April 5, 2006

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Vancouver is like an adolescent about to grow up

Like people, cities present trajectories of maturity, an urban life course that moves from a first, brash self-awareness to a twilight of fading senescence.

Living in Vancouver is like living one's life with a 13-year-old, an adolescent filled with insecurities and aggression. The experience is always interesting, sometimes exhausting, and rarely uneventful.

The comparison of the city and the teenager is more charitable and affectionate than it may first appear. Like people, cities present trajectories of maturity, an urban life course that moves from a first, brash self-awareness to a twilight of fading senescence.

Vancouver today exists at the short end of a long continuum that begins with brash and oil rich Fort McMurray and the upstart oil town Calgary. It is not that they are new cities. They are not. Events have conspired, however, to bring them to a new sense of self-confidence and growth.

At the other end of the spectrum are the U.S. rust belt cities like Buffalo, New York. Once the Queen of the Lakes, its raison d'etre of lake port and railhead centre are forgotten. Gone with them are the vitality of the place, its once booming industry and much of its former population.

Vancouver may be more than a century old, but the city we live in is a late 20th century phenomenon that blossomed in the 1970s as the city's old, downtown core began to fade.  All that is left of the city's beginnings is Gastown, a few buildings scheduled for urban renewal, and the nostalgia of Hastings Mill, now a park exhibit in Kitsilano.

Like all new cities, Vancouver is a place whose mature population largely came from someplace else, a burgeoning youth whose identity is being forged not from old stock but from the new. This is what newspaper columnists of the 1970s, folk like Doug Collins, were afraid of. Old Vancouver was Caucasian and conservative, a late colonial city. New Vancouver is aggressively multicultural, a place where Punjabi and Hindi vie with Cantonese as favored languages.

Gone with the old is the complex of British sensibilities and colonial correctness. Gone, too,  are the insular boundaries that distinguished the city from its surroundings. Today, Vancouver hangs with a teenage-like posse composed of neighborhood kids like Burnaby, Delta, and Surrey.

Sure, the Greater Vancouver Regional District's members fight among themselves. That's what adolescent groups do as their members vie for attention and respect. But just like any teenage gang,  cities and municipalities unite against any collective slight, be it from the provincial government in Victoria or nabobs from the eastern crowd, Ottawa or Toronto.

Think of our mayors and their respectful whining for Victoria's (or Ottawa's) financial favors. Now listen to a 13-year-old being told he or she has to be home by 11 o'clock at night. It's the sense of injustice in the face of adult supervision.

Like all adolescents, Vancouver defines itself through reference to others, especially to the big kids on the block. Are we a fun city or a dull one? Will we be liked or rejected as nerdy? Imagine Toronto worrying about its image in this way. Toronto knows what it is and seeks no comparison, believing others should measure up to it. Vancouver constantly looks for a yardstick whose measure will say, “Hey, we're grown up.”

That is what the 2010 Olympics are supposed to be. It is the sweet 16 party for the adolescent city, a coming out to the world. All the expenditures and all the costs will amount to a two-week cotillion in which we can say on worldwide television, “We're like the big cities now.” That we're willing to accept decades of debt for the privilege of the party is simply another example of adolescent values and a joy in public display.

Vancouver will be a great city in, say, a century or so. There is no way to rush it. Greatness comes from many things but mostly from time. Toronto's added years and prominence have given it the University of Toronto whose world-class library system is one of the city's treasures. It has the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, and in its suburbs, Kleinberg's home to the Group of Seven.

I love both UBC and SFU. They're good schools whose resources are improving, decade by decade. But they are not great in the way old schools are great. There is yet to be the legacy of the Nobel laureates and the well-healed graduates who endow the academy with the money it requires to secure the best resources available.

Nobody thinks the Vancouver Art Gallery is world class, not yet. The Museum of Anthropology is wonderful but limited in its collections. Great cities almost by definition house great art and that takes generations of building.
Think New York City. Its greatness lies not simply in its myriad museums, its brilliant public library or its centrality to the fields of art and music. All that is necessary but insufficient. What makes it The City is its sense of purpose and renewal, its congregation of excellences in every field.

New York isn't great because it's a tourist attraction. It is a great place to be young and in love with a technique or a profession or almost any passion at all.  New York's greatness lies in the fact that people want to live there and pursue all types of excellence. Not just academics and entrepreneurs but folks from every nation and every profession find it a thrilling place.

It's not about being a fun city like Las Vegas. That city is really a shuck and a boor, a place to lose money and dreams, not fulfill them. Being great  is about being a place whose history one wants to join and whose future one desires to build. 

To understand the trick of urban greatness means studying how once-great cities have failed, not trying to emulate the ones that have made it. We'll never be New York or London or Rome.

New York won the battle as immigrant and shipping centre for the new world. London required an empire and Rome needed the Renaissance to become what they are today. They are historical oddities, not cities to emulate.

Think, instead, of the failed cities of Asia, for example.  Hong Kong is devoured by avarice, a testimony to capitalism so unrestrained that it is constantly tearing itself apart. Beijing is an imperial city without an empire. The Sun King is gone and with him the engine that made it a pride in centuries past. Jerusalem, once great, is now a  war zone, its history locked in a death struggle with its present.

Beautiful Vancouver isn't enough, except for a vain adolescent. To become great Vancouver needs to become a city where the mountains past English Bay compete unsuccessfully with the glorious excitement of the city itself. To be such a place, one of the few, takes time and patience, money and thought. The result is a type of self-confident assurance no child knows and only some adults can boast.

Hang around for a century or so. By 2120 we may know if Vancouver is a Buffalo in the making, or a London town of the emerging age. Either way, adolescence will be past and the future will be assured.

A bioethicist, gerontologist and medical geographer, Tom Koch is also a consultant in bioethics and gerontology for the Copeman Healthcare Centre.

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