It felt like the end of an era when I left Vancouver BC – nothing to do with me personally, but because the city’s three-term mayor Gregor Robertson had announced that he would be standing down after ten years in office. Still absurdly young and good-looking (he was a proto-Justin Trudeau, and like him is known just by his first name), he presided over an era in which Vancouver became known as one of the planet’s most desirable places to live, with its amazing sea-and-skiing setting, its lively culture, its innovative bars and restaurants, its wealth of cycle lanes… But being perpetually atop the world liveability rankings does mean that the whole world wants to move there, and housing in Vancouver has become absurdly expensive, partly because a lot of wealthy Chinese in particular have invested in grand homes which are then often left empty. In 2017 the city introduced a tax on empty houses, and the province of British Columbia introduced a 15% tax on non-residents buying property. Meanwhile, the federal government has just increased the annual immigration rate from 280,000 a year to 340,000 by 2020, and the Metro Vancouver area is expected to see between 1 million and 1.2 million new residents over the next 30 years.
Not surprisingly there’s a homelessness crisis – Robertson pledged to end it, but soon found that the mild winter climate, among other things, meant that Canada’s homeless will just keep on moving west. This is linked with the opioid addiction crisis that is sweeping North America (to the bafflement of the rest of the world), and the fact that the provincial and federal governments were controlled for much of his time in office by unsympathetic right-wing parties (thankfully now removed). The Downtown Eastside district, very close to the city centre and yes, just to the east, has been associated with drugs for a long time, and is now being ravaged by the opioid crisis; between January and September 2017 over 1100 people died of suspected overdoses in British Columbia (mainly in the Vancouver area and Vancouver island), and the synthetic opioid Fentanyl was involved in 83% of those deaths.
But there’s no denying that something special has been created here – ‘Vancouverism’ is ‘characterized by a large population living in the city centre with mixed-use developments, …significant reliance on mass public transit, creation and maintenance of green park spaces, and preserving view corridors’. In other words, a city where people don’t feel the need to travel by car and live in the suburbs (it’s also very multicultural, but that’s another matter). So it’s no surprise that public transport is busy and expanding – frequencies and service hours are being increased on buses (including the B-Line express routes), the SeaBus ferry to North Vancouver (now every ten minutes at peak times) and the Skytrain automated metro. Now that Skytrain has reached the airport (though with a stonking add-on fare) the next priority has to be to serve UBC, the university that’s the size of a separate town on the coast southwest of the city, which is reached by frequent but overcrowded buses. Skytrain’s Millennium Line (which currently dead-ends in the middle of some railway yards at VCC/Clark) is to be extended west along Broadway as far as Arbutus St (in trendy Kitsilano), less than halfway to UBC, perhaps by 2024. The existing Skytrain lines are largely elevated, apart from some old railway routes, but this extension will largely be in tunnel, and thus much more expensive. There’s an aspiration to eventually push the Skytrain all the way to UBC, but that’s a long way off.
Vancouver’s equivalent to London’s Oyster Card is the Compass Card, introduced in 2015; after some teething problems, it’s working well, and allows hassle-free transfers and much cheaper fares than for cash.
Another aspect of Robertson’s legacy (omitted from the definition of ‘Vancouverism’ above) is a huge expansion in cycle facilities – the ten years to 2016 saw a rise in Greater Vancouver’s cycle-commuting rate from 1.7% to 2.3%, and in the city itself the rate is 6.1%. Hardly Dutch levels, but pretty good by North American standards. There’s also a high level of leisure cycling – the one-way loop around Stanley Park is legendary, and by June 2018 a new route should follow the coast from the Burrard Bridge through Kitsilano (‘Kits’) to Jericho Beach, giving a total of 28km of safe cycling from the downtown Convention Centre much of the way to UBC. Incidentally, the pedestrian/cycle promenade around the Convention Centre has some excellent panels with fascinating nuggets of historical information; you also get one of the quintessential Vancouver views here, with the cruise terminal to the right, the mountains and ski slopes of North Vancouver ahead, and Stanley Park and Coal Harbour (where the seaplanes and the V2V fast ferry mentioned in this post dock) to the left.
The cycle route to Jericho Beach mentioned above passes through Vanier Park, where the Museum of Vancouver has been revitalised in recent years. Like most of the Pacific North West museums, it now gives the First Nations their rightful place in local history, helped by recent research that’s revealed much more about their civilisations. It’s important to remember that, thanks to the plentiful salmon runs, these peoples had a much easier life than those inland, allowing them the leisure to develop a rich artistic culture, characterised by their ‘formline’ style of decoration on carvings and textiles. But it’s less well known that artistic production really exploded in scale after the arrival of Europeans created a retail market for the first time. Totem poles used to be pretty temporary constructions, their natural rotting and collapsing being part of the memorial process, but now far more are being made and they’re being preserved. What’s more, new crafts developed, such as argillite carving in Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), and Salish basket weaving (previously the Salish people had just made hats). The best-known example, though not represented here, is Cape Dorset printmaking, which was created out of the blue in the 1950s when a government administrator in Baffin Island brought in materials and encouraged the Inuit people to discover their creativity.
The museum also has good coverage of the 1960s, when a popular uprising blocked a very destructive plan to build freeways through Gastown and Chinatown, linking to a third crossing to North Vancouver, when all the politicians were initially in favour. In 1972 a new party called TEAM (The Electors Action Movement) took control of the city council, eventually leading to Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson, which is where we started. Oh, and in 1969 a little pressure group called Greenpeace was formed in a Vancouver living room.
I don’t have a lot to say about food and drink here, but the current food fad is poké, a rice and fish bowl combo from Japan via Hawai’i which I don’t find very interesting (because I don’t eat meat or fish, and rice often doesn’t agree with me). I’d have been far more interested in sampling the many good local beers, but didn’t get around to it. Canada’s first microbrewery was founded at the Troller Bay pub in Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, back in 1982 when nothing but industrial lagers were available; it closed down around 2000, but only after spawning other very successful outfits such as Spinnakers and Hoyne Brewing (both in Victoria), Howe Sound Brewing (in Squamish) and Strange Fellows Brewing Company (in Vancouver). In 2013 the Troller Ale House opened close to the original pub, serving the original Troller Bay Ale as well as offerings from local craft breweries. Of course, every bar in the city now carries a range of interesting beers and ciders, not to mention gins.