Vancouver, British Columbia
According to The Economist, Mercer, and Monocle, Vancouver is one of the world’s most livable cities. They cite its ecodensity, cosmopolitan population, scenic natural surroundings, progressive governance, general safety and cleanliness. Others, less enthralled, have taken to calling the city Blandcouver, or even Vanshitty. I had visited Vancouver twice before boarding Amtrak’s 510 Cascades Line train out of Seattle, had fallen in love with the city twice, but both trips had been brief, summertime affairs. Everywhere was shimmering blue water, glittering glass and steel, lush green forests and mountains. Vancouver sure knows how to get dolled up for a date, but what does she look like the morning after, in sweat pants and no makeup, during the long, wet, gray winter?
Puget Sound was visible from the train for an hour or more as Seattle crept southward. Sunlight would sporadically break through the clouds and shatter against the water, but mostly the world outside was a series of desaturated still frames. We stopped in small towns, passed industrial outposts, hugged gentle mountains, snuck through patches of rainforest. It is a beautiful three and a half hour trip, inexpensive and much more comfortable and peaceful than driving.
The approach into Vancouver is not inspiring. Industrial sprawl greets me. Soon enough, though, I’m stepping off the train, exiting the station, and boarding Vancouver’s Skytrain light rail. Ticketing is not well explained and signage is poor, but the system is simple enough to figure out and attendants are helpful. A two-hour pass good throughout Vancouver’s local bus and rail network costs less than three bucks. In twenty minutes I’m checking into Hostelling International’s Vancouver Downtown Hostel.
Central Vancouver’s peninsula has two HI hostels. Downtown is a couple blocks west of Burrard at the edge of the West End; the other, Central, is in the heart of the Granville Entertainment District. Both are packed year-round with young travelers, mostly Australian and Western European, and feel (and smell) much like university dorms. American Hotel, the much smaller Seattle HI hostel I stayed in, was new and clean and relaxing, and probably the only thing about Seattle that I liked better. I drop my gear, meet my bunkmates (a cheery Irish teenager, a young German au pair, and a Japanese man who lives nearby but moved into the hostel for a couple weeks so his roommate could have time with his visiting girlfriend), and head out for a walk.
The West End comprises most of the mini-neighborhoods west of Burrard and east of Stanley Park, including large gay and gay-friendly enclaves such as Davie Village. Low and high-rise buildings mix easily, the streets are relatively narrow, and the omnipresence of trees, grass, or some other kind of greenery softens the urban feel. Architects and planners have realized that five stories is not only the “maximum” height for walk-ups, but also about the maximum height that the eye notices as one walks around. Some buildings incorporate setbacks as a means of visual trickery, allowing greater floor counts without the oppressive verticality. I saw some of this in Vancouver, but it never seemed to matter. With setbacks or without, buildings never felt like they loomed, and the scale always seemed somehow human, even suburban, despite the prevalence of fifteen and twenty story residential towers. The whole place is also eminently walkable.
I head west on Davie Street, the length of which is flush with cafes, restaurants, shops, and services. It is cold and raining, but the sidewalks are alive with pedestrians, a mix of locals and tourists. I intend to get a coffee and read awhile at a fantastic coffee shop (I don’t remember the name) I had frequented during my previous trips, only to discover it has been taken over by Starbucks. Ugh. I keep walking. Nearby Stanley Park is absolutely stunning, as good a place as any to spend a day in good weather, but I am tired and getting hungry so I turn up Denman, make a right on Robson, and eventually settle into a booth at a little Chinese joint.
The next day I walk across the Burrard Bridge, over False Creek, to Kitsilano. Supposedly, Kits is about as trendy and desirable a neighborhood as Vancouver boasts, but it lacks any of the ostentatiousness that smothers its counterparts in most American cities. Rents are high here, as in most of downtown Vancouver, though not astronomically so. 4th Ave runs east-west for several miles, and along with parallel Broadway is the retail hub of the area. As on Davie, a plethora of shops and eateries and services line the street, some with residences above. The roads between 4th and Broadway are residential, but what looks at first glance like a single family detached home isn’t always so. Many, if not most, of the houses in Kits are actually duplexes, triplexes, or apartment buildings in disguise. The pervading feel is leafy and suburban, but the density is surprisingly high. It’s the same trick downtown plays. And it seems to all be part of Vancouver’s EcoDensity movement.
