Stephen Rees's blog

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

City needs to push the envelope to stay on top

with 17 comments

Miro Cernetig talks to Larry Beasely

The ostensible reason for the article is that we have moved up another of those best city lists.

These rankings take our attention off the question that’s really at hand: With a million more people expected to be here by 2030, how are we going to stay on the cutting edge of urban planning that’s put us in the livability big leagues?

Larry of course is building not one but two cities in the dessert of Abu Dhabi and

“I’m learning we’re not as far ahead on some of this stuff as I thought we were,” he says.

Which is refreshing. The problem with these rankings is they have gone to our head – or at least to the collective heads of the planners. And upstart furriners like me who keep saying “The Emperor has no clothes” are simply not listened to. But Larry, with his OC and new perspective will be.

The trouble I have is that they think it is about buildings and especially cultural institutions. Which seems to me to reflect the priorities of Marie Antoinnette.

There are some very basic things we need to be doing – and architects are not going to be the most important component of that, neither are the problems or their solutions the exclusive domain of the City of Vancouver. No doubt working for a Crown Prince with few budget constraints is a heck of a lot easier than herding cats, but in a metropolitan area being run (and ruined) by the province, that is what has to be done.

For starters, there is the problem of housing, and the related issues of mental health and welfare. These are basic social problems – and in my mind the quality of society is measured not by its glitzy buildings or cultural institutions, but by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. And right now the only thing that seems to be grabbing our attention is how to conceal the extent of our social policy collapse during the weeks of and around the 2010 Olympics. Lack of affordability of homes to buy is actually the least of it. We are supposed to have free at the point of service for public health, yet people with multiple diagnoses are simply turned away from treatment. We shy away from creating more and better public spaces for fear that the homeless will move in. We cannot buy a decent bus shelter or bench in case somebody finds it a better place to sleep than a doorway. And instead of building more public housing, we simply buy up a few more roach infested SROs, and do a half hearted job of trying to clean them up, displacing more people in the process. And actually destroying some of the best public housing we have, and rebuilding it to provide more marketable homes!

It is not the buildings that are the problem. They simply reflect what we are willing to pay for. And the answer here at present seem to be not much since the land costs so much. But it is the spaces in between the buildings that matter – and in the words of that tired old cliché we have private affluence and public squalor. We devote more space to car parking than almost any other activity. Our streets may be broad, but the sidewalks are mean. And public places where people gather are few and inadequate. And we concentrate on Vancouver – and especially downtown – as if that were the only place worth considering.

And I haven’t even started on our infrastructure. “World class” cities surely need good waste disposal (liquid and solid) as well as reasonable movement alternatives for goods as well as people.

Oddly enough there is no need to “push the envelope” with any of this, the solutions have been around for decades. We have just turned our back on them in our obsession with finance and profitability, as if that is the only way to measure worth. How can we boast of our GDP per capita – when so many of those heads have no pillow?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 17, 2008 at 10:20 am

17 Responses

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  1. A few lines into that article and I knew that study lacks credibility. “Just behind” Barecelona? Ahead of Amsterdam, Brussels and Tokyo? Come on!

    Vancouver is nothing compared to these cities! Maybe, MAYBE, downtown taken alone, but certainly not the CoV, which among other things has no urban public spaces on par with many of the others listed.

    It’s certainly not affordable. Beautiful architecture? Not really. Good transit options? Umm, maybe.

    Maybe they give N. American cities a handicap when they do the scoring.


    March 17, 2008 at 10:37 am

  2. A chance to be ( david letterman ) for a minute—- Heres a few top ten lists that we lead the nation in……. #1 —– we lead the nation in child poverty for the 5th straight year,almost 25% ( 7% in newfoundland ) #2 we lead the nation in homelessness (about 15000 people ) this number has just about tripled under the reign of terror of BC LIBS . #3 we lead the nation in the unaffordibilty index 75%( its about 56% in toronto ) a whole lot of people have rolled the dice here in bc –I am afraid to say but there is a bunch of glowing orbs out there ( I think their snake eyes ) mortgage meltdown sandwich are going to served all over the lower mainland! #4 we have dropped to 9th -in the nation in gdp to health spending – I could go on –but I`ll give you some time to raise your jaw! Welcome to privitze province– bc ferries privitized -translink privitized–bc hydro privitized- seniors care privitized– health care privitized ( well on its way ) BUT WORST OF ALL ————THE BC LIBERAL GOVERMENT HAS BEEN PRIVITIZED! We are now officially known as the ( coporation of british columbia ) I hope they let us know when the IP( initial public offering ) will be ! I know the ndp are not that swift — but I`ll take stupid ideoligy over blatant corruption ( to the detrement of average folks ) in a heartbeat!

