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The West Coast city’s residents agree it has it all: access to nature, incredible bike infrastructure, a mild sunny climate and a dreamy seaside way of life

There’s a phrase you’re guaranteed to hear repeatedly if you ask residents about the kind of people who live here: Everyone is either “newly wed or nearly dead.”

People say it with a chuckle, or sometimes with an eye-roll, because they know it’s been said too many times.

But recently, people say it as a reference to the past.

“It’s not necessarily a retirement city any more. … It savours people who enjoy being outside, being active and going hiking,” said Amy Dewar, who moved here during the COVID-19 pandemic after stints living in Calgary and cities in Europe.

At the same time, said 28-year-old Rowan DeBues-Stafford, Victoria provides all the big-city amenities of venues, dining options and events “without the baggage of a big city.”

Yes, there are still disproportionately large amounts of seniors and students in the city, where a mild sunny climate makes for an idyllic retirement spot and its many postsecondary institutions attract younger folks.

But for the past decade, Victoria has also been one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities, says University of Victoria assistant professor Justin Wiltshire. According to Statistics Canada, the population grew by nearly 15 per cent from 2011 to 2021, from roughly 80,000 residents to just under 92,000.

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Pedestrians walk along Fan Tan alley in Victoria's Chinatown. Victoria was rated Canada’s best city for amenities based on its high rankings for proximity to grocery stores, parks and libraries.

He says numbers aren’t available yet around how the pandemic affected those trends, but the city is continually getting denser and there is a sense that Victoria, which boasts a dreamy seaside way of life, is quickly getting discovered by people who are no longer chained to working in bigger cities as the pandemic has eased.

You can feel it walking down the downtown core, where dense walkable streets, lively storefronts and plenty of options to eat and drink exist in a way that you wouldn’t expect in other small Canadian communities. Neighbourhoods outside of the core have a nice level of mid-sized density too. Areas such as Cook Street Village feel like a quieter version of a typical inner-city neighbourhood such as Leslieville in Toronto or Inglewood in Calgary.

All these years of growth have resulted in a vibrant city. A comprehensive Globe and Mail data analysis project in partnership with Environics Analytics Group Ltd. found Victoria to be Canada’s most livable city overall. Almost any resident you ask will agree on the key components that make it a great place to live: access to nature, incredible bike infrastructure, mild weather that makes a camping trip possible in the winter and the lifestyle of a mid-sized city.

Almost any Victoria resident will agree on the key components that make the city a great place to live: access to nature, bike infrastructure, mild weather, and the lifestyle of a mid-sized city.

The Globe looked at 10 overall categories, including Transportation, Housing, Climate and Amenities. It ranked 439 communities across Canada by analyzing specific variables within each category.

For example, Victoria was rated Canada’s best city for Amenities based on its high rankings for proximity to grocery stores, parks and libraries, among other factors. It was rated fifth overall in the Transportation category based on the high proportion of residents who live near a transit stop, and for being a highly walkable community. Victoria’s mild climate, which rarely gets too hot or cold and features relatively low amounts of rain, meant the city was rated third best in the country for Climate.

METHODOLOGY: How we ranked Canada’s 100 most livable cities

All these factors were enough to counterbalance the major knock against Victoria: It’s an increasingly expensive place to live. The city placed in the lower half of our ranking for Housing, pointing to affordability issues driven in part by the high amount of households that spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.

Many residents say affordability is a drastic issue that affects their ability to see a steady future in the community. Benchmark prices for homes in Victoria have finally started to decrease in month-over-month comparisons, but markets here proved to be stubborn and prices initially kept rising even as they fell in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver when interest rates began to rise.

The question now facing Canada’s most livable city: Can it stay that way?

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Despite the many positive aspects of the city, Victoria residents say affordability is a key issue that affects their ability to see a steady future in the community.

Marc Verkuyl, who’s 32, has lived in cities throughout Canada, but he loves that life in Victoria allows for year-round cycling in mild weather, easy access to nature and a strong sense of community that is rooted in progressivism.

The things he values are easy to see on a mid-November day: The sun was shining, people were out cycling and jogging on multiuse paths by the water and through the central part of the city, and a healthy amount of mid-density neighbourhoods sprinkled a sense of community into neighbourhoods outside of the downtown core.

