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View from Vancouver, Canada

With its population expected to double by 2050, the city is finally facing up to its future, says Hadani Ditmars

At Kitsilano bay lies one of Canada’s last wild urban beaches, its pre-contact state threatened by a possible seawall expansion. Nearby is a restaurant with a touch of Maison de Verre, which its architect defended all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. 125 years ago, this was land that belonged to Chief Khatsalano, until he and his band were unceremoniously evicted by Canadian Pacific Railway officials and real estate developers.

On the other side of the bay, a skyline of high-rises stretches from English Bay to the North Shore of False Creek. While the view earned Vancouver the moniker ‘city of glass’ by local scribe Douglas Coupland, with the exception of a few mid-century gems, it could also be called ‘city of bland cookie-cutter towers’. The city’s much-vaunted Vancouverism, while the darling of urban planners with its high density residential downtown core, is characterised by rather dull architecture. The skyline is a long way off from our patron saint of architecture Arthur Erickson’s visionary 1955 sketch of a city of skyscrapers by the sea.

However, there was a buzz recently when Bjarke Ingels’ design (albeit a collaborative one − if that’s indeed possible with Mr Big) for an ‘iconic’ waterside tower was unveiled. But starchitecture aside, as the city enters its 126th year, its growing pains are showing.

Thankfully advancing from the narcissism of its infancy, it has turned its gaze slowly from the mirror (‘look how beautiful the view is, the ocean, those mountains, this is the best city in the world!’) towards the future. Just how exactly will the city, a peninsula with one of the world’s highest costs of housing and a limited land base, accommodate the predicted doubling of its population (from the current 2.3 million to over 4 million) by 2050?

A recent forum on Vancouver’s future featuring three of its former chiefs of planning was worrying, with phrases like ‘obsolete local neighbourhood plans’ and ‘urbanism by paint by numbers’ tossed around with abandon. There was much criticism of the current civic government (dominated by the Vision Vancouver party) for its lack of long-term planning.

While our mayor promises that Vancouver will become ‘the greenest city in the world’, there is an ongoing debate about what that actually means. Urbanists argue that high density housing and transit are the only way forward, but low density areas like Dunbar with elderly empty nesters in 2,500 square foot rambling houses on huge lots remain large footprint suburban anachronisms, not likely to be mitigated by the growing trend for laneway housing. Still, it’s kind of exciting that a city with its second big foreign starchitect project under way (Foster + Partners’ 2011 Jameson House was technically the first), is simultaneously dealing with the slowdown of a new residential project due to its proximity to ancient Indian burial grounds.

It’s like there are several different eras colliding at once. In a city surrounded by a primeval landscape and the world’s biggest supply of ancient rainforests − Vancouver is talking about the future, while living in the past. Its neighbourhood plans and infrastructure seem stuck in the ’50s, while its mid-century classics − by the likes of Ron Thom and Arthur Erickson − are in danger of being devoured by new monster homes and bland corporate architecture.

Still, there is hope on the horizon. A promising new proposal to remove the city’s central viaducts, unite historic downtown neighbourhoods with each other and the waterfront, and free up land for housing and parks, may happen sooner rather than later. And all under the watchful eye of Jimi Hendrix who, in a more soulful time, lived in the city’s black neighbourhood − subsequently bulldozed to build the freeway in the early ’70s − for whom a makeshift shrine has been erected across from the central viaduct. At 125 we may not be experienced − but some Vancouverites seem ready to rock ‘n’ roll.

FACT FILE

Hadani Ditmars is an author, journalist and photographer. Hadani was editor at the New Internationalist and author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone.

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