    grant g

    March 17, 2008 at 1:14 pm

  3. The City of Vancouver does spend a lot of money on “frills”
    – the upcoming revitalization of Granville Street. The main change of which will be the straightening of the road (and the uprooting of the existing trees (replaced by saplings) in the process (although this is being reconsidered after public comments)) and the installation of snazzy new light standards.
    – ditto the revitalization of Pacific Boulevard into a “European” boulevard with a “multi-way”.
    – ditto the manner in which the Burrard Bridge sidewalks are to be expanded.

    As for cultural institutions, these swould be successful IF there is an inherent demand for them in this community – i.e. they should be supported by their own patrons and donors rather than taxpayers.
    Remember when LiveEnt went bankrupt, the former Ford Theatre (across from the library) had to be sold off piecemeal because it was a money loser. Even the Law Brothers (doctors from Denver, Co.) who bought the facility don’t seem to be hosting many events in there after low attendance following an ambitious initial season several years ago – I wonder how they keep the place afloat?
    Vancouver really is based on outdoor sports and activities (it’s a cliche, but true) – that’s why it’s tough to sell tickets to indoor cultural events during the summer – people would rather sit back on a patio, go for a bike ride, a jog or a kayak.

    Ron C.

    March 17, 2008 at 3:44 pm

  4. What the whole SRO units boil down to is respect. If the SRO’s are renovated and cleaned up, it’ll be great.. for about a year. Why? because the residents simply don’t respect property. The whole issue is about respect for others and respect for themselves. There are programs out there to help a typical homeless person, maybe not enough, but if you’re truly seriously about cleaning up and working hard to get your life back on track there is help. Sure it’s difficult but it’s been done.

    Of course this doesn’t apply to the mentally ill, but to say the liberals aren’t doing anything about it is a lie.

    Things are happening, but it’s a slow process. but that’s what happens when a government has to appease the entire province and spending disproportionate amounts on a population of maybe 5,000 doesn’t make sense.


    March 18, 2008 at 11:31 am

  5. JuIius

    I did not say that the BC Liberals are doing nothing about it – or is your comment directed at Grant G? Because he didn’t mention the mentally ill specifically.

    Currently people who have mental illness and drug problems at the same time cannot get treatment – they get shuttled between programs designed to deal with one or the other, not both. And while you provide a link to an announcement, if I recall correctly the reaction of the professionals on the field was that it was too little. And it has also been an issue for some long time now.

    And while I think funding the move for the Art Gallery is a Good Idea, I do feel that it casts an unfavourable light on the relative priorities of this government. But then major social issues do not normally provide much opportunity for one off capital funding announcements.

    Stephen Rees

    March 18, 2008 at 12:46 pm

  6. to Juli

    grant g

    March 18, 2008 at 1:27 pm

  7. to julius -325.00 dollars a month for rent for singles on welfare—they can`t even afford the sro room—but thats only a small portion of the homeless –seniors are becoming homeless-the working poor -single mothers -all over the province -kamloops-kelowna-campbell river etc—————————————————– larry campbell (former van mayor ) his experiment failed -the injection site has failed!– police can`t bust anyone anymore,you can walk around with heroin and meth –they can`t even bust dealers anymore!……………………………………..when I was a teen in the 70s -we had a officer in burnaby named hershberger,he would hike a mile into the boonies to bust us for smoking (herb-columbian,thai sticks etc ) but I digress –anyways when I got into minor legal bind (pot poss-drunk in public- abuse of a peace officer! ) I got sent to allouette river unit,for a few months- this correction unit in maple ridge -would feed you, get you up early and have you cut wood-pack wood ,clear beaver dams -and many other work details!—-anyways when you got out,you were fitter-tougher-smarter–cleaner — they had a re-hab section for heavy druggers- BUT THEY WOULD CLEAN EM UP –DE-TOX EM—-THEY RETURNED TO SOCIETY A MANAGEABLE PERSON!…………………WORK CAMPS HAVE BEEN CLOSED -RE-HABS CLOSED————-THERES NO QUICK FIX! BUT IT WOULD BE CHEAPER IN THE LONG RUN TO LOCK PEOPLE UP AND DE-TOX EM –ON A ONE ON ONE BASIS! then supply them with housing and support -then put them to work, some will fail but many will succeed– the cost of doing nothing in medical alone works out to 30000.00 a year per -eastsider not to mention the theiving -it works out ( 2006 stats ) to,according to the insurance industry to 990.00 per residence in thefts alone –its a staggering number! THE EXPERIMENT FAILED -TIME TO CLEAN UP THE MESS—-TIME TO BAN METH PRE-CURSERS– TIME TO PUT THINGS BACK TO MANAGEABLE LEVEL! THE HUG A THUG THEORY –FAILED signed ……….reality

