Apart from obvious differences in climate, the place that reminds me most of Vancouver is Southern California. A good friend of mine, native to Manhattan Beach but happily expatriated to Berkeley, once remarked on the similarity during a summertime stroll through Kits. “Mostly image with no substance”, he quipped. The trendy shops and body-beautiful volleyball teams drew equivocal looks. “Just like Southern California.”
This is a familiar charge leveled at Lotusland. That our city is shallow, and affords to be boring by mere providence of scenery. That we are a buxom beach blonde in comparison to sophisticated brunettes like New York or even Montreal. That we are blissfully unaware of how tawdry we really are. All common complaints about Southern California.
I propose a more nuanced interpretation: that Vancouver is a mirror of SoCal, rendered in Canadian form. Surface resemblances give way to telling differences.
Image in Vancouver tends toward a public, conformist expression. Southern Californians are American individualists, most content in the fortress of a gated home or the privacy of a luxury vehicle. Walking the street in Los Angeles is meant to be a solitary experience. Reality shows stationed in SoCal revolve around opulent private homes and society parlors, even as these scenes are interspersed with images of public beaches and hillsides. Vancouverites, on the other hand, prefer the mass consumption of image, or the projection of image into open view. The walk along the seawall is a shared experience of geographic, urban, and personal aesthetics all at once. The see-through voyeurism of Yaletown has come to define a common downtown lifestyle. We prefer crowd yoga to boutique pilates studios, preferably outdoors. Or better the Grouse Grind, our Sunday sacrament of athleticism. A similar mass performance is rare in SoCal, yet these experiences are a defining feature of Vancouver life. There is a cohesion to appearance and action in Vancouver, whereas SoCal famously allows you to be what you want, or at least aspire to it. In this distinction, some visitors see Vancouver as boring or even suffocating. Others see it as kinder than its Southern Californian counterpart, because it is easy for a new arrival to act the part. It is open and tends toward the mean, like Canadian society in general.
In urban respects, both cities tend toward modernism, and are distinctively West Coast. But Vancouver is both more vernacular and more futuristic than Southern California, defined by Edwardian interpretations, Post and Beam, and the omnipresent green glass condominium. Vancouver architecture shies away from the ostentatious, and indeed our design guidelines enforce unified themes between structures and their surroundings. SoCal trends toward expressive modernism, eclectic residential design, and opaque midcentury stucco. The individual piece is often emphasized over the surrounding neighborhood, or forgotten, and privacy is paramount. Whereas SoCal has accommodated private automobiles without reservation, indeed making it nearly impossible to live without one, Vancouver consciously rejected freeways and has repeatedly emphasized the priority of pedestrians and transit throughout the region. While one can criticize the incompleteness of this vision in reality, especially across the Lower Mainland, Vancouver has always made urbanism explicit in a way SoCal never really has. It is easy to live here without driving, possibly the most salient distinction from our Southern cousins.
While we both play volleyball on attractive beaches, in Vancouver we can easily walk, bike, or take the bus to get there. We can stroll for shopping on the way home. Only the densest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and San Diego offer these simple conveniences, and only rarely with the opportunity to avoid driving completely.