July 2009

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on July 29, 2009 at 1:21 pm


A flurry of ‘top city’ rankings have hit the media in recent days. A random sampling:

In June, Forbes Traveler magazine named Kitsilano Beach to their list of North America’s 10 Sexiest Beaches, describing it as “an intoxicating nexus of sea, forest, and mountains.” (Though in the picture they chose for the accompanying online slideshow, linked above, all you see murky grey-brown water. It’s really not our best close-up.)

Also in June, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked us number one on their liveability index, which ranks 140 cities on things like stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Vancouver scored a 98 out of 100.

Last week, Macleans magazine released their first-ever ranking of Canada’s “best-run” cities. Vancouver ranked fourth—notably behind our neighbours Burnaby (#1) and Surrey (#3).

And in the current issue of Monocle magazine—that highbrow compendium of business, culture, and design—Vancouver placed 14th on their annual index of the top 25 liveable cities, falling back from eighth in the 2008 ranking. They gave us points for our multicultural, multilingual character and our easy “access to nature,” but docked us for a lack of cross-border vision, calling on city leaders to “forge tighter business, cultural, and transport links with Seattle and Portland.” They also dinged us on architecture: “There are too many bad condo developments and mundane retail outlets.” (Edit note: I’d link to the piece, but it’s available only to subscribers.)

The ranking that garners the most headlines is Mercer’s global “Quality of LIving” survey, which comes out every April. This year, we ranked fourth overall (behind Vienna, Zurich, and Geneva), and placed first in the Americas for “quality of living” and “infrastructure.” That survey emphasizes the attractiveness of cities for expatriates. So, places like Vienna and Singapore score highly; Baghdad not so much.

Two observations/questions here:

One, why does Vancouver have such a presence on these lists? Because there’s a common focus on this, oftentimes, intangible notion of “liveability.” It’s not surprising Vancouver comes up in relation to it: “liveability” informed regional planning processes dating back to the 1970s—a time when other municipalities were carving up their downtowns to build freeways. (See the 2007 Douglas & McIntyre book City-Making in Paradise for a thorough discussion of liveability and regional planner Harry Lash—he of “the process is the plan” philosophy. Sounds academic perhaps, but the book lays out a model of regional planning that persists today. Metro Vancouver Urban Planning in a nutshell. Unquestionably a local achievement.

Two, what happens when the editors and analysts who prepare these rankings realize we’re still trading on our good looks and on wise decisions we made years ago? What’s actually new here?

This summer, the release of many of these rankings coincided with a rebranding effort now underway at City Hall, and nicely summarized in a story in The Tyee this week. Read it here. Maybe it’s just the mood of city councilors, maybe it’s the pressure of the upcoming Olympics—or both—but this question of how the world sees us is a persistent, very long-standing local concern. Why do we appear to crave the assurance that we’re doing okay? Why so self-conscious?

Why not create a new brand that focuses on bold, smart, forward-thinking decision-making, and leave the stale Lotusland bit behind? And why not start with a good look at housing. Enough with the years-old laneway houses debate! Lets actually create a new model of affordable market housing for families, so these international rankings focus on our progressive inclusivity rather than just our planning history and natural geography. Go!

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on July 22, 2009 at 11:42 pm


(Note: I tweeted about this last night, but think it warrants further discussion. Here goes.)

The August issue of Bon Appetit magazine has a compelling feature article about Vancouver’s food and restaurant culture. The gist: we’re an incredibly earnest, self-conscious foodie tribe, and our best restaurants have embraced “every admirable and sometimes infuriating food cause: local, sustainable, organic, eco-gastronomical.” Read all about it here.

Author Alan Richman argues Vancouver chefs are standing on either side of a line, the pro-locals vs. the pro-organics. My sense is that we passed that point about five years ago. The more interesting aspect of his argument is simply how complicated our local food culture has become. So much so, it may well be too sophisticated to hang together philosophically. Richman even suggests this complexity could be sapping the overall quality and innovation of local restaurant menus. Is it a case of two Vancouver passions—activism + sustainability—running amok in one sector? Do we need to lighten up?

Yesterday, CBC Radio’s “On the Coast” show interviewed Richman and C Restaurant’s Robert Clark about all of this. Listen in here, then send us your thoughts.

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on July 21, 2009 at 4:31 pm


Always interesting reading headlines from The Other Vancouver, that is, the city of Vancouver, Washington, pop. 164,500. Seems they’re batting around the idea of levying a licensing fee on bicycles as a way to cover the infrastructure costs associated with their in-the-works bike and pedestrian master plan. Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart informally raised the idea last week, suggesting a fee comparable to that of a dog license, which goes for $16 locally. “As a bicyclist, I would pay a licensing fee if I had better trail access… We license our dogs. You license your car. Why wouldn’t you license your bikes?”

Interesting question. Should cyclists pay to get the city they want? Would the fees collected make a viable dent in cycling infrastructure and upkeep costs? Does it make sense to tax those using carbon-neutral transit? Another question: Should a portion of B.C.’s carbon tax be earmarked for cycling infrastructure?