    grant g

    March 18, 2008 at 1:57 pm

  8. I was more talking about things in general, really. It’s the attitude that the government can do nothing right and blaming everything on the Olympics. Even though, a typical Vancouverite who works and lives in the city of Vancouver will benefit greatly. especially residents around community centres that are getting major upgrades and building replacements what would never of happened without the Olympics. Not to mention a rapid transit line that while not having ridership immediately, is still better than any other option currently available. Yes, the homeless and mentally ill are forgotten in this plan, but they are a small minority to the rest of Greater Vancouver.

    Don’t get me wrong, the government has alot of failings, but they are getting there.
    I realize that the announcement isn’t enough, but it’s a start and a start is better than nothing. And yes there aren’t programs for both, but that’s changing, albeit slowly.

    As for Grant’s comments, Insite works for those who truly want out, but the laws regarding drugs are just not tough enough to discourage drug use and the like. Also, welfare was and never will be designed to be enough live off of for long periods of time. Humans need three things to live. Food, Water and Shelter. If your expenses are these three things, you’ll be just fine, you just can’t live in Vancouver, which is not up to me or you to decide. Frivious expenses like tv or other purchases are extra and you don’t need them to live.


    March 18, 2008 at 2:46 pm

  9. What irks me is that expenditures on social health seem to be hammered by the anti-tax neocons. Many of them devote enormous energy in yelling about how crippling our tax load is whenever a news item comes up about providing homes for the homeless or transit projects, but will then go out and purchase a $399 concert ticket, or a new BMW, or seasons passes to the Canucks. That’s a round about way of saying there’s too much bleating in our wealthy society about the cost of social justice.

    Also, Beasley does address poverty in his renewed attitude about Vancouver, and he addressed the issue of the underpaid workers of Abu Dhabi directly with the emirate, and therefore quality worker housing is included in the plans for the future. These workers are the backbone of the Abu Dhabi economy.


    March 18, 2008 at 3:30 pm

  10. On CBC news tonight, Adrian Dix was blaming the recent “orange alerts” which closed the Surrey ER on Liberal cuts – both to acute care and “things that keep people out of the ER” in terms of more basic care of the elderly. The Minister simply blames demographics which suggest to me they could easily have anticipated the effects some time ago. But that did not stop them cutting health care budgets.

    Stephen Rees

    March 18, 2008 at 5:19 pm

  11. What did you expect them to do? When the NDP left, the budget was a laugh, services everywhere just eating up money. Yes, the liberals cut pretty much everything when they came into power and haven’t been the best at mediating deals with unions and stuff, but that’s what you have to do to balance the budget, which they did. Slowly services are coming back when it’s fiscally responsible.


    March 18, 2008 at 8:28 pm

  12. julius –your wrong –the ndp despite the liberal spin –left a surplus for the liberals in 2001! ………………do you really think campbell goverment caused-commodity prices to rise? real estate prices to rise? how about the billion he got for selling bc rail ! which by the way bc rail made over 108 million profit year after year after year — he promised not to sell it—he lied! do you think paul martin ( ex federal leader of libs ) had anything to do with canada`s surpluses—-or how about –klein or stemach in alberta –do you think they made oil price rise! campbell surplus has come from property transfer fees -over a billion a year — from wcb —their not paying severly injured any more!—–icbc profits into general revenue — his (smoke and mirror ) surplus has come off the backs of the poor! one more thing JULIUS ————-SINCE YOU ARE SO UNIMFORMED —– THE GORDON CAMPBELL GOVERMENT HAVE ADDED BILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO BCs PUBLIC DEBT! BUT YOU BELIEVE THE MEDIA SPIN— and speaking of media they are all connected—-canwest global —owns GLOBAL TV –CHEK TV—SHAW TV—THE VANCOUVER SUN –THE VANCOUVER PROVINCE—-THE NATIONAL POST—–CHORUS RADIO –CKNW —-AND MANY MORE ————-and I got one more good one for you julius—I guess you heard about the ipsos reid poll today(march 18th ) bc libs 46% ndp 34% green 18% —it was all over the news today –all the ones I mentioned above—- WELL GUESS WHO OWNS IPSOS REID POLLING–THATS RIGHT CANWEST GLOBAL————————-its like asking your right pinky to do a poll ,so you can -air all over your stations –yea thats not a conflict of interest————the real poll has the liberals maybe polling 30% —campbell will lose his own riding -they will be swept off vancouver island -they will lose the north –interior–falcon polling 20% but go-ahead put your head back in the sand! the ndp might not be to swift -but i`ll take stupid ideoligy over blatant corruption (bc libs ) in a heartbeat

