Is Vancouver a failed City?

Vancouver was most certainly a 20th century city.
But is it 21st century?

Do the the usual platitudes still our senses: views, paradise, Stanley Park? Yes, in many ways the city is unique: the setting is magnificent. However, I expect no accolades for this wake-up call. Local authorities are far too insecure, requiring constant affirmation. Besides there are other forces in play . . .

The demise of a familiar way of life . . .

. . . and most egregious of all . . .

Governments lie to us . . .

This is not a put-down of Vancouver, but rather an attempt by an erstwhile resident and professional practitioner of more than sixty years to see where the city is in the twenty-first century!

Is the city able to rise to its unique occasion or will it just meander, event driven, along with the usual platitudes: views, green, sustainable, this hero, that hero . . whatever!

Oil and our dependency make the official hopes for a sustainable, green city a distant dream.

What a breath-taking view: iridescent blue sky, billowing clouds playing peek-a-boo with the peaks. A huge cluster of jostling towers reeking of prosperity, verdant growth abounds.

For those who do not know the city this snap was taken from atop Little Mountain, an extinct volcano now a park. There were many tourists exclaiming about the majestic view. The Western Lion was shrouded in clouds but that only added to the spectacle.

Even the bland chunks of concrete and glass clinging together for security, as it appears, were something to behold; and oh my, oh my, there are even specks of colour in all that drab.

Nevertheless the view of the city sky-line exposes a profound delusion. The city is pursuing a policy to mediate climate change: the, now forgotten, Eco-density charter. That well-intended charter is jeopardising the neighbourhoods, imposing six-storey junk condos, but to thinq the downtown cluster of concrete and glass is sustainable is beyond balmy, it is down-right mendacious.

The last obsession of the day was a hi-tech shiny trinket to YVR: yunno Olympic bravadochio, now obsolete. Now the cognocenti is lunging for an uber-expensive under/over line to UBC. And the blogs are red hot with shills promoting their sponsors pecuniary business demands. And all UBC wants is a simple LRT to get its students to class on time!

So, how could anyone be so churlish to talk Vancouver failed city when all around us is energetic, bloggable, participatory magnificence?

Well 99.5% are too busy paying an inflated mortgage, driving home to Abbotsford to get the family dinner on, to get the kids to bed so they'll be bright for school tomorrow!

Yerrrr, there's a little bit more to a city than the damn view!

I wasn't always a visitor: I live and practised in Vancouver for over forty years: I see beyond the mountains and the sea.

But hey, we've got bike lanes to the waterfront and Stanley Park and the mayor set up a, now forgotten, task force to look into affordable housing. Like WOW!

Does being in denial make dysfunction go away. Families? Why, shove 'em off to the suburbs. But isn't that in conflict with green/sustainable? Vancouver's struggling urban villages, need street level transit, colour coded, free and networking all the urban villages. Don't worry soon we'll be broke paying for the Broadway under ground,

Is Translink serious about wasting billions on shiny over-and-under trinkets that, clearly have done nothing to alleviate manic traffic.

I become very impatient with planners' talk about "land-lift" up zoning for the Canada Line (downtown to YVR) to encourage six-storey, strip sprawl along its way. Up-zoning does not increase land values it inflates land values. Bleak wind swept towers lunge upward with no consideration to ground level pedestrian amenity

Kings and Emperors were so much more urban savvy: and they were supposed to be dictatorial. But we, with supposed, democratic, people power, are no match for the arrogant strutting developers, who along with their cohort, architects, deny the art of urbanism: far too busy being important.

Spain's Philip II, as far back as 1573, was wise enough to plan the city for the people. We fly-off to see his cities in Europe and Latin America, cities replete in Rinconadas piquena yet the penny hasn't dropped here.

There has been a veritable orgy of unimaginative development downtown: especially on the North Shore of False Creek.The city's planners allow developers to bamboozle us all the time. Really, really, I am not impressed

Selling real estate off shore, essentially the only game in town, is not sustainable. Miss interpreting and imposing Eco-density on the neighbourhoods is not sustainable. Declaring Vancouver to be an executive city forty years ago was a mistake and we are living with the consequences.

The Olympic debt will be a drag on the city for decades. The excuse there will be future benefits is just a way of absolving those foolish enough to gamble on shallow and expensive partying.

