Vancouver is Shangri-not

The city that inspires Dubai and Abu Dhabi has some soul-searching to do. After the Olympics, of course.
Crosscut archive image.

Dubai Towers.

The city that inspires Dubai and Abu Dhabi has some soul-searching to do. After the Olympics, of course.

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.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.