After nearly ten miles of walking I’ve burned off the delicious crepe and vat of espresso I consumed for breakfast. I’m tired, cold, and soaked. I slosh into a chain coffee shop with an unremarkable name, and am surprised to find that the vibe inside is distinctly local, the decor homey. A hot mug of apple cider and a sandwich warm my belly, and before my pants can dry I’m back outside, treading a path atop the seawall near Jericho Beach, in between English Bay and the tony homes that trace its southern coast. Even cold and rainy the place feels almost cheery, and despite a population density twice that of Seattle the city feels open and airy, compact without being stifling.
Vancouver has really only become VANCOUVER in the past couple decades. Hollywood’s migration has helped, as have the natural tourist draws of mountains, forests, and ocean. But it was the 1986 World Exposition that spurred the building of the SkyTrain, an influx of Chinese immigrants and financial capital (in the wake of the UK’s 1997 transfer of Hong Kong to China) that sparked high-rise/high density development, and the work of local academics (UBC professor Bill Rees coined the term “ecological footprint”) that fostered a developing culture of environmental awareness and responsibility. Vancouver feels dynamic, like an experiment; the city is not static, rooted in place, but the feeling is one of intention, not instability.
The outer lanes on the Burrard Bridge were recently converted into bike lanes on a trial basis and buffered by a temporary concrete wall. In pouring rain they were well utilized. A section of abandoned railroad tracks adjacent to Granville Island (itself an incredible reinvention) has been repurposed as community gardens. A number of streets throughout downtown give primacy to bikes and pedestrians by blocking automobile through-traffic. Roundabouts have replaced two or four-way stop signs at many residential intersections. Transit is frequent, logical, affordable, and runs virtually around the clock.
On the other hand, the drug scene on East Hastings, though contained, is as bad as anything I’ve ever seen. Granville Street, like most of Yaletown, is overrun by the bar and club crowds. The cost of living is high, the economy not nearly as diverse as it probably needs to be. Beyond the urban core EcoDensity gives way to typical sprawl. Downtown and its immediate surroundings may be stellar urban creations that simultaneously praise human development and preserve natural wilderness, but those who call it Blandcouver do so for a reason. I have yet to find any sort of real creative scene in Vancouver. The population is extraordinarily diverse, the indigenous people well-represented, yet somehow everyone seems to blend together. Vancouver’s urbanism is a little fuzzy, a little soft. And while safety and cleanliness are positive attributes, I think the same cultural tendencies that create them here also neuter the place a bit. The overwhelming majority of Vancouver is really quite…nice. But where are, in the words of Kerouac, “the ones who are mad to live…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn?”
I had a conversation about Vancouver with a New Urbanist planner who scoffed at what he called its “fake urbanism.” He laughed at Vancouver’s high-rise residential towers, claiming such development could never yield honest to goodness neighborhoods. I asked residents what they thought, asked them to tell me about their neighborhoods. From all reports, as well as my own experience, I don’t see anything fake about Vancouver’s urbanism. And the neighborhoods there seem as honest as anywhere else. It isn’t a perfect city, of course, and many things can be improved. What I like about Vancouver, though, is that it seems fully aware of that fact. It constantly experiments, and the city as a whole seems engaged in a critical conversation of urbanism and environmental sustainability. If anything, it might be a little too self-critical.
I enjoyed the hell out of my three days in Vancouver. I didn’t have a car and never had the slightest need for one. Shitty weather didn’t dampen the beauty of either the city or the stunning landscape. I never felt unsafe or unwelcome as a pedestrian. I met plenty of friendly, interesting folks, both locals and tourists, some of whom were born and raised in the Fraser Basin and some of whom hailed from the far corners of the globe. All in all, Vancouver was still a good lookin’ gal the morning after. Maybe she isn’t the sort of hot that makes you want to just get naked in the street, but she’d be easy to bring home to Mom.