A Closer Look at the “Livable” City

“Modernist, sustainable, and performative, is [Vancouver] a model for the future city?” asks the The Guardian.  “The world’s most livable city,” states The Economist.  “Consider it the supermodel of North American cities,” declares USA Today. Vancouver has undoubtedly been on the receiving end of intense praise over the past decade, with critics arguing it has achieved something special.

Cities all around the world such as Toronto, Dubai, Fort Worth, and Abu Dhabi have attempted to replicate what architects and urban planners are calling “Vancouverism”. One look at Vancouver’s beautiful, podium-style glass towers and expansive waterfront confirms awestruck onlookers’ praise. However, beauty is only surface deep; it turns out what is lacking is true, meaningful diversity and integration.

Vancouver is known to be a “livable” city in that it is walkable and offers innovative mixed-use zoning policies as well as ample green space. However, a closer look at the social and political landscape of Vancouver reveals a racially segregated cityscape that is certainly not “livable”.

In 1982, Canada became the first nation to institutionalize a policy of multiculturalism. However, it was not until 1996, well after Vancouver’s development took off, that the Canadian Census began collecting racial demographics. This, in effect, swept racial segregation under the rug by neglecting to acknowledge or measure its existence.

Although Vancouver, with its 18% foreign-born population is less segregated than Canada’s two largest cities, Toronto and Montreal, this fact is quickly changing. Studies show the city’s rapidly-growing immigrant population is spatially segregated and this is projected to continue. “Some visible minorities are clearly discriminated against in a variety of socio-economic indicators – housing, employment, services, etc. Most often, these are Aboriginal peoples, Black Canadians and some Asian population groups,“ says Deborah Thompson, professor of Political Science at University of Ohio. She argues, “Canada’s kitten-hugging version of multiculturalism – high on rhetoric, low on actual results in terms of lessening racial disadvantage – is still intact.”

This fact becomes even more crucial considering Vancouver, with a metro area of 2.3 million, receives 40,000 new immigrants a year. In fact, according to Daniel Hiebert of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Vancouver’s white population will be in the minority within two decades. Racial polarization of income has also deepened, as neighborhoods where white and native-born residents remained the majority enjoyed the lion’s share of the city’s overall income gains, while areas with the greatest share of visible minorities and immigrants were much more likely to see their fortunes decline. If Vancouver’s residential segregation is not already obvious to the diaspora of critics, it will soon come to the forefront.

As Matthew Soules, director of Matthew Soules Architecture in Vancouver, argues in his Harvard Design Magazine piece, The “Livable” Suburbanized City, “Vancouverism’s mixed-use doesn’t extend much beyond having a good latte, organic produce, designer shops and hair salons close to one’s condo….all of this is predictable and highly problematic in supporting a highly homogenous social environment. [It] reveals a remarkably consistent code of public conduct defined by the yuppie lifestyle, preoccupations of fitness, shopping, and dining. “

Soules concludes, “It’s a controlled, safe and hygienic version of the city…Multicultural difference is thus reduced to ‘lifestyle’ practices such as shopping in certain stores or dancing in certain clubs.“ Soules asks, “Where are recent immigrants whose social habits do not mesh with its strict codes of conduct? Where is a breadth of public space that could facilitate such diversity?”  It seems as if diversity and difference is engineered, controlled, and channeled through consumerism and pre-though out mega-development.  As Soules puts it, “[This] livable city smothers living”.

The point here is that cities, although masterful examples of engineering, urban design, and architecture, are not viable cities unless all subsets of their population are integrated and provided with the same access to opportunities. “Livability” is misused in the Vancouver context to describe “walkability” and expansive parks, whereas this term should ultimately be used as a quality of life measure for the city at large. Yes, a city is a place to shop, dine, and jog, but first and foremost, it is a place to live. If, like Vancouver, a city’s segregated residential patterns reveal that this primary function is not openly extended to people of all races, then it is not deserving of unequivocal praise.

Clearly, it is glaringly obvious that Vancouver, and “Vancouverism” are not examined closely enough by those who tout its preeminence.  By stressing the surface-deep, cosmetic qualities of Vancouver’s cityscape, observers only detract from the real meaning of a “livable” city, one that is an integrated and values true, meaningful diversity.

 By Zoe Chapin, Fair Housing Research Assistant