The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture. — Jonathan Raban
When I knock off work this September afternoon, around two o’clock, I’ll stick an Eckhart Tolle book in my backpack, hop on my bike, and head for the North Shore. I thought of going sailing on English Bay, or playing tennis at Jericho, or golfing at Shaughnessy, or maybe swimming laps at the Second Beach pool, but I’ve decided to do the Grouse Grind instead. Along the way, pedalling furiously, I’ll give the one-finger salute to a few road-hogging, carbon-emitting drivers before stopping in at Choices to grab a Happy Planet juice. Organically recharged, I’ll follow the seawall to the Lions Gate Bridge and over to North Van.
At the foot of Grouse Mountain, I’ll join the hundreds of other fitness buffs who scramble up the 2.9-kilometre trail on a typical summer’s day. Stumping up the Grind is a what-the-hell-was-I-thinking workout; it takes about an hour (personal best 58:45, actually, as recorded by the chip in my season pass). Up top, with luck, and once I stop feeling as if I might hurl, I’ll score a table on the patio. There, enjoying a Granville Island Lager and gazing out over the Strait of Georgia, the city, and much of the Lower Mainland, I’ll tweet about the experience, check email, and bullshit with fellow Grinders about the brilliant summer we’ve had, the awesome view, and all the poor saps who don’t live here in the world’s most livable city, at the centre of (as our licence plates assure us) the Best Place on Earth.
Any city of consequence is, from the outside, a lamination of clichés; Vancouver, even more than most places, lends itself to spoof. The melodramatic views, the dependable wackiness of local (and provincial) politics, the green roofs and sustainably harvested spot prawns and Critical Mass cycling rallies, and, especially, the alternating smugness and insecurity of the citizenry: what’s not to parody? Everything’s in 3-D. You want drug addiction and wrenching, in-your-face psychosis the likes of which you’ll find nowhere else? Stroll through the Downtown Eastside, a twenty-square-block human zoo. Want to visit an Asian enclave that’s a cyberlike parallel universe? Check out the Aberdeen mall in Richmond, south of the city proper: two solitudes, Pacific variety. Think you’ve got a cool urban recreational space where you live? Try the spectacular, 400-hectare promontory called Stanley Park, with its bald eagles, heron rookery, and ever-shifting vistas of ocean, mountains, and container ships at anchor, awaiting their turn at the gateway to the Pacific Rim.
The trouble with clichés, of course, is that they heighten reality while bleeding it of subtlety. And so it’s possible to be startled by Vancouver, right there in front of you, but not quite take it in, as you do a killer whale that breaches suddenly, once, before disappearing; or to admire the city without seeing beyond its fetching outline, as you might a server at Cactus Club, a “casual fine dining” chain staffed by lush young women in low-cut black dresses, some of whom are no doubt putting themselves through medical school.
“All the moms with their little yoga mats,” a friend from Toronto chuckled as we emerged from lunch in Kitsilano one day last summer, “and their fair trade lattes. And their reusable shopping bags, for buying local produce.” Well, sure, how quaint, and how handy that the caricatures are so plentiful. Don’t forget Chip Wilson’s seaweed-neutral Lululemon wear, standard issue for the yoga moms. And Gregor Robertson, our bicycle-happy mayor. And Sarah McLachlan, doing public service announcements for the SPCA. And the Dalai Lama, who visits regularly, and the snowboarders, and the life coaches, and the never-say-die No Games 2010 coalition, with their megaphones and spray paint, vandalizing the Olympic clock that has been counting down the days, minutes, and seconds until the Games begin and Vancouver takes its rightful place among the great cities of the world that have hosted the Winter Games: Sarajevo, Albertville, Nagano, Lillehammer, Calgary!
Amid the stereotypes, of course, obscured by them, Vancouverites live substantial, complicated, inaccessible lives. Newcomers say folks here are quick to engage you in a friendly chat but slow to invite you over for dinner. There may be a flaky, hippie vibe to the lineup at Trout Lake Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, but there is a seriousness of purpose as well, an act-on-it conviction that organic tomatoes from the Okanagan are in every way superior to industrial tomatoes from Mexico. Local initiatives to address the Downtown Eastside, too, are more than compulsory nods toward civic responsibility; they are attempts to ameliorate vexing problems before they ossify into permanence. In a city where crappy little bungalows go for a million bucks and many luxury condos belong to offshore owners who spend little time here, there’s real concern that Vancouver has become a high-end global tourist destination young and working-class people can no longer afford.
