Tag Archives: Vancouver

Vancouver fights graffiti with graffiti

Graffiti hidden on the beach of English Bay in Vancouver’s tony West Side. © Deborah Jones 2017

DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
July, 2005

The very first time he tried writing graffiti, Robbie, a talented teenager whose art has sold in galleries, blundered into Vancouver’s war on graffiti.

As he and another high-school student spray-painted images on a seaside retaining wall, an undercover police officer in Canada’s first designated graffiti squad nabbed the pair. Detective Valerie Spicer gave them a choice between a $500 ticket or community service with a peculiar Vancouver twist.

The teens chose service, in which offenders are teamed with established mural artists to produce sketches, given unlimited costly spray paint, then sent up for hard labour: creating murals under Vancouver bridges.

Robbie, who didn’t want his real name used lest he be linked with the despised “bomber” faction in the graffiti war, says being mentored by artist Milan Basic was an education and a privilege, but he is upset about being treated like a common criminal. “It’s a known free wall. It had been given to the graffiti people,” Robbie said indignantly.

The fact is, since 2002 there have been no free walls for “graffiti,” ”tagging” or “bombing” in Vancouver. A few writers, like Robbie, may have artistic talent to express, but officials say graffiti has been taken over by bombers who compete to quickly scrawl crude initials, or tags, in as many places as possible.

Respected bombers only use stolen paint and tag illegal places — the riskier, the better, said Mr. Basic, 34, an illegal writer in his youth. Outside the subculture, their work has few fans.

Vancouver police consider bombings so addictive, crime-ridden and expensive that it set up Canada’s first graffiti unit. “There have been stabbings and fights,” Det. Spicer said.

Police aim to divert as many as 200 young taggers from illegal graffiti to legal artistic expression.

Graffiti police officers co-operate with the municipal graffiti management program, which employs bylaws, public education and city cleaning crews to wipe out illegal graffiti within 14 days. For the offenders, there’s a carrot-and-stick approach.

The carrot is encouragement to create approved public art, and to date it’s resulted in 100 murals splashed on city bridges and underpasses.

Some of these, expressing hip-hop, transportation or animal themes, are created by the offenders. Others are by established commercial artists, and are increasingly sophisticated.

Last Saturday, Vancouver held a graffiti competition with 30 top writers, handing out prizes of $1,000 to the top four and an honorarium of $100 each for the rest. The murals, all created in six hours from sketches, are blazes of colour and shape that catch the attention of motorists on the Seymour Street off-ramp from the Granville Street Bridge.

The rationale behind the murals, said Jag Senghera of the city graffiti program, is the criminological theory that curbing small offences deters offenders from progressing to bigger crimes, and fixing broken windows and cleaning graffiti deters vandalism by improving civic pride.

Mr. Senghera said thatVancouver’s visible graffiti has declined by nearly 90 per cent, with about 68 of 5,138 buildings currently tagged, compared to 450 in 2001.

Debate rages in many cities over the artistic value of graffiti. Mr. Basic, who won $1,000 on Saturday, said he finds almost all graffiti pleasing. He now has a career painting film sets, which started with the now-cancelled TV series Dark Angel. The father of two young children, Mr. Basic uses his graffiti art to support his family and, on the side, still splashes his trademark nature images throughout Vancouver.

“Sometimes I paint commission pieces,” he says, “or I approach a store owner who’s got a graffiti problem, say I’ll paint a wall for free or sometimes for money.”

Mr. Basic said the city murals help deter graffiti because even bombers rarely deface murals with tags.

While graffiti has a venerable history in North American art, starting with highly stylized images in New York in the 1970s, style has been replaced by straight vandalism, Det. Spicer said.

She said the public, especially parents of teenage boys, should consider tagging illegal vandalism in an increasingly dangerous subculture, where teenagers rub shoulders with taggers who also commit serious crimes, like stabbing.

“Graffiti is extremely addictive,” she said, because taggers become hooked on fumes from solvent-based paints as well as the thrill of risk-taking. “They’ve fallen off buildings and been hit by trains. They’re usually piss-drunk.”

With increasing publicity and official attention, graffiti seems to be subject to massive cultural confusion. While cities and business owners call it vandalism, others respect it as edgy art. Its death knell as a subculture, however, may be its evolution into a mainstream marketing tool, with graffiti increasingly used in wallpaper and fabric design and even billboard advertising.

Robbie, who disparagingly calls the bombers “stoned bums,” still insists that he was exercising legitimate artistic expression by spray-painting an obscure retaining wall. “It’s not what I would consider to be a crime to do it.”

Copyright Deborah Jones 2005

Contact: djones AT factsandopinions.com

This story originally appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail on July 11, 2005.

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Vancouver’s housing bubble inflated by China’s air pollution

Vancouver from Howe Sound. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2014

Vancouver, from a ship in the Salish Sea. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2014

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
December 11, 2015

Beijing in smog on Nov. 29. Photo by LWYang/Flickr/Creative Commons

Beijing in smog on Nov. 29. Photo by LWYang/Flickr/Creative Commons

Vancouver’s grossly inflated housing market, the United Nations’ climate conference in Paris and China’s catastrophic environmental degradation were all linked this week in a circle of cause and effect.

On Tuesday the authorities in Beijing declared air pollution in the Chinese capital to be “hazardous to human health,” and issued a “red alert,” closing down many of the city’s services, banning outdoor sports and restricting travel.

Beijing’s notorious “smog” caused by industrial air pollution being trapped over the city by unfavourable weather conditions reached 400 microgrammes per cubic metre (mg/m3) on the air quality index. But Chinese authorities regularly ignore much worse air pollution, which is a curse throughout the country, and especially in the highly industrialized south and east coast regions. Chinese authorities estimate that air pollution kills up to 500,000 people a year, but foreign health experts put the number of deaths at well over one million.

The World Health Organization says 10 mg/m3 air quality is safe, but in China, and Beijing in particular there have been many occasions when levels of 800 mg/m3 have been recorded. The situation in the capital is so bad that the United States embassy has taken to taking its own air quality readings every day and posting them on Twitter. Chinese authorities have reacted angrily to what they say is an “unlawful” act of diplomatic rudeness.