We enjoy the city both locally and internationally. Yet it is also a man-made abuse of that magnificence. Successive councils, of all stripes, approving officials, over confident of their own abilities, have pandered to an inept, even perhaps corrupt, design and development community!

Ignored, among the self-congratulation, is the pedestrian experience at ground level: pedestrian "QUARTIERS.

I can see how the heading "failed" could invoke responses such as, is this guy over the top? Yup, I get the point!

Then there is reality. Actually, I am surprised the Olympic Village didn't take off. I thought our sino-keepers would come rushing to our aid with their full bags full forever.

Vancouver is not, surprise, surprise, unique. It is trapped in the world wide dilemma, finance, which should be the servant of commerce but is not: quite the opposite.

Locally, we are shipping jobs overseas: raw log exports. NAFTA, as it turned out, is no panacea.

We are dependent on selling real estate off-shore: which is bad as it artificially inflates land prices, to the extent we cannot afford to live in our own town.

Despite out of reach expensiveness, the semiotics of our built environment is dull, repetitive, dependent on outside references that tells us we have no confidence in ourselves.

We are mesmerised by constant MSM reference to views: consequently we are outwardly focused when, especially at this time, we should be introspectively looking to ourselves for solutions.

Development-wise, the town is all over the place. Developers want this, the neighbours want that, the city wants its share of lift, rather than seeing the big picture. Far too much attention is paid to the goings on at THU HALL while street-wise initiatives lay dormant.

THU HALL is not the heart-beat of the city.

One recent point of view, on a city blog, about such goings on " . . . the City Hall I see is not confident, except perhaps in the doctor's (city administrator Dr. Penny Ballem) office. What I see is more bureaucratic behaviours as managers try to figure out how to please the doc, or how to be effective in spite of the doc, or how to stay out of the doc's way. Lots of heat but not much light." (Thanqxz Mary: Frances Bula's blog June 18,'10) . . . Ummmm, not much light . . .

Big institutions', big bureaucracies' and business's sclerotic activities go unchallenged and very little is applied to initiatives of variegated, textured interconnected, non-institutional wealth creating activity.

Most every thing occurs under the auspices of, well let's start with an application for a subsidy, or a density bonus, in developer lingo let's see what we can get away with or a forgiveness of one thing or another that, after successive repetition, distorts the meaning of the original concept. Then call a meeting. On the street and in our homes the best our kids can hope for is to be a barista. The impression is, like, so oh well, we want the city to be the greatest place in the world, but hey, in the meantime the pressure is on, so let's get this over and done with!

Or there is a prevailing ethos: conform or you don't exist. And, to me, is the most cynical of all.

What on earth was the point of . . . FormShift and TownShift two institutional attempts to break out of the box while slavishly imposing rules as though architecture contributes to the semiotics of success? Was it a foil to convince a flagging design community?

Nintendo enthusiasts had fun then promptly lost interest: as rightly so!

Planning, architecture and the subsequent education thereof has become a fashion assessory: of little effect on sustainable or green or good urban design.

So, back to the future.

TEAM, in 1972, declared Vancouver to be the executive city whilst preparing nothing to fill the loss of productive enterprise.

There is land zoned and labelled "industrial" but on a closer look it is, in fact, warehouses with perhaps two or three shippers per hectare.

The city lost its manufacturing, resource-based industry starting in the early seventies: that cannot be changed now. It is startling, though, that no substitute was forthcoming and all that is left is selling real estate off-shore.

Is this supposed to be globalisation: a panacea for all our ills? Well, huh, it didn't quite turn out that way and the city must be faulted for going along with the crowd instead of assessing its own place, and acting accordingly.

Two fateful historic mistakes that affected the city, sprawl-wise, was UBC's 1922 "Great Trek" and 1964 SFU on Burnaby Mountain: the attitude became embedded.

Simon Fraser has rectified its miss step, to some extent, by locating a branch downtown. UBC is still, and always will be marooned out on the "Point". Both have, and still are, enablers of land speculation and sprawl.

Eco-density is another way to signal speculation: as is happening behind Commercial Drive.

The luxurious, ridiculously expensive, Olympic Village was set up for some social housing that was then reneged upon: luxury only.

The Olympics were a fleeting distraction, a platform for local politicians to be seen internationally, a party for the child-minded, leaving behind a bedraggled torch and a legacy of unacknowledged debt.

