How Other Cities Do It, and Why Can’t We?
Every time I return to Vancouver from a trip to one or another foreign city, I am struck by how many creative yet sensible things that those cities facilitate are not permitted here at home. Compared to such cities, Vancouver seems overregulated. We handicap ourselves in terms of what is allowed under local laws, regulations and customs: sometimes it feels like we are running this town with one hand tied behind our collective backs. And not surprisingly, this shows up in many indicators, such as fewer independent business start-ups, higher start-up costs and slower approvals, a less than vibrant public realm, anemic arts and cultural sectors (no fault of the artists who struggle to work here), an aversion to entrepreneurial risk taking, and an overbearing police culture that seems focused on snuffing out the first hints of public fun while somehow missing the point of city life.
What do I mean, specifically? Here are some examples:
Recently in Barcelona, we found ourselves in the midst of a community festival in the Gracia neighbourhood. No, I don’t mean a single fenced-off street, with controlled entry beer gardens (think Kits Days, say). The entire area – streets, squares, parks, public buildings, cafes – was taken over by the festivities, be it parades, fireworks, decorated streets, parties, sidewalk sales of beer and cocktails everywhere, live music stages, food and craft stalls, and so on. Everyone participated, from cool hipsters to families with young kids to bemused tourists (like us) to old geezers watching it all go by. Oh, and the police were there too, mixing in with the residents, a subtle presence that blended into the crowd. And not a crowd-control fence in site. It was one huge party, and the atmosphere was totally chill. There was a genuine sense of community, of people owning their neighbourhood and using it as they saw fit.
Barcelona also has a richly animated urban waterfront, with rows of beachside bars and restaurant terraces right on the sand for those wanting to have a drink or tapas while at the beach. So civilized. And not a beach lout in sight. The beachfront has an extraordinary concentration of public art as well as other services and amenities such as a free book lending program (yup!), kiosks selling sunscreen, hats, umbrellas, beach chairs, roller blades, etc., bike rentals, showers, lockers, change rooms, public toilets, water fountains, benches, recycling facilities, loudspeakers for public announcements and music, bandstands, and so on. In other words, Barcelona has taken one of its most prized assets – its waterfront – and optimized it for public use and pleasure. There is an entire micro-economy going on here, employing hundreds of people in formal and informal ways. (Yes, of course Barcelona has its share of beggars, street hustlers and drug dealers, of course, just like any big city does.)
Or how about Sydney, Australia? There, sidewalks are optimized for use, whether that means sidewalk tables spilling out from myriad bars and cafes, with none of those absurd physical barriers between seated customers (who – gasp – drink real alcohol) and passersby; or upper floors built out over the sidewalks that accommodate pub and restaurant terraces, while providing shade for pedestrians below. Try do that in Vancouver. Even the provision of toilets in such establishments is not always strictly ‘by the book’, and neighbouring businesses sometimes share such facilities where it would be impractical to do otherwise in older buildings. No-one, as far as I know, has died of such lapses in public health standards. Customer parking too seems to be much less of an issue than here, in that many restaurants simply don't have any. People manage. Real cities adapt.
Malaga, a hardboiled working port and the gateway to southern Spain, has an entire web of older narrow streets in its core that have been completely pedestrianized, facilitating a city of sublime outdoor living that has to be one of the most amenable urban environments anywhere. Streets have elegant fabric canopies strung between the tops of opposing buildings to provide shade below. The roads are paved in marble. I kid you not. Fruit-bearing orange and olive trees grow in plazas. Commercial deliveries, garbage collection, emergency services all somehow manage. The pedestrian is king.
Marseilles, Nice, Avignon, Granada, Cadiz (where an enterprising young lady trolled the beach we were on, peddling chilled lollipops and mojitos alike from an icebox – an eminently sensible public service, it seemed to me), Florence, Lucca, Amsterdam, Brighton, Cape Town, Puerto Vallarta, Portland, Tel Aviv: the list goes on of cities I have visited that have figured out how to set the stage then get out of the way of local entrepreneurs, businesspeople, entertainers and artists who want to deliver a new service, offer a new product, or adapt the public realm to a better or more pleasurable use. In these cities, the public realm – that Public Commons which is owned collectively – is constantly being shaped and molded to serve people’s pleasures and needs, and not the other way round. There is a pliable generosity about the fabric of such cities that accommodates people. Even the police sirens are less shrill than ours. These cities feel like their urban thermometers are set to the human sweet spot. The pleasure principle trumps.
By contrast here in Vancouver however, so many restrictive regulations covering everything from land use to zoning to business licenses, alcohol sales and service, farmers markets and festivals, health and safety, parking and bike helmets, serve to stifle organic, urban creativity in multiple ways.
Next time you return from visiting your favourite foreign city and wonder why Vancouver can’t be more like it, remember that we have nothing to fear but ourselves. We can change how we choose to manage our city, if the good will and maturity is there. It's time we untied the hand behind our back.
© Lance Berelowitz