Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

“Vancouver needs a gateway economy”

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There’s more to an ‘Asia Pacific Gateway’ than transportation
Yuen Pau Woo, Special to the Sun
Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Yuen Pau Woo is president and co-CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a think-tank on Canada’s relations with Asia, based in Vancouver.

So it is not really surprising that he is in favour of more and stronger links to China and Hong Kong. And on the whole I agree with him that there is a lot more to such a relationship than transport. Somehow I do not see the opening of the Price Rupert container terminal as part of the process he is describing as “needed”, although it will help relieve some of the port congestion seen here at present. Although that congestion is a lot more to do with lack of railway capacity and badly organized logistics than the lack of lanes on the Port Mann Bridge – but he doesn’t talk about that and therefore neither will I.

He does mention the “three day sailing” saving over “Los Angeles-Long Beach or Seattle-Tacoma” which seems to be a little broad in its definition. He does not mention the widening of the Panama Canal or the future use of the North West Passage either, both of which offer considerable savings for accessing the east coast of the US. He does not mention the current rocky state of the US economy and what that will do to some of the more enthusiastic forecasts for continuing growth of demand in the US for Chinese imports. Or the potential for China to start to explore the benefits of a larger or a more sustainable domestic economy – one less tied to international trade.

But he is mostly silent on the “how” of getting where he thinks Vancouver should be going. And this is where the “need” comes in. We face significant challenges in this region, and so far we do not appear to be in a position to make a coherent strategy to deal with them. We lack the regional capacity to make and implement decisions because of our weak and fractured local government structure and the province’s current political preference for free market solutions which precludes effective planning. Indeed, actually throws planning out of the window in favour of sudden flashes of inspiration which are not even well communicated within the cabinet, let alone to the rest of us.

We face critical shortages of labour just to service our own needs. The galloping inflation of the housing market has made shelter for people on low to moderate incomes – especially those without access to significant sources of capital – next to impossible. This means that solving current labour shortages in the service industries will have to deal with attracting even more people to come and live here and finding a way for them to be able to do that on the sort of low wages paid in those industries. At the same time we face a critical shortage of space – indeed we always have done but once upon a time we had a way to deal with that which we now seem ready to abandon.

The sort of service functions he describes used to concentrated into extremely dense cores of very large metropolitan regions. Yet Vancouver is not yet – and probably should not aspire to be – London, New York or Tokyo. In a world that is now linked by fibre optics and satellites, it is possible that these top of the pile economic centres may not need to be quite so concentrated. But note as well that I slipped in the normative “should” there. Because what this article seems to take as an article of faith that continued economic growth towards a megalopolis is somehow inevitable or desirable. Because I do not think it is.

For one thing the sort of place that we have desired to emulate has been Zurich. Also alpine, but not a port. But a leading world financial centre – because of Swiss security and banking secrecy. (And, fairness I should point out that the Swiss themselves say they are fighting an outdated cliché). And that particular niche has been noticed by places like Lichtenstein and many “off shore islands” around the world. I do not think Vancouver should try to compete with the Cayman Islands – even if a lot of their cash is generated here.

The links we have with the Pacific rim are partly geographic but they are also family ties. Networks of relationships that overlap businesses, acquaintance and common interest. Canada ceased being a subsidiary of the United Kingdom some time ago. We can also avoid the fate of becoming a branch of the firm next door. But it will take a more coherent set of policies at federal, provincial and metropolitan level to ensure that. And probably a lot more participation in our political processes from people in those communities. Just allowing the hidden hand of market forces to do what it will is not going to produce the sort of future that most peole here now want.

But nobody is asking them – I mean us. The current practice is to keep us in the dark and occasionally throw another load of horse droppings on us. Expect some more soon from announcements to be made at UBCM.

But do not expect to be consulted. There will be lots of window dressing. But the decisions continue to be made by well connected people behind closed doors. By the time we hear what is going on it will be too late to do much about it. Which is why as a society we can only expect more protests and civil disobedience. Because that is the only way to deal with “leaders” who not only do not listen, but set up processes to ensure that we have no effective voice.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 18, 2007 at 11:37 am

5 Responses

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  1. Great post Stephen.