As for living in town and moving round . . .

Transportation has become an obsession. A Metro station is not an urban node: it is a stop, along the way, for the convenience of passengers.

A Metro stop cannot be a village centre. A village centre, quartiers, for living, is a traditionally recognised, ground level community gathering place: of which the town could use more.

Moving people around when we should be looking for ways to encourage them to work, play and love within a small radius, i.e. green and sustainable, is anything but! The city, the Province, cannot afford any more high-tech unnecessary trinkets.

Architecture? It doesn't seem to have any traction when it comes to cultural impact of historic proportions. On moving around the city it seems to have degenerated into glass and concrete corporate formulaic anonymity. You seen one tower you've seen 'em all: notwithstanding Douglas Coupland.

On a more sustainable level the charrette is a useful planning colloquium, very popular among professionals. It gives the semblance of public input and leaves inactivity when the dust settles. It is vulnerable to authoritarian leadership making out it is listening when all the time awaiting the opportunity to insert itself. Well handled it is good for establishing quartiers: humane and human scale places to live.

But some times civic priorities get out of whack.

Speculation magnate Bob Rennie has disrupted the local culture scene with a proposal to incrementalize VAG into the neighbourhoods: that got all the blogging shills up in a frenzy. Besides there's no money in incrementalization.

Failing to understand the difference between culture and art, gallery aficionados cannot grasp that a creative occupation, establishing import stretching wealth generation, is cultural beyond institutionalised, look don't touch, art. Such attitude has no place in a healthy community. Time for people to take responsibility for the creation of their own world: now let the truly creative have a go.

Egregious, large-scale bureaucratic institutions have nothing to do with creativity: they are warehouses for the banal, dated and expensive.

Lacking confidence in its drawing power, the city spends millions every year on various media promotions, dissembling and pandering to the hoity toity: millions, too, on cruise ship facilities: now a redundant sunset industry.

Culture is something else: a new look at wealth creation and quite different to art! Jane Jacobs believed culture has a significant role in city development, but not necessarily as institutionalised.

The last time I responded to a city cultural czar's invitation to a culture meeting was a couple of years ago at the Oliver Wood Community centre in Nanaimo. The meeting comprised a series of printed, pre-formatted edicts, on easels, to which we were to attach our vote yeah or nay: sort of pre-digested, do as you're told, opinion crafting.

I found this exercise difficult to equate with culture or art so I ended up patiently listening to a nice lady telling me about her golf score, then judging a polite time to disengage, I called a cab: but that was Nanaimo.

This behaviour is not unique to Nanaimo, though. Vancouver, too, is larded with a culture czar and nice ladies: and of course that is the point! There is absolutely nothing unique about either city.

And now after all that what to do to bring Vancouver back from the brink of failure?

Urban villages, of which Vancouver has a multitude and are nowhere more delightful: please check some of them out on the links below.

Vancouver has been astonishing successful during the last millennium. Now it is coasting on that reputation allowing off-shore money to run rampant with structures indistinguishable from cities on the China coast from where most of the current off-shore money originates.

Vancouver's neighbourhoods, urban villages, quartiers need, very much, to be nurtured. So far they are enjoying a reprieve, but are under threat from the official environmentlists. Indeed, the traditional neighbourhoods have developed along, what were once neighbourhood streets, and are now clogged arteries physically unable to handle the load. Noise, traffic-load, fumes and pedestrian danger, if one were to slip, are unacceptable.

And trying to shoe-horn Eco-density, imposing six-storey junk condos, into that traditional mix will make matter worse

Taxi drivers lamenting the loss of business now the Canada Line to YVR is operational is justifiable. But worse is to come. The city is contemplation land-lift allowing six storey junk condos. This of course will encourage strip sprawl from King Ed. to Marpole: the very issue Eco-density is supposed to eliminate.

Unless the city becomes profoundly aware very soon Vancouver will miss out on the twenty-first century!

To follow the neighbourhood photo essays click on the links below:







Moving on from the executive city: IMPORT STRETCHING. "How do imports get stretched? . . . a painter uses canvas and pigment, or a sculptor uses stone or metal and possibly all those materials are imported where the artists are at work. But materials only account for a small portion of the worth of a work of art; the value of the materials has been stretched within the conduit. The value added by the artist isn't a multiplier of export work, yet there it is. Works of art are extreme and vivid examples of import stretching, but other kinds of producers also stretch imports."

