be enough affordable rental stock for low-income folks, activists, artists, working class families and everybody else who can't or doesn't want to own. Currently our entire city is being gentrified and even the dubious goal of home ownership is a chimera for most folks -- as you may have seen this week in a new report that confirmed Vancouver's unaffordability: in fact, in terms of housing costs it is the third least affordable city in the world, with the median house price 9.5 times the median annual salary.

When the gap between rich and poor becomes too great the 'commonwealth' becomes mythological, the fabric of civility and neighbourliness frays and has to be enforced by the police power of the state -- see Project Civil Society or the Clean Streets Act, for some recent examples. So while there are some clear benefits to the recent Vancouverist development of the downtown core as you point out, the new downtown has severely exacerbated a dialectic of unaffordability, which will put a crimp on fun, vitality and creativity something fierce. It's tough for people to participate in the public sphere if they're hustling their asses off all day to pay the rent/make the mortgage.

Contemporary cities are overwhelmingly built by and for greed, and this city is a prime example of how we have been able to take something fundamentally important -- our homes -- and transform them into profit-generating vehicles where people's primary concern is their precious equity. We need to aggressively seek out all kinds of non-market solutions, not just social housing per se (although we certainly need a vigorous social housing program) but look to Community Land Trusts, shared and limited equity schemes and the co-op movement, for just a few examples.

I know we can do a lot better than this. I'm sure we can create an ecological, vibrant, unpredictable city that doesn't price its best folks out. I'm sure of it.

But that's a much longer conversation for another day and another drink or two. I'll look forward to it.

Thanks for this. Peace. M.

Please join and carry on the conversation in the comments thread below. What lessons do you think Vancouver should take away from the Olympics, and where should the city aim to evolve?  [Tyee]

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