Dear Vancouver: We are Not Breaking Up with You

We know a lot of people are breaking up with you, but we can work this out.

Why do we love you so much that we’re willing to make sacrifices to live with you?  It’s obvious, really.  You’re beautiful.  But we don’t just mean the view of the mountains, we love you for so many reasons: your street life, the public parks, the beaches, the cherry blossoms in the spring, the seawall, the great beer and restaurants, Granville Island and Stanley Park. 

But, we are not going to sit here and lavish you with praise for your spectacular natural setting or the fact that you can ski and golf in the same day (because who actually does this?). The truth is, you have some real issues that you could work on: your housing is too expensive, the traffic sucks, and you don’t provide jobs to match the cost of living.  

How do we get past this and move forward?

The beauty (and torment) of relationships is that being intimate with each other forces us to confront personal, social, and cultural issues. We can choose to leave or find a way to grow together. Of course, leaving is sometimes the right decision. But when one chooses to stay, figuring out how to make the relationship work helps us become better together.

There's a parallel with cities. Many of us have fallen in love with Vancouver and decided to "move in together." Now that we're all trying to live in this small space, we're being forced to confront our personal and cultural assumptions. This includes the kinds of homes we expect to raise a family in, how to get around, how to make our neighbourhoods better, and how to welcome new people without displacing existing community members.

Deciding to stay isn't right for everyone, but those who choose to stay are developing creative and innovative ways to build our city for the future. That has always been the way things are done in Vancouver. Here are some examples of why you are still a leader when it comes to building a great city:

We are one of the only cities in the world without a freeway:  Back in the 1970s when the private automobile, suburban sprawl, and freeways were all the rage, Vancouver made a bold move and said “no” to building an elevated waterfront freeway that would cut through the city and built a seawall for walking and cycling instead.

We created a liveable downtown: “Vancouverism” is how our city showed the world a way to design more liveable forms of high-rise residential development.  Towers were no longer isolated and designated low-income. Towers were now luxurious, slim glass structures with amenities, spectacular views, and easy access to retail shops, parks, and public transit. The city also worked with developers to ensure that these buildings included affordable housing, parks, schools, and childcare. Vancouverism is not without its critics, but it brought life and vibrancy to the city’s once sleepy downtown core and has been a model for residential development in cities around the world.

We are developing new, innovative ways to live in our communities: Vancouver is a model of people who are living in smaller homes in walkable communities, consuming less and challenging the idea that you need to live in a big house with a two car garage.

We are building housing that accommodates both lower and higher income residents: The Woodward’s redevelopment in Gastown included 200 individual and family-oriented social housing units on the same site as market priced units. The building has become an iconic and important experiment that responds to our ideas of development without displacement.

We opened the first supervised injection site in North America: In the 1990s, a public health emergency was declared in Vancouver due to overdose deaths and a spike in HIV and hepatitis C infections. After Vancouver’s supervised injection site, Insite, opened, over 40 peer-reviewed studies concluded that the facility has slashed HIV infections, reduced overdose deaths, and increased the number of people seeking treatment without increasing crime.

We preserved our farmland and forests when everyone was building over theirs: the Agricultural Land Reserve and Metro Vancouver’s Green Zone continue to be an essential restraint on the march of suburban development and have preserved vast amounts of farmland, forests and watersheds in the region.

Photo:  Modacity

Photo: Modacity

We reduced car trips by creating better alternatives:  Remember that freeway we never built? Because of that decision, we’ve reduced car trips into the city. In 2014, there were 62,000 less car trips than in 2013. Meanwhile people make half of all trips by walking, cycling, and transit. Protected bike lanes (and bikesharing in the near future), public transit, and walkable neighbourhoods give people safe and comfortable alternatives to driving.

It is not the mountains, the yoga, or the great seafood that we love most about you.  What has always made Vancouver great is our innovation, creativity, and passion in the face of difficulty. We have an incredible challenge ahead of us as Vancouver grows to accommodate more people. But to quote a respected local urbanist, Gordon Price:

“Limitations and constraints provoke and inspire creativity in cities."

So to the people who choose to stay, let’s not forget the innovative ways we have faced challenges in the past and let’s create new, bold ways to move forward into the future. For all of these reasons, we are not breaking up with you, Vancouver. We are going to stay and try to work this out.


The Team at MODUS Planning, Design and Engagement

MODUS Planning, Design and Engagement is a Vancouver-based firm that specializes in community planning, urban design and public engagement. By moving "from insight to impact," we work with clients to create a lasting legacy of healthy, sustainable, and prosperous communities.