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Vancouver is Shangri-not

The city that inspires Dubai and Abu Dhabi has some soul-searching to do. After the Olympics, of course.
A sketch of Living Shangri La in Vancouver.

A sketch of Living Shangri La in Vancouver. None

Dubai Towers.

Dubai Towers. None

I am not a big fan of Vancouver-style high-rise density. The city is now the most expensive housing market in Canada, reports The New York Times, and the West End is as dense or denser than Manhattan. While the old-growth forest of Stanley Park falls – if you haven't seen it, the devastation of last winter's hurricane-force storm is appalling and still not cleaned up – the concrete forest of skinny towers on the artificial isle that is downtown Vancouver continues to sprout. A 60-story, five-star, high-rise giant nearly 650 feet tall is going up called Living Shangri La. It will be the tallest building in Vancouver. The views are great, but despite its setting, the downtown has the cold, generic feeling of a developer's boom town.

Meanwhile, city planners who helped create the Vancouver phenomenon have have been hard at work in the United Arab Emirates. Former Vancouver "planning czar" Larry Beasley has consulted in Dubai, the city that has become Michael Jackson's new Neverland and sprouts not just skinny towers but artificial palm islands and twisting spires. And a developer has built a virtual replica of Vancouver's False Creek there. And officials in the Emirates city of Abu Dhabi appear to be even more under Vancouver's thrall, what a San Francisco reporter once called "the cult of Vancouver." Five members of the Vancouver planning department have decamped for jobs there. The Vancouver-style of new urbanism has gone global.

But back in the real Vancouver, some are raising questions about what has been wrought. There's the cost of living. There's suburban sprawl (despite density), there's the sense that the city has become a playground for tourists and the rich. A recent article about the future of the city by Matt O'Grady in Vancouver magazine wondered if they'd become a superstar city without a soul and asked where the city is heading in the next 40 years. He writes: "The question is whether we seek to become a tourist city, built primarily for others, or a sustainable community built primarily for ourselves." Certainly that's a question that comes to mind when you travel down Robson Street. I mean, how many Starbucks does a place need?

O'Grady also asks, "How do we start talking about the city's heart and soul, rather than just its Botoxed face and augmented chest?" After the 2010 Winter Olympics such questions will likely gain more relevance. Vancouverites joke that, with global warming, the games might actually be a Summer Olympics.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 6:19 a.m. Inappropriate

An awesome place to party: "The views are great, but despite its setting, the downtown has the cold, generic feeling of a developer's boom town."

I had quite the opposite impression on my last visit during the Cascade Bike club's RSVP (Ride from Seattle to Vancouver and Party). Downtown was hopping. The streets were as bustling as Times Square. There were countless restaurants, cafes, bars, and clubs to choose from within a square mile. And there was none of the menacing feeling you get from many of the people who seem to show up in Belltown on weekend nights.

As for the design of the high rises, I can't say I even noticed as there was so much going on at street level.
Sean

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 9:22 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm concerned about Vancouver, too ...: I just returned from Vancouver, a city that I visit and write about regularly. I'm a bit concerned about where the city is headed. Thanks for your essay, Knute. Check out my Closet Canuck blog for today's post, Is Vancouver getting too big for its britches?

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

But not so unique in place: I used to spend a fair amount of time in Vancouver in the '80s. One thing I loved about it was that the mountains were so close to the city--you could see them from anywhere. I could never get lost there, because all I had to do was look up to reorient myself. On my most recent visit last winter, I enjoyed being there but I really missed the views, blocked now by clusters of skinny towers. They really change, for me, that sense of being in a particular, known and loved geography. And in some parts of downtown there are long stretches of towers but no pedestrians.

I grew up in Chicago and Cleveland, and it wasn't until I moved west that I discovered how intensely a person can love a place just for its natural uniqueness. Now when I go back to Cleveland I think about the hardwood forests that used to grow there, and I notice more about the geology--sandstone formations, rivers and creeks--as well as noticing the urban human culture stuff. Here in Seattle I like the more worldly, connected aspects of growing urbanism, but really don't want to see the uniqueness of this place--this geography, this land and water--be erased with generic McUrbanness.

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 5:16 p.m. Inappropriate

High-rises cost high rents?: Uh...how does that work? If people didn't want to live in them, they wouldn't and rents would be low. It is demand to be in a wonderful city which creates high-costs.

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 5:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Confligration...: Uhm...is it just me, or does the accompanying pic of the Dubai Towers look like steel and glass flames such that you get the impression that the place is burning up? How creepy is that?

The Piper

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 1:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Error in article facts: I believe Mr. Berger failed to make the distinction between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In the article he asserts "the city planners who helped create the Vancouver phenomenon have mostly decamped for jobs in Dubai." The link in that phrase is to an article in the Edmonton Journal. That article says, "Vancouver has lost five planners to the Arab emirate of Abu Dhabi".

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are separate emirates in the United Arab Emirates. Each of these emirates has as its capital a city of the same name--Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dubai is the home to the "artificial palm islands and twisting spires" and the claimed "less than human" conditions of labor mentioned in Mr. Berger's article, not Abu Dhabi.

I believe this renders moot the rhetorical linkage Mr. Berger makes between the urban conditions in Vancouver and Dubai in the article.
ltvine

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 3:05 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: rror in article facts: You're right, I made a mistake. I will correct and clarify the Dubai connection.

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