Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast

Aestheticizing Vancouver

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10th Avenue and Maple

Many commentators note that the critical politics that accompanied the reform movement and the planning programs of the early 1970s were supplanted by a much more individualized, consumerist orientation toward lifestyle, leisure, culture, and conviviality… Affordable housing sites remained undeveloped, and the new neighbourhoods were socially exclusive, lacking the land-use diversity, varied activities, services, and incubating businesses that create a truly urbane environment. More positively, there was a heavy investment in new parks, waterfronts, cycling and walking paths, greenways, and public art, which was matched by private investment in fitness clubs, cafés and bars, clubs, restaurants, art galleries, and boutique or festival shopping to create more convivial cities. For the critics, the contemporary urban preoccupations are consumption rather than community. Urbanity has taken on a particular aesthetic dimension through popular architecture, urban design, arts festivals, sports or cultural events, and local tourism.

— John Punter, The Vancouver Achievement

Written over ten years ago, in the immediate wake of Yaletown, Punter’s commentary rings true in other Vancouver neighbourhoods today. Boutique West Side condos and the forest of cranes near Main Street all promise an urban ideal of livability, rather detached from the street activities and community institutions that have historically defined great cities. Social vibrancy may perhaps develop in the absence of explicit policy to encourage it, but Yaletown does not inspire clear success in this regard.

A tension between aesthetic and substantive urban policy has dogged Vancouverism over the past two decades, without clear resolution. In demolishing such neighbourhood pivots as The Ridge, The Waldorf, and soon The Rumpus Room, housing development has been seen as an adversary of community, rather than a natural component of it. Driving this sentiment is not the mere physical dissolution of such locations, but the idea that new residents represent a commodified lifestyle found in billboards and advertisements, radically detached from the present social fabric. There is no reason it must be this way. Adequate policy to ensure mixed income levels among new residents would mitigate the rapid gentrification perceived to wipe away existing communities, and perhaps allow those communities to thrive from a larger local population. The aesthetic of the glassy yoga studio, the seawall jog, and fashionable patio can coexist with a real obligation to facilitate a mix of abilities and means. In the earliest days of Yaletown, this was indeed the case.

The aesthetic component of Vancouverism has brought it far. But to achieve a compelling urban experience beyond beautiful living, more imaginative policies directed toward mixed housing and land use are likely necessary. Between the ensconced resistance of East Side communities and the dispassion of West Side wealth, I fear the window for such ideas may be limited.


Author: Chris

I'm the author of Reflecting Vancouver, a West Coast blog devoted to urbanism, culture, politics, philosophy, and everyday living in Vancouver. Right now I'm taking a break to travel.

One thought on “Aestheticizing Vancouver

  1. Pingback: On Lotusland | Reflecting Vancouver

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