But on Tuesday, the Beijing authorities appear to have been embarrassed into issuing the “red alert” by the international attention the pollution got, coming in the middle of the Paris conference. Also it was only last week that China issued a commitment to cut emissions of major pollutants from its mainly coal-fired power stations by 60 per cent by 2020.

The pollution and gross degradation of China’s air, earth and water is now much more than an embarrassment to the Communist Party authorities, 30 years after it embarked on industrialization without thought for the environmental consequences.

While China’s lethal air quality is in the headlines, it is probably water pollution that is the greatest killer and threat to the country’s environmental sustainability.

A government study a few years ago, found that most of China’s underground aquifers, which provide 70 per cent of the country’s drinking water, are irredeemably polluted. The aquifers supplying 90 per cent of China’s cities are polluted. The water in more than 75 per cent of rivers flowing through China’s cities is unsuitable for drinking or fishing, and 30 per cent of river water throughout the country is too polluted to be used for industry or agriculture. As a result, much of the food produced in China is toxic at various levels. Nearly 700 million Chinese – over half the population – drink water contaminated with human or animal waste.

There are no reliable figures about pollution of China’s sparse stocks or arable land. But it is notable that very many of the protests by Chinese are against either proposed or existing chemical plants and factories they accuse of polluting earth, air and water.

China’s appalling pollution problems are now the country’s top public issue, and one on which the continued political legitimacy of the Communist Party hinges.

Vancouver, looking west toward English Bay and the city's West Side, left. Photo by Gavin Kennedy, Copyright 2013

Vancouver, looking west. Photo by Gavin Kennedy © 2013

And that brings us to unsustainably inflated housing prices in cities favoured by fleeing Chinese.

Several polls in recent years by organizations such as The Hunrun Report and LIO Global have asked the fabulously wealthy members of the princeling and aristocrat classes in and around China’s Communist Party why about half of them want to emigrate as quickly as possible.

Consistently, the two main reasons given have been the lethally toxic pollution of China’s environment and, as a result, that much of the food produced in the country is poisonous. (The third reason given is wanting a good education for their children.)

Wealthy Chinese continue to get their money out of China by any means possible – most of them illegal – at ever faster rates. People’s Bank of China statistics for the first three months of this year indicated that $US80 billion fled China illegally in that period. That suggested that the illegal flight was on track to match last year’s total of $US324 billion, estimated by the UBS Group. But then in early August, China devalued its currency, the renminbi, and the flood turned into a torrent. Goldman Sachs estimates that $US200 billion was spirited out of China in the three weeks following the devaluation. The financial news agency Bloomberg, calculates that $US194 billion left China in September.

How much of this came to Canada may never be known, because Canada does not keep records of the country of residence of beneficial owners of property or companies. That anonymity is one of the great attractions of Canada to wealthy Chinese who want to hide their overseas holdings in case the political winds that always swirl around the Communist Party turn against them.

Those who have grown grossly wealthy on the profits of China’s 30-year manufacturing boom have, of course, the option to leave for their favourite sanctuaries, in the United States (52%), Canada (21%) and Australia (9%).

But, as is always the case, it is the poor or less well-off who are left to suffer. China’s blue collar classes, whose labour for rock-bottom wages and often in conditions not far off slavery, has filled the pockets of the Communist Party’s aristocracy, are just as furious and scared about what has been done to their country in the name of economic advancement.

But instead of heading to the airport, ordinary Chinese are protesting in the only way they can, and taking to the streets.

There are about 500 major protests and riots across China every day involving between 1,000 and 5,000 people. The Beijing government used to publish annual reports on the number of “mass incidents” involving over 1,000 protesters, but stopped doing so in 2008 when the numbers became embarrassingly large.

However, the numbers are still assembled and can be acquired through the right contacts. Most well-connected analysts inside and outside China agree there have been about 180,000 riots annually in China, for many years, though some put the number now as high as 250,000, or over 680 a day.

Many of these protests become violent and the authorities call out riot squads or the People’s Armed Police to restore order. In some areas where the links between the local Communist Party and the triad criminal gangs are especially strong, the authorities don’t bother with the police. They just call on triad gang fighters, whose methods of crowd control make even the Chinese police seem like gentlemen.

Until a few years ago the main cause of these outbursts of public discontent was corruption by local Communist Party or government officials. Usually, this involved theft of villagers’ land to sell to real estate developer buddies in return for backhand payoffs and cuts of the profits.

As the global recession began to hit China’s manufacturing industries after 2008, the protests were frequently against factory owners who had done a midnight flit to avoid paying their workers, or other examples of employer chicanery.

But public outrage at pollution or the threat of further environmental degradation has now become the spur for more than half the 500 riots every day, according to the 2012 “Social Unrest in China” report for the European Union.

Toxic pollution of earth, air, water and food remains the main cause of popular outrage in China. The Communist Party is well aware of the public anger, and is glumly contemplating the prospect that it might be the first regime in modern history to be ousted because it poisoned its citizens in order to feather its own bank accounts.

However, it is unlikely China’s people will rise up in the foreseeable future against their government in defence of their environment. Not least of the reasons to doubt the prospect of a national uprising is that the Communist Party has intensified the reach and efficiency of its authoritarian power since the new President and party boss Xi Jinping came to power at the end of 2012.

Since the 1989 students’ uprising in Tiananmen Square, successive Communist Party leaders have been swift to slit the throat of any organization that threatened to become a national focus of opposition to the regime. Xi pursues that survival strategy with even more vigour than his predecessors. The most compelling current evidence of his determination to smother even the most tentative questioning of Communist Party power is Xi’s campaign against China’s fledgling community of lawyers dedicated to the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

Since Xi came to power, scores of lawyers have been detained, dozens tortured and many are facing trial and imprisonment. Their supposed crimes are variations of a common theme: they have been “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by defending or advocating for people the Communist Party wants to lock away.

Even among my most Sinophile friends there are now regular discussions over whether or not China can be accurately described as a fascist state. Majority opinion is that it has moved from authoritarianism into fascism. Some Sinophile friends quote contacts within the upper echelons of the Communist Party saying they fear they have in Xi chosen a new Mao Zedong as leader.

Mao, of course, had more blood on his hands, most of it of his fellow Chinese, than any leader of the 20th Century. Much of the last nearly 40 years since his death has been a half-hearted attempt to undo the evil Mao did. Half-hearted because as the rising tide of environmental degradation shows, without political accountability and the rule of law, China is destined to repeat past mistakes.