The Nature of Economies. Jane Jacobs.

Farther afield, there is a furniture manufacturer in North Yorkshire Robert Thompson whose stuff I know very well: my school was replete with their furniture.

Starting in the early 1930's Robert Thompson inherited his father's carpentry shop in the little village of Kilburn and parlayed it, without moving to Guangzhou, to international recognition: no branch offices, no corporate hierarchy: just creativity.

What an illuminating example of what can be done with an import stretching view of a sustainable, non-conforming, industry! Multiply this ingenuity many times and Vancouver may well become a player again.

Then, recognise self-governing neighbourhoods as contained quartiers, village centres, with control of their own direction and development.

Make welcoming diverse quartiers for the likes of Robert Thompson.

Reduce intra-city movement as much as possible.

The word sustainable is meaningless without neighbours looking out their windows, crying out hi there!

And neighbourly friendliness crosses class lines. Vancouver's more "delightful" neighbourhoods, Shaughnessy, Point Grey and the endowment lands, I am sure would appreciate ambulatory quartiers with a close by "High Street" so they could pop out for a litre of milk without having to turn on the ignition.

Location, location, location the realtor says. Well I say nice little places, nice little places with a song in my heart.

We know there are creaking shelves stacked with reports and by-laws, yet rules and regulations are not producing anything like the neighbourhoods of our intentions.

So, it is time for a new paradigm of planning, a new paradigm of planners too?

And developers will make even more profit if their quartiers had attractive, people pleasing, fine grain walkable ambience of textures, colours and diverse materials.

But there is still an elephant in the room: borrowed money.


Our cities will mature when we understand the effect of banking, compound interest paid to private institutions and the fractional reserve system. For each dollar loaned, more debt exists than there is money in circulation, a never-ending ponzi most are trapped in.

When cities issue their own currencies and control their own money supply, and development to social programmers, a la the credit union concept then we may see traction for responsive, locally inspired urban design.

I know, I know that's a stretch: but, does not Bologna, Italy, have such a system?

Well, whilst we are stretching credulity maybe we could bring financing closer to home by setting up building societies: they have them in Europe. A populace, waiting for developers to produce, is too benign for its own good.

And for substituting our depleting forests there are better ways than those occurring on Vancouver Island: yet more sprawl. Marijuana is very important to the provincial economy. BC Bud is a most sort after brand: world famous and, evidently, the largest cash crop export out of the province. Okay, okay . . . recognise reality!

So, where are we? Failed in comparison to what? Answer: to its estimation of itself!

There is a proliferation of city blogs, people eager to be heard, avid contributors' in need of empowerment: the delusion.


Local decision makers read the blogs. But little action is taken unless there is an overwhelming response. As a deep part of the "system" their minds are too far away to comprehend anything that comes from unorthodox channels.

The essential metric of the city is the price of real estate. It goes up? It goes down? Real estate has no intrinsic value as long as it inflates by compound interest: so you're boggle eyed when you sell your house, then whooo-ah you're even more boggle eyed when you have to find another place to live. A more insightful metric would be an anxiety meter.


With nineteen hundred, and counting, homeless and judging by the yachts tied up in False Creek, many more millionaires, the imbalance is astounding.

Those struggling in between are, well, just not noticed.

Struggling families, dumbed-down by wide-screen home entertainment centres, running their lives on empty, slip past the head lines of luxury, luxury, luxury, as they are shoved farther and farther into the anonymity of ubiquitous and ever expanding, despite the usual exhortations to the contrary, suburban sprawl, reinforcing the meretricious clarion call: green, green, sustainable, sustainable!

Chasing families into the sprawl, chanting "there is no more developable land in the city", touting value added "land lift" ignoring its corollary "down draft", while allowing developers, read off-shore money, the city sharing in the spoils, to escalate land values and building costs.

So, the old tired, once so young and hopeful city, rumbles on, with the inevitable spikes of political parties partying, and only when there is a confluence of unforeseen, uncontrollable events, walloping us behind the ears, will there be change.


Thanqu Vancouver,
For a most enlightening sixty years.

July 22, 2010:
Complaints and abuse to
Roger Kemble

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