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Vancouver's Livability Crisis

The problem with placemaking. Or, what happens when a city becomes a magnet for the globe's upwardly mobile, with growth outpacing what the locals can keep up with.
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Downtown Vancouver as seen from the Harbour Centre. (PHOTO: MAGNUSL3D/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Downtown Vancouver as seen from the Harbour Centre. (PHOTO: MAGNUSL3D/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Return migration from Canada to Hong Kong exposes the flawed thinking behind the urban planning approach known in some circles as "Vancouverism." Vancouver is celebrated for its livability, attracting talent from around the world. But migration isn't a zero-sum game and the transnational connectivity weighs on city planners:

Prominent Canadian urban planner Andy Yan said that understanding the true scale of the flow was crucial to planning policies in both Hong Kong and Canada, which risked being stymied by the lack of hard data.

"How do we plan our cities? How many housing units, how many services do we need?" said Yan, an adjunct professor of planning at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

"This [reverse migration] is a massive X factor and is the frontier of urban planning."

A large number of residents in Hong Kong have a significant impact on Vancouver livability. A salary in another country thousands of miles away inflates real estate prices for a labor market not benefiting from economic globalization. The rent is too damn high with the disposable income landing somewhere else. Vancouver's Portlandia paradox:

Meanwhile, perhaps Vancouver has finally realized its dream, the dream of becoming a world-class city. However, it will have done so in an unexpected way: as a bedroom-community to the world, a city where those who (as Ice-T put it) bank the cash like Brinks come home after a tough week of jet-setting. In that sense, we'd be joining cities such as New York, London, and San Francisco.

However, notes Yan, "Clearly we’re not New York, but what are we, then? We’re not even a Seattle, we’re barely a Portland in terms of a robust local economy."

Yan told me, "It’s a question of ‘livable for who?’ Vancouver is perfectly livable if you have access to very large amounts of money. The devil’s in the details in this discussion."

New York is a world-class city thanks to economic opportunity, a talent refinery without peer. Vancouver is a world-class city thanks to livability and urban amenities. The gentrification problem has little to do with an improving local employment picture.

Vancouverism or, more generally, placemaking puts the cart before the horse. As a magnet for the upwardly mobile, New York needs smart planning to manage the influx of outsiders. Vancouver uses smart planning to become a magnet for the upwardly mobile. That's all well and good until they start returning in droves to Hong Kong.