No wonder everyone who can wants to get out.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Related Jonathan Manthorpe columns:

China faces crippling water shortages and pollution

China’s drive for wealth and power is stumbling and could collapse over the country’s lack of water and its gross mismanagement of the resources it does have.

Beijing collides with China’s new community of human rights lawyers

The recent assault by President Xi Jinping on China’s community of human rights lawyers may be too late to insulate the Communist Party against a coming storm. There is a tacit acknowledgement by the party that China’s swelling community of about 300 human rights lawyers, their associates and like-minded advocacy groups have become a serious challenge to the one-party state.

Money flight impoverishes the poorest countries

It’s not just China’s “Red Nobility” and Russian oligarchs who are robbing their countries by illicitly exporting their wealth to compliant and complicit countries like Canada. There is an epidemic of money flight from developing countries, according to a new report from the Washington-based anti-money laundering organization Global Financial Integrity.

Vancouver: not mind-numbingly boring, but vacuously vain (public access)

The flood of vast wealth from China into Canada has not only contorted and distorted the Vancouver housing market beyond redemption, it has changed the sort of community the western Canadian metropolis is going to be for generations to come. In a bizarre piece of absence of mind and lack of attention, it has also hitched the future of Vancouver to the fate of the Chinese Communist Party. Vancouver’s low self-confidence and its destructive vanity have both played a part in these failures.

Further reading:

Vancouver “overvalued,” warns UBS in housing bubble study, BNN:http://www.bnn.ca/News/2015/10/30/Vancouver-overvalued-warns-UBS-in-housing-bubble-study.aspx

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Return to Jonathan Manthorpe’s International Affairs column page

 

  • Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Vancouver: not mind-numbingly boring, but vacuously vain

The flood of money from China into Canada has not only contorted and distorted the Vancouver housing market beyond redemption, it has changed the sort of community Vancouver is going to be for generations to come, writes Jonathan Manthorpe. And, in a bizarre piece of absence of mind and lack of attention, it has hitched the future of Vancouver to the fate of the Chinese Communist Party.

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs 
May 29, 2015

Vancouver has the double affliction of a deeply embedded lack of self-esteem and an overdose of self-obsession.

A result is a temperamental inability to make sound judgments about communal pressures, including those coming from outside. Sad to say, the vain and vacuous “Real Housewife of Vancouver” is the perfect civic emblem for the Western Canadian metropolis.

Forget the verdict of a writer in The Economist that Vancouver is among the world’s most “mind-numbingly boring” cities. Immeasurably more important in recent years is the inability to address the seismic problem of money flooding in from China.

The most mind-numbing element of this story is the amount of money flooding out of China illegally. The numbers are obscene. Last week the major French bank, BNP Paribas, published an analysis of financial flow statistics for the first quarter of this year tabled by the People’s Bank of China. The French bank concluded that in the first three months of 2015 over $80 billion had been spirited out of China illegally. This puts China’s wealthy on track to shuffle over $320 billion out of the country this year.

This represents a significant increase on reasonably reliable estimates of illegal outflows in recent years. For example, the Washington-based anti-money laundering organization, Global Financial Integrity, calculated that in 2012 just under $250 billion was slipped out of China and that the total for the previous decade was about $1.25 trillion.

Xo Jinping, official photo

The flight of money from China suggests that many at the top of the regime  doubt how much longer the Communist Party can hold power, writes Jonathan Manthorpe. Above, Chinese president Xi Jinping. Official photo

The rush to get money out of China has now reached almost three times the amount of money being invested in China. According to official Beijing statistics, inward investment was $119 billion last year.

The basic reason for the money flight is simple. After nearly 70 years in control, the Communist one-party state has almost exhausted its political legitimacy. Egalitarian ideology has been abandoned. The low hanging fruit of economic reform have all been picked and eaten, and the Communist Party has no intention of embarking on the political reforms necessary for the next stage of economic development. All that is left to sustain the regime is intensified repression — much in evidence in the last three years – and crass appeals to nationalism. Hence we see daily the pursuit of totally false, but increasingly belligerent claims to territory in the East China and South China seas, and fabricated anti-Japanese and anti-American rhetoric. There is also a worrying and dangerous increase in the amount of blindly patriotic chest-thumping by politicians and People’s Liberal Army senior officers, not all of whom seem to be under control.

Authoritarian regimes usually look very solid. But they are always very brittle. A tap on the plate glass in the right time and the right place and the whole window collapses into the street. We’ve seen it with the Soviet Union and, more recently, with the Arab Spring and fall or besieging of the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen.

The flight of money from China suggests that very many people at the top of the regime have doubts about how much longer the Communist Party can hold power, and they are arranging safety nets for their assets and their families.

The flood of this money into Canada has not only contorted and distorted the Vancouver housing market beyond redemption, it has changed the sort of community Vancouver is going to be for generations to come. In a bizarre piece of absence of mind and lack of attention, it has also hitched the future of Vancouver to the fate of the Chinese Communist Party.

Vancouver’s low self-confidence and its destructive vanity have both played a part in these failures.

Lack of self-esteem has deterred Greater Vancouver from responding to warning signs about the money fleeing China. Part of this may be what a friend of mine calls “the Komagata Maru syndrome.” That is the fear of singling out any ethnically identifiable group for fear of being labelled a racist. Just look at the city’s media. It has taken it years to pluck up the courage to say that it is torrents of money from China that is distorting Vancouver’s economy.

Some people, most of them in Vancouver’s economic and political ruling class, have been unwilling to look critically at what is happening because they are doing so well out of it. Developers, building contractors, engineers, lawyers, luxury goods retailers (or, often more accurately, retailers of goods with luxury prices), sellers of expensive cars have all done very well out of the Chinese cash tsunami.

The municipal and British Columbia provincial government have also seen their revenues grow, making them reluctant to curb or even gather useful data on what is happening. Vancouver City Council is reported to make about $700 million a year on property transfers, and the province is making over $1 billion.

