Vaunted Vancouver

Set between the Pacific Ocean and a coastal mountain range, the British Columbia city may be the ultimate urban playground

Vancouver has the fastest-growing residential population of any downtown in North America. (© Douglas Williams / AGE Fotostock)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Shafts of sunlight soften the brooding darkness of the Canadian Pacific rain forest, shadowed under a canopy of 200-foot-high Douglas firs. A rustle of pine needles turns out not to signify the slithering of an unseen snake—merely a winter wren darting through the underbrush. Now comes a sonic burst, as a downy woodpecker drills into a nearby trunk. On a branch overhead, blackcap chickadees join in a dee-dee-dee chorus. “What’s that?” I ask my naturalist guide, Terry Taylor, detecting a trilling whistle within a cathedral-like stand of red cedars. “Ah, that,” says Taylor, who is also a practitioner of deadpan Canadian humor. “That is a small bird.”

From This Story

Taylor’s narrative is punctured, however, by some decidedly non-bucolic sounds—the buzz of seaplanes ferrying passengers to nearby towns and resorts, and the foghorn blasts of multitiered cruise ships pulling away from their Vancouver, British Columbia, berths, heading north to Alaska. Stanley Park, the 1,000-acre rain forest we are exploring, lies at the heart of the city—the preserve covers almost half of its downtown peninsula. As a New Yorker, I have been known to brag about the landscaped elegance of Manhattan’s Central Park and the restorative powers of ProspectPark in Brooklyn. But even I have to admit that those green spaces pale in comparison to this extraordinary urban wilderness.

In what other city in the world can one ski on a nearby glacier in the morning—even in summer—and sail the Pacific in the afternoon? Where else does the discovery of a cougar wandering around a residential neighborhood fail to make the front page of the local newspaper? The big cat, according to an account buried inside the Vancouver Sun, was sedated and released in a more distant wilderness setting. The article included a “cougar hotline,” along with advice on tactics to be employed should readers encounter a snarling beast in their own backyards: “Show your teeth and make loud noises . . . if a cougar attacks, fight back.”

The great outdoors has dictated much of the city’s recent development. “We have guidelines that establish corridors between buildings to protect essential views of the mountains and water,” says Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s codirector of planning. Perhaps as a result, the hundreds of nondescript office buildings and apartment towers erected during the past 20 years appear to have been designed not to compete with stunning vistas of the blue Pacific and the snow-capped Coast Mountains. “Once developers complete a project of ten acres or more, they are required to dedicate substantial acreage to communal space, including parks,” says Beasley. Vancouver has added 70 acres of new parkland to its inner city in the past decade, particularly along the miles of waterfront looping around the city’s many inlets.

To show off this unique marriage of city and nature, Beasley conducts a walking tour through parts of the downtown peninsula not covered by rain forest. We begin in False Creek, an up-and-coming neighborhood. The waters here, once polluted, are now swimming clean. In-line skaters, bicyclists and joggers stream past a flotilla of sailboats tethered in the marina. Mixed-income residential towers and adjoining parkland rise on land formerly occupied by railroad yards. Afew blocks north, False Creek abuts Yaletown, a SoHo-like neighborhood of lofts, restaurants, galleries and high-tech enterprises fashioned out of a former warehouse district. “What we’re aiming for is a 24-hour inner city, not just a town where everybody heads for the suburbs when it gets dark,” says Beasley.

Statistics bear out his claim that Vancouver “has the fastest-growing residential population of any downtown in North America.” In 1991, the city had a population of 472,000; a decade later, it had risen to 546,000. “And yet,” Beasley boasts, “we have fewer cars than ten years ago.” There’s more to come, due to massive investment and a surge in tourism, both tied to the 2010 Winter Olympics to be held here.

Still, my walk back to my hotel is sobering. At Victory Square Park, located in a section known as Downtown Eastside, a contingent of perhaps 100 homeless people are living in tents, their settlement rising against a backdrop of banners reading “Stop the War on the Poor” and “2010 Olympics: Restore Money for Social Housing.”

I meet over coffee at a nearby bar with Jill Chettiar, 25, an activist who helped raise this tent city. “We wanted to draw attention to the fact that all this money is being spent on a socially frivolous project like the Olympics, while there are people sleeping in doorways,” says Chettiar. She estimates that half the tent dwellers are drug addicts; many suffer severe mental disorders. At night, the homeless are the only people visible in the 30-square-block district of single-roomoccupancy buildings, flophouses and alleys. “We’re living in a society that would rather turn its back on these people for the sake of attracting tourists,” says Chettiar.

But most Vancouverites welcome the Winter Olympics, remembering, as many of them do, Expo 1986—which drew an astounding 21 million visitors to the city and converted it, virtually overnight, into a major destination for tourists and immigrants alike. Of the latter, the most visible newcomers are Asians, particularly Hong Kong Chinese, who began to relocate here in anticipation of Hong Kong’s 1997 reversion to China after a century of British colonial rule. Others are eastern Canadians, lured by the mild climate and lotus land image. “It’s called the Vancouver disease,” says Carole Taylor, chairwoman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s board of directors (and no relation to Terry Taylor). “Companies hesitate to send their employees to Vancouver because they fall in love with the outdoors and the food and the lifestyle, and at some point they decide to stay rather than move up the ladder elsewhere.” Taylor knows. Thirty years ago she came here on assignment as a television reporter to interview the mayor, Art Phillips. Not only did she stay, but she ended up marrying the guy.

Vancouver has been seducing its visitors for a while now. Some theories hold that migrating hunters, perhaps crossing from Siberia into Alaska over the Bering Strait some 10,000 years ago, were enticed into a more sedentary life by the abundant fish and wild fruit found here. Various native tribes who settled here—now called First Nations people—created some of the most impressive cultures in pre-Columbian North America. “The access to food resources enabled people to establish a complex, hierarchical society and develop art to reflect ranking, particularly exemplified by massive structures like totem poles. Those constructions show crests representing family lineage and histories. Also, a person’s rank in the tribe was indicated by the number of poles that individual could afford to raise,” says Karen Duffek, curator of art at the Museum of Anthropology.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus