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