Most Vancouver residents are shut out of the feeding frenzy on vast Chinese wealth pouring into city developments. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2014

 Vancouver residents shut out of the feeding frenzy on vast Chinese wealth pouring into city real estate now include professionals. Above, a panhandler in the Gastown area. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2014

For the majority of Greater Vancouverites, shut out of the feeding frenzy, the effects are less wholesome. A report by the Royal Bank of Canada a couple of years ago said that for the average family in Greater Vancouver the total cost of homeownership has rocketed up to a mind-blowing 92 per cent of pre-tax family income. If anything, the situation has got worse since. Vancouverites face not only the emigration of their children to more affordable parts of Canada, but also the prospect of people performing what used to be thought of as middle income, but essential public service jobs, such as the police and teachers, having to move elsewhere.

Politicians and officials have allowed the economy, and especially the housing market, to become so distorted that it would now be dangerous to try to impose reality. It would not take much to trigger the kind of mortgage crisis that so devastated the United States economy in 2008-2009.

Obsessive vanity has played a destructive role in all this. Many people believe the hype that Vancouver is one of the most liveable and attractive metropoli in the world, so why would wealthy Chinese not flock to it?

Well, doubtless some are attracted by the geography. But a much greater draw is that Canada and British Columbia are open doors without gatekeepers or much in the way of rules or regulations impeding wealthy Chinese anxious to find a safe haven for their assets. Other favoured destinations with the rule of law and respect for private property, such as the U.S., Australia and much of Europe, impose stringent restrictions and requirements on foreign investors or property buyers. Canada, on the other hand, has no real idea of who owns what, and the planning departments of far too many of our municipalities are so amateurish and ill prepared that anything goes. And local politicians seldom push back against the energies of the property industry, much of which is often inexorably entwined with the elected officials anyway.

But an essential part of understanding what is happening in Greater Vancouver and, indeed, Toronto, is to look at what is happening in China.

The central question is to ask why so many wealthy Chinese, who have gathered their fortunes over the last three decades because of their ties to the Communist Party, want to get as much of their assets as they can out of China. Having benefited so fruitfully from their links, either by party membership, blood or business bonds, to the pinnacles of power, surely these are the people who should feel most secure? But as China approaches the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party’s 1949 takeover of China, obviously not.

And most wealthy Chinese want to follow their money abroad. A story posted briefly on the People’s Daily newspaper website earlier this week said a recent survey found that over 50 per cent of wealthy Chinese are determined to emigrate. It didn’t take long for the censors to take the story down, however. The reality that most well-to-do Chinese dream of leaving the country clashes dramatically with the “Chinese Dream” of becoming a military, economic and political world power that is the watch word of the country’s new paramount leader, President and party boss Xi Jinping.

Other well-founded surveys have found that over 60 per cent of wealthy Chinese are either in the process of emigrating or determined to do so. Senior Communist Party officials have for some years been worried about a perceived link between corruption and having relatives overseas. Having family in Canada, Australia, the U.S. or Europe is seen as the preparation for flight both of money and the money-maker. At the hub of the current anti-corruption campaign and the Communist Party’s equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition is the Commission for Discipline Inspection. As a matter of interest, a couple of years ago the Commission did a study of the 204 members of the party’s Central Committee, China’s third most important administrative body after the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee. The Commission found that 91 per cent of Central Committee members have relatives abroad. Then, perhaps as a comparison test on these results, the commission looked at its own members. It found that 88 per cent of its own staff have close relatives who have emigrated and acquired foreign citizenship.

Clearly, an extraordinary proportion of the senior echelons of the Chinese Communist Party has one foot out the door, having already moved a good deal of their wealth, much of it ill-gotten, to politically sunnier climes.

For those who look, it is easy to see why. China has become a grossly unequal society with most wealth in the hands of a tiny minority of people in and around the top echelons of the Communist Party. Indeed, the political and economic structure of China now looks very much like the old imperial dynastic system. No wonder the vastly wealthy Communist Party families that control the economy, with in many cases individual families having monopoly control of economic sectors, are called the Red Nobility.

These princely families are widely despised, and quite often some outlandish piece of boorish behaviour in public will lead to an outraged burst of unrest. But unrest is constant anyway. There are about 180,000 “mass incidents” a year in China, and the number has remained about the same for several years. These are defined as involving a violent protest by more than a thousand people and requiring the deployment of the People’s Armed Police or a riot squad. That’s an average of just under 500 riots a day. Translated into Canadian terms, that would be an average of 13 Stanley Cup riots across the country every day. No wonder China’s wealthy feel that the ground under their feet is unsteady.

There are several common causes for these daily riots. The most common is the theft of peasants’ land by local party and government officials in order to sell it to crony developers. The bribes flow in all directions, except to the peasants.

An increasing cause of unrest is the extraordinary environmental destruction of China, the run-off from its fast and furious economic development. Chinese government reports say that most of underground aquifers, which provide 70 per cent of China’s drinking water, are irredeemably polluted. The water in more than 75 per cent of Chinese rivers is unsuitable for drinking or fishing. And, incredibly, about 30 per cent of China’s rivers are too polluted for their waters to be used for agriculture or industry. Nearly 700 million people, over half the population, drink water contaminated with human or animal waste.

Air pollution in China has been well publicized. It is now so bad that foul air is directly responsible for the death of well over a million people a year.

For those who can, there is every reason to get out of China. And the perfect landing spot is somewhere where the people don’t ask too many questions and are easily manipulated through flattery.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

UPDATE: Click here to listen to the podcast of columnist Jonathan Manthorpe interviewed about this essay on CBC’s Early Edition. (June 5)

 UPDATE: Below, hear Jonathan Manthorpe interviewed on Jon McComb’s morning show on Vancouver’s CKNW radio station. Is Vancouver being used as a huge washing machine for money laundering? asked McComb. That’s one of the many questions lacking answers, answered Manthorpe.

 

 

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from partisan organizations. Please donate, below, or visit our Subscribe page, here, to chip in at least .27 for one story or $1 for a day site pass. Please tell others about us. To receive F&O’s blog by email, fill in your address on the FRONTLINES page. 

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BC Butts Out

F&O cigarette-butt-receptacle

City of Vancouver photo

Vancouver, Canada’s west-coast big city, is known globally as host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, as North America’s (and one of the world’s) most expensive places, as the birthplace of Greenpeace, home to the world’s first automated-teller-machine to swap cash for bitcoin virtual currency, and as a production centre for a strain of hydroponically-grown marijuana known as BC Bud.