    September 18, 2007 at 4:52 pm

  2. It’s probably a good thing that the Prince Rupert terminal has opened up – not just to create jobs and spread them around the province, but also to lessen the community impact on Delta. It’s also an alternative port for when the big earthquake hits Vancouver.

    I guess your question is whether the Vancouver or BC economy should seek to grow, and if so in what areas or sectors should that growth be focussed.

    Calgary has already established itself as Western Canada’s financial centre.
    It’s clear that the lower mainland public wouldn’t tolerate the establishment of heavy industrial manufacturing facilities (and besides, labour costs are too high).
    We already have some growth in the technology areas, both hi-tech and biotech – but I’m not sure whether anyone consulted with the public to see whether we wanted Microsoft (that anti-competitive software steamroller) to open a branch office in Richmond.
    A number of industries have been left to stagnate or shrink over time, some despite multi-million dollar investments in them – forestry (Skeena mill?), shipbuilding (fast ferries?), mining and fishing to name a few.
    If geography lends itself to the growth of the transportation sector, I don’t see why that can’t be pursued. I don’t think anyone is proposing that all of the farmland in Delta be paved over to store containers like at Long Beach or Kowloon.

    You’ve got to provide jobs for all sectors of the workforce – not just the white collar workers who can work from home or service industry workers in food service or retail (who eek out a living). I’m sure that mechanics or industrial process workers would love to work from home, but the neighbours might complain about the noise and smell.

    If economic growth is curtailed or left to stagnate, I suppose the question is whether there would be enough good-paying jobs for future generations. Maybe that was more of a concern for the baby boomer generations and the growing population base at that time.

    ron c.

    September 20, 2007 at 7:27 pm

  3. The current job shortage in this region is for skilled workers such as mechanics, electricians, plumbers and so on. And they do a lot of work “at home” – just other people’s homes.

    It is noticeable that to the extent there is any strategy at all in this field it is to encourage high school students to consider a trade – training rather than a general university/college education.

    Much of the neighbourhood fuss about non-conforming uses is based on irrational fears. We are trapped in an outdated planning system designed to reduce the impact of “dark, satanic mills” when most employment in so called industrial areas is in offices. Single use residential areas with no services other than primary schools and small parks generate huge numbers of vehicle trips which could easily be walks in better thought out mixed use areas.

    Stephen Rees

    September 21, 2007 at 7:36 am

  4. “I don’t think anyone is proposing that all of the farmland in Delta be paved over to store containers like at Long Beach or Kowloon.”

    Not all of it yet. Just the best and most productive sections. They also want to do this on places like Barnston Island. And not just storing containers – sorting them, “stuffing and stripping”, warehouses, distribution centres, marshalling yards for trains – and on and on. And once the process has started, the arguments about the viability of the remaining parcels, and the farmer’s inability to operate economically will lead to further losses. The ALR has been gradually whittled away, and now that process is accelerating. It will not be long before we hear that we do not need an ALR, as we can make more money from handling Chinese imports. And anyway they can’t hire anyone to pick the blueberries, so the agriculture will have to be let go to low wage economies, so we can concentrate on higher value added industries.

    The Ports are certainly not concerned with issues like food security or ecology!

    Stephen Rees

    September 21, 2007 at 8:14 am

  5. To date, the ALC seems to have preserved Barnston despite repeated calls to industrialize it. There will always be pressure to change land use to a higher use (i.e. for profit), and I think that the ALC has done a reasonable job of preserving the ALR. I suppose that acres and acres covered by greenhouses aren’t necessarily ecological farming, but it’s still agriculture. Drivng down Hwy 99, Hwy 17 or the Richmond Connector you’re not bombarded with industrial sites the way you are crossing the Knight Street Bridge or along the Trans-Canada Hwy.

    If an industrial land reserve is established, maybe that would help maintain existing industrial lands and reduce pressure to find new industrial lands out of the ALR.

    ron c.

    September 21, 2007 at 12:54 pm

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