Apparently, this debate isn’t new to the Pacific Northwest. Last spring, the Oregon legislature nixed a proposal to put a $54 tax on bikes (legislation linked here), following opposition from many cyclist groups. Makes me think Vancouver B.C. cyclists wouldn’t favour the idea here, either. Comments?

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on July 15, 2009 at 10:52 pm

This Saturday, the Museum begins an eight-week run of cycling tours that examine the term “Vancouverism”—that mixture of urban design, architecture, and city planning that this city has become known for globally. Vancouverism encompasses everything from the architectural vision of the late Arthur Erickson, to green-glass towers that dot the north shore of False Creek, to developer-funded public parks and schools.

Where did the term originate? Best guesses indicate it came from architects and city planners who visited Vancouver in the 1990s and were inspired by its success luring people back downtown. A decade or so later, Vancouverism has become a political ideology, a lifestyle, and an export (see Dubai, San Diego, Toronto, and Seattle). It has also become a success story: Vancouver has more than doubled its downtown population in the past two decades, bucking the trend of many other cities.

The MOV tours deconstruct “Vancouverism” by looking at the term in practice, and the people behind the major examples. It starts at the Museum, crosses over the Burrard Street Bridge into the West End, then wraps around False Creek to Yaletown, Southeast False Creek (the site of Vancouverism 2.0), False Creek South, and back to the Museum. Our Velo-City exhibit is a fitting conclusion, exploring similar themes of livability and progressive city planning.

We hope you can join the conversation. Click here to register.

Image credit: Kenny Louie

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on July 15, 2009 at 9:37 pm


A quick (and belated) post, on the outdoor screening of “The Triplets of Belleville” the Museum hosted on Monday night. The weather was sub par, but the crowd of 400+ didn’t seem to mind. Thanks to everyone who attended, and to all those who’ve blogged and tweeted about it since. So glad you enjoyed yourselves. Should we do it again?

p.s. to those who didn’t make it out, check out “The Triplets of Belleville” trailer linked here. I’ve had the theme song in my head for days. Not such a bad thing.

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on July 9, 2009 at 11:00 am


Tonight the Museum hosts a members-only reception for our ongoing exhibit “My Heroes in the Streets,” a series of 10 images taken by Ian Wallace in 1986. (One of the images is pictured left.)

Over the past three decades, Vancouver has emerged as a important centre for contemporary photographic art, with local artists such as Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Roy Arden, and Wallace pushing traditional notions of photography, art, cinematography, and documentary. The modern city is a recurring subject: the contents of landfills are presented; rows of Vancouver Specials—that loved and loathed housing type that dominates Vancouver’s eastside neighbourhoods—have appeared in backgrounds.

Several local institutions have figured prominently in this movement, notably: TheVancouver Art Gallery, which has hosted numerous exhibitions of this work and published an incredible library of related books and catalogues (see: Roy Arden: Against the Day and Jeff Wall: Vancouver Art Gallery Collection for recent examples). The lesser-known Canadian Photographic Portfolio Society has also played a key role, publishing limited-edition photographic portfolios, boxed in elegant archival cases. “My Heroes in the Streets” was their first commissioned work, and a slideshow of the images is on their website, linked here. The photographs show individuals navigating a generic and mundane urban landscape, localized by Vancouver locations and symbols, like street addresses and overhead trolley wires. Wallace describes the street as the site “metaphorically as well as in actuality, of all the forces of society and economics imploded upon the individual.”

The Museum’s interest here leans toward the documentary aspect of these works. Wallace’s intentions notwithstanding, it’s hard to ignore how the downtown core has changed since the images were taken, transitioning from a bland western outpost searching for its best side pre-Expo 86, to a post-industrial, international city. Still, Vancouver’s preoccupation with how it’s viewed by the outside world persists, intensifying in the lead up to another massive international event. What will the world find when they get here in February?

Image credit: CPPS

Posted by: Rosemary Poole on July 3, 2009 at 2:32 pm

This is neat: our neighbours at the City of Vancouver Archives have digitized early film footage of the city and put the collection online. Some 150 films and counting, all accessible here. (A screen grab from the film “City Lights” is pictured left.)  It’s an incredible glimpse of Vancouver’s early days: sawmills on fire, bridges demolished, swimmers in bathing caps at Third Beach. Maybe I’m just on the change beat these days—a look at previous posts indicates as much—but I’m always astounded by the rate of change in this city. Some of the footage calls for a curator or historian to explain precisely where you’re looking. Granville and Robson? Somewhere on East Hastings? Would other Canadian cities be so unrecognizable? Other young, Western Canadian cities?

Cities are always in a state of change: buildings come and go, businesses change hands. But in Vancouver, it’s the scale of the transformation that’s striking. Here, whole neighbourhoods change from industrial to residential in the span of a few years. Maybe things will settle down now that the low-hanging fruit—those industrial areas that had run their course—has been plucked, but I think innovation and renovation is just part of our nature, and nothing is permanent.

Image credit: City of Vancouver Archives, film “City Lights”