Today the city claimed another “first:” it installed 110 receptacles to recycle cigarette butts. The butts, which litter the landscape and often end up in the ocean to poison sea life, will be made into building materials, among other things, by TerraCycle, a company working with the city on a pilot butt-recycling project.

“Filters are made from cellulose acetate, and they never lose their toxicity and can poison essential links in the aquatic food chain,” said a joint Vancouver-TerraCycle announcement.

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The Case of the Serial Killings

The murders of dozens of women put Vancouver in the spotlight as gruesome details emerge in the mass-murder trial of an area pig farmer.
 
By Deborah Jones (for Time magazine)
Vancouver, Canada, January 26, 2007

 
Wedged between white-capped mountains and sparkling blue ocean, Vancouver is lauded for multicultural livability, ranked worldwide as a top travel destination and is preparing to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. But lately a grim pall has blanketed the western Canadian city of 2.2 million, for reasons far worse than the freak winter storms. The harrowing details of a grotesque serial killer case are bringing to the surface the city’s seamy underworld, usually confined to the squalid 10-block open drug and sex market known as the Downtown Eastside.
 
The seaminess surrounds the trial of pig farmer Robert William Pickton, charged with murdering 26 drug-addicted prostitutes. The trial, which an earlier judge warned would be “as bad as a horror movie,” began Jan. 22 and is expected to last a year. A jury will hear evidence on the first six charges of murder. (The remaining 20 charges will be brought to court after the first six.) Prosecutor Derrill Prevett described in his opening statement how police searching Pickton’s ramshackle suburban pig farm about 15 miles east of Vancouver in 2002 found two women’s heads in a freezer, cleaved in two and packed with their hands and feet. Human bones were found buried deep under an old pig pen. In Pickton’s mobile-home trailer, said Prevett, police discovered a gun and a sex toy with DNA from Pickton and Mona Wilson, one of the alleged victims.

“I couldn’t imagine,” said Wilson’s former foster mother, Norma Garley, nearly wordless. “Something like that happening to somebody in my family.” Garley and her family took Wilson in at age seven, after the girl was sexually abused by family members. When Wilson was 14 social workers moved her, but the Garleys kept in touch and Wilson telephoned them just before December 2001, when she vanished. Until the trial, the Garleys had no idea the girl they called “Running Bear,” the name honoring Wilson’s aboriginal heritage, had grown up to become a drug addict selling sex on Downtown Eastside streets. In her last call to the Garleys, Wilson told them she was engaged to be married and doing well, Garley sobbed in an interview with TIME. “Mona always wanted us to have a good opinion of her.”
 
The fates of Wilson, Sereena Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Ann Wolfe, Marnie Frey and Georgina Faith Papin are emerging in British Columbia Supreme Court, in the gritty Vancouver suburb of New Westminster. There, Pickton sits calmly behind bullet-resistant glass, an unimposing slim man with a fringe of lank grey hair around a bald pate. Now 57, he has become well-known in legal circles since his arrest in February 2002. But only now has the end of a Canadian publication ban, intended to ensure an impartial jury hearing, revealed the gruesome details of his case. Pickton has become instantly famous. “You’re like the pope,” a police officer told Pickton in a recorded interrogation played before the jury. Some 350 journalists are accredited and the trial is making global as well as local headlines. Each day curious spectators, including a class of teenagers from a local Christian school and several elderly people, jostle with family and friends of the victims for limited public seating.
 
The attention is new, but that Downtown Eastside prostitutes die gruesome deaths is old news, and largely ignored. Scores of women from that area have vanished since 1978. Only in 2001 did Canada’s national police force, then investigating a separate case of prostitute serial killings in the province, team up with Vancouver police. The joint task force now lists more than 60 missing women; police said the DNA, remains or belongings of about half of those have been linked to Pickton’s pig farm.
 
The missing women case has been the catalyst for a sea change in public attitudes to illegal drugs in British Columbia. Vancouver now leads North America in treating addiction as a health and social problem as well as a crime. It hosts the continent’s only supervised heroin injection site, as well as a clinic dispensing free heroin in a scientific trial. But not much has changed at street level in the Downtown Eastside. Some 15,000 injection-drug addicts, many of them mentally ill, are concentrated in Canada’s most impoverished neighborhood. An estimated 1500 female addicts continue to sell so called “survival sex,” at all times and in all weather. Reporters interviewing the women about the Pickton trial were shocked to find that many didn’t know about it, or care.
 
“Women who still live and work down here knew women who have died and gone missing,” said Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, a drop-in center for sex-trade workers. “They are still out there working on the street, and they still face the same violence, stigmatization, and discrimination every day.”
 
Pickton’s lawyer Peter Ritchie says his client is innocent, and that he will refute the prosecution’s evidence. Pickton’s own voice is directly heard only in a videotaped police interrogation after his arrest and the first two charges were brought in February 2002. Played to the jury, the tape shows him mumbling and at times appearing barely cognizant of events. “I’m just a pig farmer,” Pickton tells police. “I’m a working guy, that’s all I am.” When told he was charged with two murders and was being investigated in the disappearances of 50 more women, he laughed. “Hogwash,” he said, slouched over a chair in the interview room beside some potted palms. “I’m nailed to the cross,” he said repeatedly. And when police asked if he killed as many as 50 women, Pickton complained: “You make me out to be more of a mass murderer than I am.”
 
As Pickton’s tale unfolds in court in a local suburb, the streets outside throng with police and sheriffs, panhandlers and patients released from a local mental hospital, college students and office workers who line up at local coffee shops. A stone’s throw from the court is a strip joint advertising, in neon, “Mugs and Jugs.” Nearby, a shop displays garish Valentine’s Day wares: a larger-than-life knight in shining armor standing tall beside a Queen of Hearts. It’s a costume shop, of course. Vancouver, in these dark days, has a dearth of real-life romantic heroes.

Copyright © 2007 Deborah Jones

Originally published by Time magazine,  January 26, 2007 . Read the original story here.

References and further reading:

Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry Volume I.
CBC timeline of the Pickton trial.
On the Farm, the book of the Pickton case by Stevie Cameron 

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Vancouver: Fool’s paradise, or model for 21st Century?

Vancouver struggles with a rare opportunity to create a lasting urban paradise.

F&O vancouver by Gavin

Photo by Gavin Kennedy © 2013.


