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Vancouver, a city on the edge of the continent, and itself

Blog by Anne Mainwaring | January 22nd, 2017

Pete McMartin: Vancouver, a city on the edge of the continent, and itself



In the late 1980s, Saturday Night magazine commissioned British writer Jan Morris to write about Canada.


To Morris — a global traveller who once said she believed Canada to be the best and most moral of the world’s countries — Canada was not the vast snowy wilderness of popular imagination. To her, it was the sum of its cities strung latitudinally across it. Metro Vancouver was one of the 10 cities Morris profiled.


The title of her Vancouver essay was Too Nice for Words? — an open-ended question that suggested not only Morris’s feelings of ambivalence for the city but ours, too. Beautiful? Certainly. Modern? Unquestionably. Efficient, clean, tolerant, admirably multicultural? Yes, yes, yes and yes. She could have been describing a utopian ideal. That, to Morris, was the problem.


“But one need not parody, or even exaggerate, the pleasantness of Vancouver,” she wrote. “This is, one might say, the last resort of pleasantness, and especially, I think, pleasantness of a middle-class, middle-income, middle-aged English kind. A metropolis of 1.3 million people, of innumerable nationalities, it still has the public manners of an English country town half a century ago. It seldom raises its voice. It would not dream of jumping a light. During 10 days in Vancouver, I never heard a car horn tooted.”


She felt the city lacked texture. Like San Francisco, Vancouver was a victim of its setting — never living up to it, never quite escaping it. She adored Stanley Park, and felt it unrivalled in all the world, but she chafed at the city’s bland and unadventurous architecture. She cited its “lack of spontaneity.”


“It is a city, one feels, that wants to be something else — like a chrysalis approaching metamorphosis. It surely cannot stay as it is forever, eternally young, eternally diffident, defying all the odds of urban development. Vancouver feels half-empty to me, though natives complain of its growing congestion, and half-fulfilled as well.”


I remember the howls her piece gave rise to here at the time, a reaction that perfectly proved Morris’s point. A more mature city would have shrugged it off. Vancouver, still in its adolescence, reacted accordingly.


But as a visitor and interloper myself — by that time, I had been in Vancouver for only a dozen years — I thought Morris had nailed it, despite the fact that she also thought the Sun and Province “must surely rank high among the dullest journals in the English language.” It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before.


But Morris, preoccupied as she was with the surface of things, missed what had become the city’s defining ethos and peculiar genius. She could not have known that the beautiful setting she felt burdened the city’s sense of itself had also informed it, that its geography had seeped into the everyday lives of its citizens like nowhere else in Canada.


It created a tension between those who saw wilderness and beauty as resources to be exploited, and those who saw them as treasures to be protected. It made us mindful not only of our own urban geography, which too often resulted in a cautious and often uninspired cityscape, as Morris correctly noted, but it made us call into question our own personal landscapes as well.


In other areas of Canada, the idea of what constituted The Good Life was never in question. Here, it was all up for debate. How best to live one’s life? Was it with a low carbon footprint, or a convertible? Was it a downtown freeway, or the preservation of neighbourhoods? Was it tankers, or salmon? Was it preservation, or change? Was it suburbanization, or densification? This dynamic gave rise to extremes — this is the city that gave birth to both Greenpeace and the Fraser Institute — but both extremes had their eyes on the same thing, and that was the future.


Not an idealized future, but a livable, urban one. These kinds of questions are run-of-the-mill in cities around the world now, but before I came to Vancouver I had never before experienced such an obsessive degree of civic introspection. But then, I came from Ontario.


Metro Vancouver is not the same city, physically or characteristically, that Morris saw 30 years ago. It’s bigger. It’s doubled its population. It’s a city of greater extremes than it used to be, both financially and demographically. It is not, as too many believe, past its due date. The young will not abandon it. The population will grow, not shrink. People are flocking here, not fleeing it.


But it has had its coming-out party and must now grow up. It is at a crossroads and must decide what kind of city it wants to be.


It threatens to become like a hundred other North American cities — another Toronto, another Dallas — but, as its geography has been compelled to do in the past, it can go its own way and forge something unique. I despair of the former. I believe in the latter.