Social issues are kept front and centre by the same smart, committed cadre of activists who remind you that The Corporation (book and documentary) was done by Joel Bakan, a cooler, post-doc version of Michael Moore (Bakan teaches law at UBC and plays jazz guitar on the side). Some of the most high-powered people in town sit on the board of Streetohome, an agency created to address homelessness. A 2,000-square-metre community “farm” has been established in the middle of the Downtown Eastside. A local writer, Charles Montgomery, launched a homestay program for Olympic visitors, with half the proceeds going to charity. Tom Cooper, a Christian minister who heads City in Focus, organized a 2010 outreach initiative that has brought together more than 1,100 religious and community organizations. A young activist, Matt Hern, started a car-free day on Commercial Drive a few years ago that this June will involve half a dozen neighbourhoods. There is a palpable sense of participating in a grand civic experiment; this adolescent city is a work-in-progress, and many citizens, one way or another, eagerly partake in the work.
“Green” is not merely a buzzword, a mantra, or a way of life for many people here; it’s an orthodoxy. Vancouver has long served as a repository for sustainable thinking. David Suzuki was a lonely voice decades before people like Bono and Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio joined the choir. Greenpeace set sail from these shores on its international mission; and the new wave of eco-warriors, though you may not know their names, is even more directly shaping the global agenda. It was the UBC economist William Rees who made graspable the notion of the carbon footprint — essentially, one’s impact on the planet, a yardstick now widely used to measure an economy’s capacity to sustain itself. At Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island in 1993, Tzeporah Berman was a young tree hugger; now, in a volte-face that angers many of her fellow activists, she argues for the very things she once questioned, such as wind farms and tidal power and run-of-river projects, believing the issue of climate change is so urgent we must exploit every alternative energy source we can. Meanwhile, from his office at Simon Fraser University, the economist Mark Jaccard, a member of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consults to NGOs and governments the world over, basically arguing that we don’t have time to effect change through smart hydro meters and ten-cent plastic bags, that rigorously enforced legislation is the only way to go.
Mayor Robertson, too, with his shirt model looks and too-good-to-be-true bio (international sailor, Cortes Islander, organic farmer, family man, green entrepreneur, NDP member of the provincial legislature), is more easily caricatured than fathomed. Having vowed to create the world’s greenest city, he has, predictably, posed for photo ops in the community garden he put in at City Hall and cycled for the TV cameras in the bike lane he dedicated on the Burrard Bridge. But he’s done considerably more. The city’s hiring of Sadhu Johnston, a driving force behind Chicago’s Greenaissance, was a coup. Its Vancouver 2020 report, which Robertson unveiled at an environmental conference last fall, was notable for its eschewing of vague bromides in favour of hard targets: a 33 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2007 levels; the creation of 20,000 green jobs; a 20 percent improvement in the efficiency of all buildings. And the city’s brand (yes, cities these days are branded) is “Green Capital,” after the hoped-for flood of investment in sustainable businesses. There is even talk that City Hall may be a way station en route to the premier’s office in Victoria — an office now occupied, for a third term, by the Liberal Gordon Campbell, himself a former Vancouver mayor.
Sustainability has become the defining narrative of Robertson’s mayoralty and may well be his legacy; if he does set his sights on provincial pastures, he’ll have serious green cred. By the most dependable benchmark we’ve devised — GHGs, or annual greenhouse gas emissions per capita — Vancouver (at 4.9 tonnes) is already the most eco-friendly city in North America, well ahead of New York (10.5 tonnes), Los Angeles (13 tonnes), Seattle (11.5 tonnes), and Toronto (11.6 tonnes). And in just about every reckoning of the world’s eco-friendly cities, Vancouver ranks up there with Reykjavik, Copenhagen, and Malmö. We have the most advanced electric vehicle infrastructure and municipal bylaws in North America, and Nissan will introduce the world’s first all-electric, zero-emission vehicle, the Nissan LEAF, here in 2011, ahead of the global rollout in 2012. The Athletes Village at Southeast False Creek will likely be the largest LEED gold–certified development in the country. Vancouver diverts more than half its recyclable waste — the average among Canadian municipalities is 22 percent — and aims for 70 percent by 2015. Methane from the landfill south of town warms forty hectares of greenhouses for local vegetable growers. It’s no surprise that the billionaire Aquilini family has turned its attention to greener waste management, believing that public education — and a few years — is all that stands between the city’s practice of trucking 500,000 tonnes of garbage annually to Cache Creek, in the BC interior, and the sort of waste-to-energy incineration that has reduced emissions in cities like Vienna, Osaka, and the Aquilinis’ ancestral hometown, Brescia, in northern Italy.
The green ethos pervades the city’s planning department, and the configuration of Vancouver’s glass-towered downtown — the work of former planner Larry Beasley — is so widely admired that much of the urban planning world comes here to pace our sidewalks, the better to understand view corridors, high-rises on retail pedestals, and the commotion of people and cafés and bicycles and townhouses that the urban theorist Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet.” Beasley was a master at extracting heritage, green space, and public amenities from developers in return for density. Never mind that many critics find the mould rigidly standardized and the city full of monotonous, copycat architecture; Beasley, who left in 2006 (and took a good chunk of the planning department with him), is always jetting off to Rotterdam or Dallas or the Emirates, adapting “Vancouverism” on four or five different continents.