By DEBORAH JONES
Vancouver, Canada 1996

High-tech hotbed Seattle has Bill Gates. Manhattan, city of comebacks, has Donald Trump. Vancouver has David Duchovny of The X-Files, the happening sci-fi TV series filmed in B.C.’s happening Lower Mainland. As civic icons go, Duchovny might be the most fitting of those three examples. Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the booming Greater Vancouver area has a paranormal personality to match a TV program built on special effects and suspended disbelief. But the city’s powers to be a body double are certainly being tested. U.S. actor Duchovny and the rest of the Hollywood crowd use Vancouver’s stunning scenery as a backdrop for stories that are set anywhere but here. Hong Kong expats are drawn to the city for its advertised civility and balmy climate. Transplanted Americans expect to find a more caring society. As a magnet for software writers, medical researchers, New Age ecologists, financiers and film-industry entrepreneurs from around the world, Vancouver is confronted with the task of adjusting to its status as one of the most dynamic of North America’s major cities–and the expectations that come with that mixed blessing. Probably no other city on the continent — possibly excepting New York during its great waves of immigration early in this century — has been asked to be so many things to so many people from so many places.

Little more than a generation ago, Vancouver was a sleepy town in no particular hurry to shrug off its past as a colonial outpost and railway terminus, its intoxicating scenery its only indisputably unique asset and its remoteness from the continent’s business, cultural and political centres back East both an obstacle to its progress and an undeniable aspect of its charm.

Today, with its population poised to jump more than 50% during the next decade or so, natives and newcomers alike entertain visions of Vancouver as the last, best chance to create in North America a nearly perfect major metropolis, a world city of ethnic diversity and determined civility that might just serve as a model for 21st-century urban planners on every continent. Business and political leaders see an extraordinary future for Vancouver as North America’s chief gateway to Asia, the world’s fastest-growing economic region; as the next Silicon Valley; as a multiethnic cultural entrepot, as a classy tourist and retiree playground and as a testing ground for the most progressive ideas in environmental protection.

 This is the promise of Vancouver, whose inhabitants once were accustomed to watching the world unfold elsewhere, and who now find themselves at the centre of attention as hosts to international political and scientific summits, including powwows among federal Liberals mindful of B.C.’s growing clout in Parliament. Suddenly this city for which Central Canada’s prolonged recession was a distant rumour is now home to a new National Basketball Association franchise, a state-of-the-art new terminal at Vancouver International Airport that Fort Worth-based American Airlines Inc. has chosen as its principal gateway for flights to the Pacific Rim, and a cluster of consulates opened by European governments seeking a window on Asia and on the newly vigorous capital of Western Canada — a city whose vitality B.C. Premier Glen Clark cites in proclaiming his province to be the economic engine of the entire country. An even more exuberant David Bennett, managing director of the Business Development Bank of Canada, declares, “We will be the Geneva of the New World.”

 

“We’re living in a fool’s paradise.”

 

Yet there is a superficial quality to Vancouver’s current dynamism, beyond which its earlier standing as a scenic branch plant on the fringes of North American business and politics is still plainly visible. Vancouver has staked an impressive claim to prominence in the information industries that will dominate the world economy in the 21st century, but remains significantly dependent on the volatile, low-skilled resource industries of this century. Local venture capitalist Michael Brown, for one, worries that “We’re living in a fool’s paradise.”

F&O Vancouver Fraser

Fraser River, Vancouver. Deborah Jones © 2010

Some 200 executives have gathered to dine on West Coast salmon accompanied by Okanagan Valley wines under the white canvas sails of Canada Place, a landmark convention centre that just majestically into one of the world’s busiest and most panoramic harbours. Groups such as this represent Vancouver’s best chance for long-term prosperity. These men and women run some of the most dynamic companies in the Lower Mainland’s high-tech sector, which is small by Silicon Valley standards but growing by an impressive 13% a year in revenues.

To showcase the potential of high-tech to transform the local economy, organizers of tonight’s gathering have invited speakers from QLT Photo Therapeutics Inc., which recently raised a stunning $73.3 million in expansion funds in a North American share offering. The audience settles in for an upbeat description of how Vancouver-based QLT has cut a swath through the global pharmaceutical industry and has charmed investors. Yet one of the main themes is the need for persistence: A QLT vice-president says local companies simply must ignore the many naysayers who tell them that high-tech cannot be done here. It’s a familiar exhortation in a city still regarded as home to an overwhelmingly resource-based economy. Forestry alone accounts for about 60% of B.C.’s exports. And exports, which account for about a quarter of economic activity, still determine B.C.’s economic health: A $1-billion decline in exports in the first six months resulted in a downturn in GDP for the first two quarters of 1996. Still, the region increasingly is drawing strength from non-resource industries. Seven million tourists pump about $2 billion into the economy. The film business is a $500-million boon. And transportation, arguably Vancouver’s biggest growth industry, has been skillfully nurtured, continually attracting new airlines, shipping lines and thousands of well-paying jobs to the region’s revamped airport and its aggressively marketed port services. Serendipity places Vancouver about 90 minutes closer by air than San Francisco and Los Angeles to the major airports of Japan, giving Vancouver a shot at becoming North America’s principal airline gateway to the Pacific Rim.

Without question, though, Vancouver needs to slip the yoke of dependence on still-dominant resource industries, using technology firms to balance the cyclical nature of forestry and mining and the low-paying jobs of the tourism sector. Historically isolated by daunting geography and trade barriers, the city stands to gain from break-throughs such as the Internet and the rise of value-added industries such as pharmaceutical research, where the high cost of shipping is not a factor. There are signs of progress. Vancouver is the headoffice location for the national genetics disease research network which, says Frank Gleeson of Toronto-based MDS Health Ventures Capital Corp., gives it “tremendous potential in biomedical high technology, with an outstanding research base.” High-tech firms such as IBM Corp. and Kanata, Ont.’s Newbridge Networks Corp. have announced that they will set up Vancouver-area branches, and Walt Disney Television Animation recently opened an animation studio in the city in order to tap local talent that is unwilling to relocate to Disney’s Burbank, Calif., headquarters. Even traditional resource industries are shifting gears, exporting their expertise through newly launched consulting services that operate around the world. “We are the world leader in mining — it’s all centred here,” boasts Wayne Deans of Deans Knight Capital Management Ltd. Canada’s Big Five banks all are headquartered in Toronto, but the country’s biggest foreign-owned bank, Hongkong Bank of Canada, have chosen Vancouver for its headquarters in part because new technologies allow it to operate worldwide from the city. Says bank chief economist David Bond, “Geography is no longer destiny. You can do just about anything you want anywhere you want, as long as they have electricity and phone lines.”

