Vancouver: Liquid City

When they schedule the olympics in a city, the city usually schedules a massive international advertising campaign for its greatness as “the best place on earth,” which is actually the brilliant and oh-so-convincing motto selected by Vancouver, Canada, next host of the winter olympics. That we will learn a great deal about Vancouver from watching the olympics is placed in more doubt than usual by the fact that Canada arrested American journalist Amy Goodman at the border based purely on the random and baseless suspicion that she might someday say something critical of the best olympics on earth.

For those interested in learning about the city of Vancouver, and about the conflicts cities around the world are facing these days in trying to compete for international capital while also (on the contrary?) creating healthy, human, and just communities for city residents, I highly recommend Matt Hern’s book “Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future.” It opens with these lines:

“It’s funny how people tend to describe Canada: fish, timber, prairies, empty beaches, crashing waves, lonely farmers, isolated small towns. That picture is a romantically attractive one but distorting. The reality is that Canada is an urban country. More than eighty percent of Canada’s population lives in urban centers, half the country lives in Vancouver, Montreal, or Southern Ontario, and virtually all the population is crowded tightly along the border.

“That’s a good thing. With a world population closing in on seven billion and not expected to stabilize until nine or ten billion, people are increasingly concentrating in cities all over the world. And thank goodness for that.

“The only chance the world has for an ecological future is for the vast bulk of us to live in cities. If we want to preserve what’s still left of the natural world, we need to stop using so much of it. We need to start sharing the resources and land bases we do not have, to stop spreading out so much, and focus our transportation and energy resources carefully. It may sound counter-intuitive, but there can be no doubt that an ecological future has to be organized around cities.”

But what kind of cities? Hern’s book explores cities around the world in order to draw out trends and patterns, dangers and opportunities in his own Vancouver, which he loves, admires, and harshly criticizes. He explores his city’s relationship with nature, with the native populations that used to live on its land, with its history. He digs into questions of food supply, recreation, regulation, unplannable anarchic beauty, bicycles, automobiles, and every aspect of urban existence . And underlying much of Hern’s investigation is his concern that Vancouver and other major cities increasingly consist of two populations existing side-by-side in separate worlds:

“People with little attachment and few civic bonds to the city increasingly populate downtown: global consumers rather than citizens who care about the place as more than an investment or temporary stopping point. Along with that development pattern comes an avalanche of low-paid service economy jobs to service that economy: retail, restaurant, security, and tourism jobs with wages that ensure that workers cannot live near where they work.”

So, what choices do we have? Which ones require top-down planning, and which ones can city-residents accomplish themselves through community involvement, lifestyle changes, or a little mixing up of concrete in the middle of the night? The answers are not all clear yet, but Hern opens up a lot of possibilities for exploration. Read the book.

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