Paradise Making

September 7, 2007 at 10:39 am Leave a comment

 

The following Op-Ed ran in the Vancouver Sun:’

Making paradise

The ‘village on the edge of the rainforest’ didn’t become one of the world’s most livable cities by happenstance

 
Gordon Price
Special to the Sun
ANOTHER JEWEL IN THE CITY'S CROWN: The new, wider seawall along Coal Harbour in the Bayshore hotel area.
CREDIT: Ian Smith, Vancouver Sun files
ANOTHER JEWEL IN THE CITY’S CROWN: The new, wider seawall along Coal Harbour in the Bayshore hotel area.

Once again Vancouver is the world’s most livable city.

And the usual responses: (1) So what else is new? (2) How can they ignore the Downtown East Side? (3) Have they seen our housing prices?

But never: “Well, that just shows what a great job our local politicians are doing.”

If our rating goes down a few notches, you can be sure the blame will be disproportionately allocated to whoever sits in the mayor’s chair.

Until then, those presently in power shouldn’t expect any credit. That doesn’t come with the job.

Still, we lotus eaters expect our leaders, minimally, to pass this paradise on to the next generation in reasonable shape. In fact, given our blessings, we expect them to improve on it — to be paradise makers.

Paradise making is not without precedent: You can trace its origins back to the 1950s, when Jim Wilson, the head of Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board, articulated a vision for our future as “cities in a sea of green” — the basis for all the regional plans that followed.

With the inheritance of the North Shore watersheds, creation of a regional park system, establishment of the agricultural land reserve, designation of the Green Zone and concentrated growth in downtown and regional town centres, connected by rapid transit, that’s pretty much what we created.


In the city of Vancouver itself, paradise making went into high gear in the mid-1970s. An extraordinary cast of characters changed the direction of this town, city hall’s way of doing business, how we planned, and who participated. Stopping the freeways was just the preliminary move. False Creek, north and south, is the legacy.

Many of the players from that era are still around: Past mayors Art Phillips, Gordon Campbell (first as Phillips’s assistant) and Mike Harcourt; planners like Ray Spaxman and Bob Williams (who went on to politics); councillors (cum neighbourhood activists) like Darlene Marzari and May Brown. And a host of academics, activists and backroom boys who filled Allan Fotheringham’s indispensable column in The Vancouver Sun and Sean Rossiter’s analyses in Vancouver Magazine.

Some have passed away: Walter Hardwick and Harry Lash, Bill Lane and Dick Mann. Fortunately, Rossiter has joined with Mike Harcourt and past-GVRD planner Ken Cameron to tell their stories in City Making in Paradise, the nicely named tome that details the “nine decisions that saved Vancouver.”

As our city continues to change, no longer the “village on the edge of the rainforest” as characterized by Fotheringham, it’s ever so tempting to retreat into a privileged status quo, to erect ever higher walls and transfer the costs somewhere else. Those who are trying to reframe EcoDensity, for instance, as a “developer’s giveaway” to keep change from coming to their neighbourhoods are in an unspoken alliance with those who would pave over the Fraser Valley.

A look back at the motivations of the leaders who shaped our particular Eden makes one thing clear: Not for a moment did they believe they would be keeping this place to themselves. Or that people would give up the pursuit of prosperity.

But they understood that they needn’t accept progress at any price. They had confidence people could work together to handle the inevitable trade-offs, and it was their responsibility to do the planning and to shape the institutions that could do the job.

The genius of that leadership was the presumption that we could — in the words that Ken Cameron drafted for Creating Our Future — “become the first city in the world to combine in one place the things to which humanity aspires on a global basis.”

Do we still believe that? Have we confidence in the current generation of paradise makers? Too often, a lazy or jesting cynicism infects political commentary (let’s privatize the government!). Disagreement among local leaders is considered “inefficient” in order to justify a turnover of democratic institutions to the self-appointed and the self-interested. Or all politicians are dismissed as exactly that: Too self-interested to understand the public good.

That’s not our history. And I doubt it’s our present. But the best antidote for a case of gloom is a little enlightenment. An understanding of our past is just what we need to appreciate our present — and why that livability rating we too often take for granted is earned only because a generation of leaders didn’t, and shaped the city we treasure, and criticize, today.

Gordon Price is director of the city program at Simon Fraser University.

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