 

Vancouver aims to attract high-tech businesses, but competition is stiff


But will enough people want to run high-tech businesses in Greater Vancouver, given stiff competition from cities elsewhere and the impediment of Vancouver’s high taxes? If the chosen people of the knowledge age can live anywhere and telecommute, will Vancouver’s beauty, social environment and temperate climate be enough to attract and keep them? “In the modern world economy, cities that are highly desirable places to live generate economic activity,” says U.S. urbanist Neal Peirce, who notes that Vancouver is regarded throughout the continent as a choice location. But the world is chock-full of cities recruiting such New Economy workers. Just by crossing the nearby U.S.-Canada border to scenic, lower-tax states such as Washington and Oregon, educated workers can take home tens of thousands of dollars more in disposable income. According to one contentious study, the income differential between the two countries is $40,000, even accounting for the cost to U.S. residents of private health insurance. This figure helps to explain why top graduates at the British Columbia Institute of Technology are snapped up every year by recruiters in Washington state, merely two hours from Vancouver by car and home to Seattle-based industrial giants Microsoft Corp. and Boeing Co.

The tax burden weighs heavily on employers too. Victoria levies extra taxes on corporations, which seldom can be offset by tax credits. Former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell, who now heads B.C.’s Liberal Party, cites a recent Washington state report of 140 companies (and 3,230 jobs) that recently relocated from British Columbia to Washington as proof that provincial taxes and policies are driving businesses out of British Columbia. “Capital is mobile, and it’s easy to move head offices elsewhere,” Campbell says. “People will still live here, but they move the core of their economic enterprises elsewhere.” Local governments don’t help: In most of Greater Vancouver’s 20 municipalities, business property taxes are disproportionately high. In the City of Vancouver, says credit union economist Richard Allen, the ratio of business to residential taxation is 5.5 to 1–one of the highest in North America.

Vancouver is, of course, famous for its lifestyle. It really is possible for the energetic outdoors lover to spend the morning skiing at Whistler and the afternoon sailing in English Bay, within a few minutes walking distance of the financial district. Unfortunately, though, fewer and fewer people can afford that lifestyle. A billboard near the Lions Gate Bridge last summer invited Vancouverites to move to Edmonton, where, the Alberta city cheekily advertised, house prices average $149,000, compared with Greater Vancouver’s $299,000. Office rents also are sky-high: Prime space in Vancouver goes for $18 to $20 per square foot, almost identical to the rate in Toronto, Canada’s business capital. Rents will go still higher if current forecasts are correct that Vancouver office demand will exceed supply by 1999.

F&O Vancouver Khatsalano Days

Khatsalano Days, an annual street festival in Vancouver. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2013

Many economic observers worry, though, that the onetime spending generated by immigration has masked a fundamentally weak economy. Warns economist Richard Allen, “We can’t sustain the economy forever by just building new houses.”

Yet the money that immigrants bring, if used wisely, can help finance upgraded infrastructure for newcomers and existing residents alike, says economics professor Don DeVoretz, co-director of the Centre for Excellence in Immigration at Simon Fraser University. If self-employment is a good yardstick, Greater Vancouver’s business environment already is more entrepreneurial than the rest of Canada’s. (Some 11% of Vancouverites are self-employed, compared with 9% of Torontonians and 8% of Montrealers.) QLT’s CEO Julia Levy credits the tide of immigration for Vancouver’s new economic vigour: “People from the Pacific Rim, who are so used to doing stuff for themselves, are changing attitudes here,” Levy says. “We’ve been forced, kicking and screaming, into thinking about work in a different way. You can feel the energy in this city now.”

 An injection of entrepreneurial spirit can go only so far in establishing the base for a sustainable New Economy on the West Coast, however. Allen worries that too much noise is made about how the information age is expected to carry the entire future economy. “If you look at the economies around the world that are doing well,” he says, “they’re goods-based. In Vancouver, our refrigerators and computers are made elsewhere. If we’re going to sustain a large and growing population, we need to increase our goods-producing sector.”

“Winning regions in the world will apply market economics to air, water, land, energy, financial capital.”

 Those who champion making Vancouver more competitive in attracting business differ on means. Cutting taxes and making government more efficient frequently are cited as solutions. Ken Cameron has a broader definition in mind as he views his domain from his 15th-storey window in the Burnaby office centre that houses the Greater Vancouver Regional District. “The winning regions in the world in the next 20 to 30 years will be the ones that apply market economics to air, water, land, energy, financial capital,” says Cameron, chief planner for the GVRD. “And nobody,” he claims, “is addressing the issue of growth management as a factor in competitiveness to the extent that we are.”

The big “if” attached to Cameron’s dream is the prospect for success of a blueprint for Greater Vancouver development called the Livable Region Strategic Plan, a document exhaustively developed over the past two decades by local government officials and politicians, and recognized by the provincial government. “Vancouver is taking a giant step toward the kind of futuristic planning all city-state regions must make,” says urban affairs expert Peirce, “unless they want to face a 21st century of dire traffic congestion, foul air, shattered community and declining economic prospects.” Lauded by planners worldwide, the GVRD’s elegant regional plan proposes to channel population growth into areas of relatively high density, to preserve zones of green space, reduce the use of cars and build “complete communities” in which people can live and work with a minimum of commuting. “The plan tries to achieve a balance among housing affordability, urban containment and environmental sustainability by trying to ensure that we get sufficient housing construction in the most appropriate parts of the region,” says Dale Wall, executive director of the Growth Strategies office of the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

The ambitious GVRD blueprint covers a region half the size of Prince Edward Island, whose population is a mere 137,000. Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, New Westminster and the other communities of the Fraser River Valley and delta must accommodate some 1.8 million people today, and as many as 3 million within the next generation. Residents of this region live in a mix of areas, from highly urban to pastoral. Some highly developed areas, like the city of Richmond, lie in the path of floodwaters on alluvial soils that would turn jelly-like in the large earthquake feared to someday strike the region. Other areas up the valley lie in the path of wind-borne pollution from the rest of the metropolis.

