How Vancouver revived itself. And lost the millennials.

Vancouver False Creek Granville (1)

False Creek in Vancouver, near the site of Expo 86

The 30th anniversary of Expo 86 is coming in early May, but there doesn’t seem to be much celebrating in Vancouver. Few dispute the fair served its original intention to revitalize the city after an ’80s real estate bust and capitalize on its ties to the Pacific Rim, but the main discussion around the fair’s anniversary seems to be whether its legacy has been golden, or gone sour.

Expo anniversaries are often celebrated with much hoopla, but to understand Vancouver’s lack of enthusiasm — a local museum will feature a mini-display of Expo collectibles and a floating McDonald’s barge from the fair is being rehabbed — some quick background is in order. The Northwest has hosted three major expos since WWII, each designed to boost its host city economically and put it “on the map.” Seattle kicked off in ’62 with a space age fair and its legacy was the creation of Seattle Center. Spokane followed with Expo 74 with the first environmentally themed fair and used it to restore its river and leave the legacy of Riverfront Park and a rejuvenated downtown. Expo 86 had a transportation theme, but its main purpose was to boost British Columbia as a major player in the Asia-Pacific region and stimulate urban redevelopment.

Expo 86 marked the end of a series of North American expositions that started in the 1850s. It was our continent’s last world’s fair, in fact. The reasons are many, one being that fairs are expensive and rarely profitable. Another is that with the Cold War winding down they were less useful for propaganda purposes (Seattle’s was driven, for example, by the U.S. response to the Soviet space race). The will to spend large amounts of public money to benefit a single metro region waned. Many expos also over-promised and under-delivered.

In Vancouver’s case, under-delivery doesn’t looks like the legacy three decades out. Over-delivery perhaps is.

Expo 86 was a hit — scale-wise, it was a small fair but with more than double Seattle’s 10 million attendance. Fifty-four nations exhibited and the fair added color and flair to False Creek, an under-developed section on the bay where Vancouver wanted to see growth. It’s hard to remember now with the city’s gleaming skinny towers and mass transit, but back in the pre-Expo days it was a stuffy unglamorous town in a beautiful natural setting, its main cultural attractions: Mounties, totem poles and a Hudson’s Bay department store.

Vancouver wanted to change that. The Congressional Quarterly staff previewed the fair and reported: “In Vancouver this year, the government of British Columbia hopes Expo '86 will stimulate Asian trade and investment. Indeed, the government and some Vancouver business leaders want to persuade visiting Pacific Rim executives to help make Vancouver a thriving international financial center and perhaps a tax haven. ‘Vancouver,’ said John Bruk, chairman of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, ‘has every right to aspire to develop into a major center within the emerging Asia Pacific community, fielding some of the services Geneva, Zurich and London now provide to the Atlantic community. ”

After the fair, the expo site was sold cheap to a major developer from Hong Kong, immigration policies shifted to allow Canada to begin importing wealth and millionaire immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and since 2000 an exodus of capital, investment and immigrants from mainland China. The result has been a real estate and population boom and the transformation of Vancouver into a “world class” city that has inspired planners around the world with the so-called “Vancouver Miracle.”

Still, while events like expos and the Olympic games (Vancouver has hosted both) tend to over-emphasize the positive and overlook the negative, the surge of the city’s Pacific aspirations and population — it is reportedly the most Asian city outside of Asia — have given rise to some second guessing and discontent. Quite simply, Vancouver is becoming unaffordable to non-millionaires.

A recent analysis by a University of British Columbia professor, David Ley, has generated much interest in Vancouver. In a paper entitled “Global China and the Making of Vancouver’s Residential Property Market” in the International Journal of Housing Policy, Ley says that Canada’s immigration policies purposely greased the skids for millionaires and entrepreneurs from Asia. These rich and their capital have played a huge role in boosting Vancouver’s residential market into the stratosphere in part because of a strong preference for investing in real estate as a safe haven for their money.

In this way, Vancouver has become a “Hedge City,” a place to park global cash, much like London, New York, Los Angeles or Sydney.  Housing market prices have outstripped the number of people moving in — in other words, the demand for real estate exceeds population growth and incomes. Vancouverites have the median income of folks who live in Reno but a real-estate market akin to San Francisco’s.

As a result, many Vancouverites grumble. Douglas Todd, a keen observer of such trends in the city for the Vancouver Sun, says of his March 22 story on Ley’s report, “It was the ‘most-read’ item on the Sun website for three days, which shows how much anger there is in Vancouver about all this.” Todd writes, “Ley concludes most politicians have accepted that astronomical prices and mortgage debt are just the ‘collateral damage’ from expanding the B.C. economy.”

As you hear argued in Seattle, growth is a headache, but the alternative — recession, stagnation, bust — is much worse. And many people — especially homeowners — are undoubtedly of two minds, writes Sun columnist Pete McMartin: “If Metro Vancouver has a Silent Majority, I bet it’s those homeowners who tsk-tsk the insanity of the market but who, in the back of their minds, can’t deny the craven whisper of, ‘Please God, let this market stay hot until I can cash out big.' ”

Still, it’s a barrier to many others who would like to move in, including millennials and techies who are, in fact, fleeing Vancouver or immigrating to more affordable Canadian cities. The Sun’s Todd calls the current situation “tragic for community life, young people.”

It’s fair to ask, by hosting an expo and an Olympics, what was Vancouver expecting? British Columbia’s former attorney general, Geoff Plant, writes of those events, “The world accepted our invitation. What did it see? A marvelously beautiful setting, a mild climate, the rule of law, respect for private property rights, a balanced market economy, safe neighborhoods and a tolerant society. Who can blame the world for wanting some of this?”

But Ley’s study reminds that it wasn’t just what newcomers wanted, it’s what BC’s politicians, business and neoliberals wanted, those who desired growth, trade, wealth and put in place specific policies that generated the current result with its rough “collateral” consequences for many who didn’t imagine a gleaming future they couldn’t be a part of.

It’s a reminder that the bright shiny cities showcased in glittering expos can have downsides too. And while fairs are largely Pollyanna propaganda affairs, they’ve gotten a bit better at exploring those downsides. The relentless cheerleading to technological solutions to all our woes — a world’s fair staple — was leavened in the ’70s and ’80s. Expo 86 was better than some at that. Alfred Heller, author of World’s Fairs and the End of Progress, reminds readers that Expo 86 coincided with the Challenger disaster and the Chernobyl meltdown, dramatic examples of risks posed by tech.

I attended Expo 86 and loved its semi-dystopian centerpiece sculpture called Highway 86 that playfully critiqued modern transportation. I also liked the Northwest Territories Pavilion that looked at the clash of Inuit culture and snowmobiles through less-than-rosy goggles. No one in my recollection predicted that the Vancouver of the future would price-out a younger generation, or that the attempt to become the Pacific Rim’s Zurich — a capital haven for global wealth — would bring anything but a better future. The social benefits and costs, not just the technological ones, are worth examining. The post-fair reality 30 years on is generating skeptical introspection that’s better late than never.

You can view a short compilation of Expo 86 commercials here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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