My two young grandchildren, who are being raised in and just outside the borders of Vancouver, are the sixth generation of my family to live here. I think sometimes of the world of change they will grow into. After all, their parents – my children – do not have land-line telephones, television sets or daily newspaper delivery, all things I took for granted as mainstays of life growing up. It is surely an impossible feat of imagination to foresee the changes my grandchildren will experience.
And then I think of the changes that each generation of my family has experienced in this city we made our home more than a century ago – changes that have transformed this city again and again. Then as now, the question presents itself: Do we mourn this change or embrace it? A timely and fascinating exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver engages us directly in this question. It's called Your Future Home: Creating the New Vancouver. It asks the question: What is Vancouver?
Vancouver is change.
In one of my early memories, I am sitting in the front room of my great grandfather's house on Fleming Street listening to him reminisce about when a stretch of Main Street was a bridge across False Creek. A century ago, the West End was single-family homes, not apartment buildings, South Vancouver and Point Grey were separate municipalities, and the waterfront was lined with sawmills, not bike paths and restaurants.
Stand for a moment at the corner of Georgia and Burrard and look around. Then try to imagine the city my parents saw when they emerged from Christ Church Cathedral on their wedding day in 1953, when the church itself, the Hotel Vancouver across the street, and the Marine Building two blocks north were far and away the tallest buildings nearby.
For my own part, I remember that when I first started working as a lawyer in the early 1980s, downtown Vancouver emptied out at the end of every working day. Everyone headed home, leaving behind a sort of urban desert, because no one lived downtown. The waterfront west of Granville Street was the Bayshore Hotel, and some railway tracks.
Vancouver is a story of a constantly transforming urban landscape. We used to be proud of it; now it seems to embarrass us. Increasingly I hear people worry we are somehow losing our city, as though there was a city that once was and should remain ever fixed and immutable, when, of course, that has never been the case.
Apart from First Nations, everyone here came from somewhere else. It's odd to hear people argue they have a right to live in the same neighbourhood as their parents when I know very few people do, and in so many cases, our parents immigrated here from far away. It's even stranger to hear people who own summer or winter homes they only use a few weeks a year complain about part-timers buying houses in their neighbourhood.
Twice in recent memory, Vancouver has put itself on the world stage, inviting everyone to come and have a look. First Expo 86, and then the Winter Olympics in 2010. The world accepted our invitation. What did it see? A marvellously beautiful setting, a mild climate, the rule of law, respect for private property rights, a balanced market economy, safe neighbourhoods and a tolerant society. Who can blame the world for wanting some of this? And so it turns out that when people discover that ours is by any measure one of the most attractive cities in the world, some of them want to come here, or at least to buy a piece of our paradise.
Having opened our doors to the world, we have become a world city.
Change cannot be avoided, but we need equal parts vision and fortitude to imagine and then implement the new city.
The way forward is clear. The neighbourhoods of single family houses in the heart of residential Vancouver are not sustainable, except as virtually gated communities for the very rich. The city simply has to grow up by growing upwards. There are no single-family houses in the heart of Hong Kong, London, Paris, Singapore or New York. People live and raise their families in apartments and townhouses. They do it now in Yaletown. They will have to do it in Dunbar, Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, Point Grey and Fraserview.
There is no government program or law that will return us to a day of affordable single-family homes in Vancouver. Surtaxing non-resident land owners and subsidizing so-called affordable housing projects are all well and good, but they are just Band-Aids. If we want to live in this city, we will have to change the way we live, in smaller spaces, closer together. Our city council must increase the supply of housing by intensifying. Carefully, sensitively and respectfully, but firmly and relentlessly. And faster.
Of course it's easier to say than do, because it's easier to talk about change than to live it, especially when change looms like a threat to a treasured status quo. But we don't really have a choice. The city that once was is not the city that will be.
Geoff Plant was British Columbia's attorney-general from 2001 to 2005. He practises law with Gall Legge Grant & Munroe in Vancouver.