The urgency of the blueprint’s champions owes much to concerns that current rates of population growth could harm the fragile valley environment. Already, commuters are stuck for long hours on the lone major highway serving the region, the Trans-Canada, which resembles a parking lot much of the time.

Outsiders who regard Vancouver as a paradise in the rain forest would be surprised to know that ground water in the Fraser Valley has become so polluted with nitrates from poultry farms that scientists warn that water in some aquifers may never be drinkable again. And the air, trapped in the valley by the mountains and ocean breezes, is so laden with a sun-cooked brew of toxins that, for several days each summer, residents with respiratory problems are warned to stay indoors. In the City of Vancouver, which Bob Hope once likened to a car wash because it rains so much, watering of lawns is rationed because of water-storage facilities that are inadequate to the needs of local residents, who are Canada’s highest per-capita water consumers. And the water that does come through the pipes often exceeds acceptable levels of contamination.

Limits to growth are more apparent here than in the Prairies or Central Canada, where newcomers can spread out in all directions. In the Lower Mainland, the population influx is crammed into the funnel between the mountains and the U.S. border. That distribution pattern contributes to higher pollution levels. Warns one planning document: “Urban sprawl into the rich agricultural lands of the Fraser Valley is continuing, traffics congestion is worsening and the environment [measured in terms of air and water quality and the amount of green space] is deteriorating rapidly.” Cameron puts it succinctly: “Every year that goes by, there’s a new population the size of the city of New Westminster living here-most of them in the wrong way.”

Using zoning, bylaws, financial incentives and other tools of government, the GVRD’s strategic plan will encourage people to live closer to one another; leave their cars at home and walk, take the bus or Sky Train, bike or car pool to work; and to buy into a shared vision of a clean sustainable environment and healthy community.

In an achievement rightly viewed as a minor miracle, the sweeping GVRD blueprint has been approved by each of the 20 GVRD municipalities and the provincial government. Each municipality has until February, 1998, to write into its own municipal plan how it will implement the GVRD plan-and then get down to the nitty-gritty of designing changes to neighbourhoods that will put it into effect.

Changing neighbourhoods will be no easy task, as the “haves” with single-family housing units strive to hold onto what they have, and the “have-nots” fight for increased density. Alan Artibise, a professor at UBC and former head of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities in Vancouver, warns that while talented people have produced an excellent overarching plan, “The real planning takes place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights at local council meetings, in thousands of small decisions.” A more hopeful Neal Peirce notes that change for the better is perhaps “more possible in Greater Vancouver than in American cities because American cities are filled with prickly independent don’t-step-on-me types. The Canadian culture might be more willing to accept planning.”

For some Vancouverites, it’s too late for preventive medicine in an economy marked by a widened gap between haves and have-nots. The City of Vancouver endured a whopping 19,000 break-and-enters last year. Within a few blocks of the Vancouver Stock Exchange squats Canada’s biggest skid row, a 20-block area that includes the poorest postal code area in the country and a thriving drug trade. There is a weary resignation among Vancouverites that rising crime is an inevitable byproduct of rapid growth.

But at least for now, Vancouver’s buoyant economy does much to alleviate social unrest. And despite the high numbers of multiracial immigrants new to the region, racial incidents have been relatively few. Economist Roslyn Kunin of the Vancouverbased Laurier Institution, an organization that researches and promotes understanding on social issues, gives Greater Vancouver a B grade for race relations. To maintain or improve that grade, though, the livability of the community cannot be allowed to decline because of a reversal in economic fortunes or a failure to implement progressive urban planning concepts.

This year, Vancouver has been celebrating the 10th anniversary of Expo 86, the world’s fair often seen as a civic turning point. Before Expo, the economy was stagnating, and British Columbia suffered an outflow of residents. The fair helped jolt residents into an awareness of their city’s larger potential.

Yet Vancouver still seems uncertain of what it wants to be. Some say it should scale back its expectations. “Vancouver is not a world city, because it lacks the normal functions associated with a world city,” especially the requisite corporate headquarters, which instead have chosen Calgary as their base, says urbanist Doug Webster of Bangkok, senior urban planning adviser in the office of the Thai Prime Minister. A Canadian on leave from the University of Calgary, where he is a professor of urban planning, Webster says, “Vancouver still has to develop more of its own identity. There’s a certain affectation that mimics San Francisco. It strikes me as not having much of a distinct character other than what’s pushed on it from the surrounding rain forest.”

Urban scholar Artibise says that during the past two decades Vancouver has acquired a cosmopolitan air. “It’s more urbane, there are more points that people with different backgrounds can relate to.” But Artibise says the region’s residents and governments are too parochial for Greater Vancouver to claim great-city status.

It falls to Cameron of the GVRD to offer a vision of the future to match the spectacular view from his office of mountains, valley and water. He sees it this way, that Athens fostered democracy, Vienna pioneered in music and London in theatre. And Vancovuer can earn its fame by finding a formula for blending economic prosperity with social diversity and environmental quality.

Is it practical to place much hope in such a vision coming about? Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, who thinks Greater Vancouver’s population will climb to 15 million over the next century, says, “The city could be absolutely magnificent, one of the extraordinary cities in the world. But we’re losing it so fast to endless sprawl. We’re not prepared to handle growth-everybody has their head in the stand.”

Another Vancouver architect, Bruno Freschi, now views Vancouver from the distant perspective of his post as dean of architecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Freschi uses the example of Los Angeles to place Vancouver’s future in context. In the 1950s, Freschi points out, Los Angeles was hailed as a perfect model of urban planning because of its development of modern planned suburbs and an extensive freeway system built to accommodate the North American preference for big cars. Today, lowdensity suburbs and emphasis on automobiles are discredited concepts, and the Los Angeles model, with its pollution and congestion, is widely condemned. Vancouver, which never got around to building a network of freeways and has relatively less suburban sprawl, has become the model for big-city planning in North America. “You don’t know how good it is here until you leave,” Freschi says during a recent visit from New York, watching the Rollerbladers and beach volleyball players from the vantage point of a quiet cafe overlooking English Bay. “And then you always want to come back.”

Copyright © 1996 Deborah Jones

Originally published by the Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine, November, 1996. Photos updated 2014.

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