For years, Vancouver has dined out on its reputation for being one of the most beautiful and liveable cities in the world.
Honours from everyone from The Economist to Mercer, whose annual Quality of Living ranking always reserves a spot near the top for the city, paint a picture of Eden-like bliss. If it’s not the splendour of the surrounding ocean and mountains they’re gushing about, it’s the city’s multiethnic makeup and low crime rate. And the sushi ain’t bad either.
Sometimes, however, you do wonder whether those conducting these assessments ever talk to people who are actually living in the city. If they did, one suspects it might dim their utopian view.
There is a new study out that is drastically at odds with what you would expect to find in paradise. A report by researchers at the University of British Columbia and Montreal's McGill that looked at life satisfaction in 1,200 communities across the country found that Vancouver – and Toronto – are the unhappiest cities in the country. The analysis is based on feedback from more than 400,000 people.
It seems that those who are the happiest in this country live in smaller, often rural areas. The most dissatisfied inhabit denser, urban centres, where there is not the same sense of togetherness and community that you often find in small towns. Salaries and unemployment levels did not emerge as much of a predictor of one’s happiness as did shorter commute times and what proportion of a family’s income goes toward housing. This confirms work by the Vancouver Foundation over the past several years that found that young people (between the ages of 18 and 24) in Metro Vancouver, and Vancouver in particular, are burdened by a sense of profound loneliness. It’s not a place where important human connections are easily made.
I realize there are many people who distrust these types of evaluations on the grounds they constitute a massive generalization. And there are those who subscribe to the view that life in a city is what you make of it; so stop whining about Vancouver being a difficult place to meet people and put yourself out there a bit more. And there is certainly some merit to those arguments. But I think these investigations have also tapped into some deep frustration.
Of course, Vancouver is a beautiful, progressive place to live, with bike lanes galore and a climate that allows you to take advantage of them year-round. But what’s also undeniable is that over the past several years, the past four or five in particular, the city has changed. It’s not easy to put a finger precisely on how, but it does have something to do with its soul, an essence that made it such a wonderful place to be once upon a time.
In many respects, Vancouver is now a place you try to survive as much as enjoy. All the problems are well known, the greatest being the high cost of housing. When you, as a young person, have little hope of making a comfortable life in a city that you love, of course it’s going to cause unhappiness. There is a sense that Vancouver is being yanked away from those who love it most, taken over by mercantilists and arrivistes from around the world who care little about a city’s “soul” so long as the skiing’s good and there’s a place that sells beluga caviar. And then there are those sitting on a lottery ticket with the house they bought years ago, waiting to cash out, and those sitting on a mountain of debt, praying interest rates don’t go up. It doesn’t sound like the kind of environment that would engender a cool community vibe, a place where relationships between people can flourish. And that, I think, is what the survey on happiness has tapped into.
I’m not sure solving the housing crisis instantly changes all that. I’m not sure the crisis can ever be solved. But I think those running for mayor of Vancouver, all 5,000 of them, need to be talking about finding a way of returning the city to the people who care the most about it, who don’t see it simply as an investment opportunity, or a commodity to be considered for its resale value.
The next mayor needs to be talking about why so many people who live in Vancouver are unhappy. And what, if anything, can be done about it.