Density is a key area of concern for city council. Mayor Marianne Alto says Victoria has long had local regulations that make it easy for homeowners to convert properties from single-family dwellings to structures with six to 12 units. There are also plans for more high-rises to sprout up in the city’s core.

The question for her, she says, is: “How do you find that place where you’re building fast enough, you’re building sustainable enough where you actually can welcome people, and at the same time not affect the sense of what the city is now?”

Ms. Alto says residents are concerned about the pace of building, especially when high-rises are mentioned. But buildings will have to get taller to build the thousands of dwellings needed to keep up with the pace of growth.

Yes, it’s an issue many Canadian cities face. But like other residents, Mr. Verkuyl constantly wonders whether he can live here in the long term. His salary is in the mid-$80,000s, yet he still lives with two roommates. An apartment of his own in the city would likely take up half of his take-home pay – a pill too big to swallow.

Malcolm MacLean, a senior planner with the Community Planning Department of Victoria, said that while the city undeniably boasts a high quality of life that attracts a growing number of new residents, affordability and a scarcity of affordable multiroom homes have had a notable affect on Victoria’s ability retain certain demographics.

A group of dog owners gather at a park along the ocean on Dallas Road in Victoria.
Victoria’s mild climate, which rarely gets too hot or cold and features relatively low amounts of rain, meant the city was rated third best in the country for weather.

In data collected by the city, it found that children and adults in their late 20s and 30s consistently moved out of the city over time. For example, in 2006 there were 2,820 people aged 4 years and under according to the national census. By the 2011 census, when those children would have moved up to the 5-to-9 years census group, the same group dropped by 515 to a population of 2,305. That suggests that the parents moved out of the city as their children grew older.

The decline is now not as bad. There was a net loss of 105 newborns-to-four-year-olds as Victoria moved from the 2016 census to the 2021 census – but the exodus is still happening.

There are other unique challenges that affect people’s quality of life. The visibility of homelessness and drug epidemic is especially acute in downtown Victoria, where an encampment on Pandora Street may not be as big and as shocking as the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, but its size is remarkable for such a small city.

Another reality is that Victoria isn’t necessarily for everyone. Emily Smith, who’s 29, says she loves the community and finds it extremely livable, but some of her more conservative family in Alberta scoff at how noticeably left wing and “hippie” parts of the city can feel.

But for people who either fit in or are curious to give the lifestyle a try, the relatively small size of the city and the amount of local events makes it easy to get involved in the community.

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Marie Takahashi makes a lemon meringue pie at her pie shop in the Victoria Public Market. She left Alberta and moved to Victoria’s Cook Street Village neighbourhood in 2020.

Marie Takahashi moved to Victoria’s Cook Street Village neighbourhood in 2020 after burning out from her job as a political organizer and fundraiser in Alberta, and launched a side business making artisanal mustard.

She started selling at various farmers’ markets, and found the community was especially neighbourly. Victoria’s mild weather was an added benefit – some farmers’ markets run year-round.

The community was quick to welcome Ms. Takahashi. She could access commercial kitchens from some business owners when needed, and vendors would team up to put bulk orders together to save on overhead costs.

The effect of the community’s access to nature was palpable on her high-school-aged son as well.

“The cool thing was watching my kid go from someone who hates hiking to wanting to do a 40-kilometre multiday hike, said Ms. Takahashi, who said they even camped by the beach in February. If that sounds outrageous, consider this: The campground was completely full that night.

She recently moved to nearby Langford to accommodate the space demands of a new pie shop she runs in downtown Victoria and her mustard business. But she doesn’t find the 30-minute commute sustainable, and she’s now struggling to figure out how to move back, given the cost of housing.

Ms. Takahashi is giving herself until 2025, which is the year her son graduates from high school. If she doesn’t find a suitable home in Victoria by then, she says she’ll leave the region.

The costs are an issue for other residents such as Mr. DeBues-Stafford, but he knows people are struggling in even more expensive cities across Canada. He says the equation is simple when people in cities such as Toronto pay sky-high rents but don’t get to experience all the benefits of his life in Victoria.

“If you’re going to be stressed about money, you might as well be stressed about money in a place you really love,” he says.

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A Victoria water taxi sails in front of the British Columbia Parliament Buildings as the sun hangs over the inner harbour.

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