Vancouver: Thinking Upward

I just flew in from Paradise, a beautiful mountain- and river-locked city called Vancouver, in British Columbia.

It’s a Canadian city just north of Seattle with a population of just over 2 million people and in many ways it is the direct opposite of Atlanta. In the Atlanta region, growth can spread out in all directions. Vancouver is hemmed in by bays and mountains, and can grow only skyward. This situation makes for some unusual growth practices, including their famous free healthcare system.

Each spring for the last 12 years, Atlanta regional representatives have visited other major cities to meet with their counterparts there. The program, called LINK – for “Leadership, Innovation, Networking, and Knowledge” – is sponsored by the Atlanta Regional Commission. The idea is to learn how other city governments handle problems such as transportation, water use, education, zoning, crime and other growth issues. This year the more than 120 participants in the program included mayors, county commissioners, business, government and charitable leaders from the 12-county Atlanta metro region. Most participants pay their own way.

Vancouver is Atlanta upside-down. Because the city is growing at about 6 percent a year, its answer to providing services and a decent quality of life is to think upward, not outward. Vancouver has some of the most beautiful, skyscraper-type living quarters in the world. Leaders believe in high density as the major solution to their growth problems.

While Atlanta developers meet with strong resistance when they try and propose high-density residential developments, “densification,” as it’s called, is the only public policy on the table in Vancouver. One negative factor is that the average price of a home is more than $1 million. This means most developments become rental units, because average wage earners can’t afford to own their own home or condo.

City planners have strict rules, requiring that each new development must have schools, grocery stores and other retail outlets, as well as other services, all within walking distance. Automobiles are discouraged and limited-use parking garages are built underground.

Therefore, Vancouver is truly a pedestrian city. People are out on the streets walking to restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores or to the community’s many parks and recreation facilities. Very few cars or trucks are seen in the city.

Back in the late 1950s, city fathers rejected the worldwide trend to build freeways and four-lane highways into the heart of town. There is not one four-lane highway going into Vancouver’s city center. “Traffic jams outside the city are our friend,” reported one city leader.

The city has an unusual solution to handling rush hour. When our group’s bus crossed one of the many bridges into the city during the afternoon rush hour, only one lane was being used to drive in; the other three lanes were being used for traffic moving out of the city.

The major difference between Atlanta and Vancouver in terms of planning is that Vancouver’s planning agency has teeth, and can move more quickly to get things done. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is made up of representatives of city and county governments in 12 counties. It’s a planning agency that sets the growth agenda for the region.

But the ARC has no taxing authority and no direct mandate in deciding how federal, state and local monies are spent. Vancouver’s planning agency is similar in design to the ARC, but it does have taxing capability, and uses so-called “experts” who aren’t elected but have authority to direct how tax dollars spent. The political leadership in this city has very little say-so in how transportation and other civic projects are accomplished.

Vancouver is a racially diverse city, with a 40 percent minority population made up mostly of Asian, Indian, and local indigenous peoples. When you walk the streets of the city, you will be intrigued with the delightful sounds of voices speaking all kinds of non-English dialects.

The city has a homeless population. One of our group commented that the homeless individuals we found were mostly white and over 55 years old.

Crime is also a problem. There’s a high use of drugs, including heroin, among the population located mostly on the northern outskirts of town. The crime rate is closely tied to those drug users robbing people to obtain money to sustain their habit.

A recent government solution to this problem was to provide free heroin to drug users. All an addict has to do is sign up at a local health clinic and receive a free dose. This new program, city planners hope, will reduce the crime rate. Addicts will also receive free counseling to help them break their habit, and, hopefully, become law abiding citizens.

Vancouver is upside-down Atlanta, meaning we probably could never use their solutions to solve our urban problems. Atlanta already has major freeways through the city. The automobile rules our lives. Our form of government would never allow the “experts” to take over public policy; and we would never allow a program to give free drugs to the addicted population.

Vancouver was a beautiful city to visit. It is, in fact, a paradise. I couldn’t agree with their methods of solving problems. But I was fascinated with their leaders’ incredible ability to adapt and run their city in such a limited geographical environment. Perhaps we can learn from them to think in much different ways to solve many of our growth problems.

Categories: Neely Young