    grant g

    March 18, 2008 at 10:07 pm

  13. Then simply explain to me how in the 1990’s every single other province in Canada as well as the rest of North America was experiencing a boom in their economies while BC’s NDP drove our economy into the ground.

    It’s healthy to have an opposition, but where are your numbers coming from? percentages are just that without anything to back them up. Yes, the media around Vancouver is highly biased and all owned by the same company, and that’s a question for the CRTC. I mean it’s all well and great to say something that ipsos reid polls are corrupt, but you provide no real proof of argument.


    March 18, 2008 at 11:55 pm

  14. In fact it’s painfully simple: international commodity prices go down, then they go up.

    No premier has any hope to control them. Gordo simply lucked out when they headed up near the beginning of his term. And there they remain … all that oil & gas revenue producing billions in royaties for provincial coffers no matter who is in office.

    The painful reality is that we are still hewers of wood and drawers of water, and there is no policy in BC or nationally to diversify our economy from being mostly resource-based.


    March 19, 2008 at 8:57 am

  15. china -thats why commodities are up — but gordo(the gargler ) wants to take credit for the ebbs and flow of (economic cycles ) BUT AT THE SAME TIME (THE GARGLER) ” oh there`s nothing we can do about the forestry sector” bad old americans are in a slump? and in a year from now when were in a major slump( its gonna be a terrible tourism year ) according to ” carole taylor ” bc liberal FINANCE minister their expecting a mere ( hoping ) 100 million dollar surplus! and with a world wide slow down -BCers are gonna be hit the hardest — people have no buffer -ferries up -transit up -icbc up -park n ride up—park fees doubled in april-food way up -gas up up and away! and when bc real corrects people are not going to be able to borrow an vanished equity ( just look south ) and were going to be stuck with all the hidden olympic bills! I was here in the nineties -and eighties-70s —and despite liberal spin doctors-things were fine in the 90s -better than now=======BUT THERE IS NO ONE AS BLIND AS THOSE WHO REFUSE TO SEE don`t forget to put on your (bib ) before you turn on your local news

    grant g

    March 19, 2008 at 9:27 am

  16. Regarding Gordo’s cuts in his fiorst term, there is no economic evidence they were necessary. But there is plenty of shallow idealogical rhetoric about why they were “necessary.”


    March 19, 2008 at 3:35 pm

  17. I’ve heard the suggestion we don’t have enough housing to keep up with the demand, and this is driving up the cost, etc. There’s also the issue of having farmland and precious treed areas developed for more housing. My newly-adopted neighbourhood is no exception. I had a thought, however, on a recent trip home down Fraser Hwy in Surrey where townhouses are popping up like weeds, old houses are being torn down, and surely I’m to miss those old growth trees in a week or two: there is tons, and tons of space… and it’s all sitting right above the commercial spaces. There’s something to be said for doing it right the first time, but seeing as it’s difficult to go back now on the single-storey, sprawley shopping centres that straddle Fraser Hwy around 160th St., one has to look elsewhere but not very far. There are quite a few low buildings around there that I think could and should be replaced with something newer, more attractive, and 2 – 4 storeys higher. Why not build apartments with commercial space at the street level, like many other sensible communities have done? It’s something I don’t see much of out here. (Anyone know of any examples?) That would instantly make this little area more attractive as right now it just looks grey everywhere. Unfortunately all the new development I see on my routes in Surrey is either/or: residential or commercial. Why isn’t there more of both together?

    Erika Rathje

    March 23, 2008 at 11:00 pm

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