A recent visit to Vancouver got editor in chief Tyler Brûlé thinking all the more about quality of life. Read on for his thoughts on everything in the Canadian city, from urban design to public toilets – and a run-in with an inquisitive seal.
On a recent trip to Vancouver – a city that always does well in our Quality of Life ranking and came in at number 11 this year – I had one of those rare mornings where the luxury of jet-lag allowed for an early start so I pulled on my trainers and running gear and hit the city’s empty streets. It was an unseasonably warm morning in early May and the sun was already drying the dewy lawns around Stanley Park. It was some time before I came across any fellow runners but after a while two Japanese women (I think they worked for either JAL or ANA) rounded the bend. To their surprise I greeted them with an “Ohayo gozaimasu” and with a few shrieks, squeals and “sugoi” they returned the greeting as I continued to follow the park’s perimeter.
On this particular morning, with a solid four hours before my first meeting, I decided to interrogate the city. I’d perhaps pay closer attention to the pavements and architecture, the housing stock and the mix of retail. What makes Vancouver so great? What holds it back? What would I change?
About 4km into the run I popped into the public loos, which were smelly, damp and disappointing. Why couldn’t they have been dry and properly stocked? Vancouver, and Canada in general, is not a poor place so why not put more effort into getting the basics right? Proper functioning toilets improve your quality of life so why are they a shambles in most cities? Is it because planners and city councillors feel the public should use facilities offered by the private sector? Or is that they’re seen as a nuisance to maintain and not as important as roads or rail links?
A few kilometres further along I passed a narrow stretch of beach that soon disappeared and gave way to large rocks and deeper water. Was that a seal I just saw? A head peeked out of the water but quickly vanished. Soon it resurfaced, gleaming in the sunlight. It was keeping an eye on me and as the path came closer to where he (or she) was bobbing it dipped below the surface.
I liked seeing the seal with the city skyline in view and wondered whether this had been a life-improving moment. I see a lot of geese during my runs around Regent’s Park and, in Tokyo, occasionally turtles put in an appearance if you peer into the moat around the Imperial Palace. But there was something special about the seal: its presence suggested that the water must be reasonably clean to sustain a healthy diet and what seemed to be, albeit from a distance, a healthy-looking coat.
As I hit the 10km mark (my usual limit) and surveyed the harbour I wondered where Vancouverites go for a morning swim. Was there a bathing club I could pop into for a dip, hot shower and good coffee? Later that day I asked this question on a local radio show and was told there were pools beside the harbour as it was far too dirty to swim in. Really? Was this just another case of health and safety gone mad? Or is Vancouver’s seawater truly toxic and the notion of a swimmable harbour a good rallying cry to get it cleaned up?
The rest of the day was viewed from the back of a car. Yes, I could have taken public transport but you try shuttling around 10 copies of monocle, poster boards, travel guides and gifts for clients – it simply doesn’t work. It’s for this reason that we firmly believe personal vehicles (taxis and otherwise) still have a place in city centres and beyond.
Two things that Vancouver does very well is greenery – trees line avenues throughout much of its urban core – and thoughtful density. While the city could be more ambitious with its design approvals for high-rise housing, it does get the ratios right when it comes to making its downtown feel human and walkable but also business-friendly and international.
South of downtown, open boulevards in a former industrial area are giving way to a variety of companies. Many pockets of the city have been scarred by unremarkable condos with too much glass and not enough engagement with the street. But this part of town has the opportunity to construct apartment buildings that blend with the area’s postwar architecture while also creating a community with all the essential services that allow residents to work, live, shop and play within a 2km radius. Unfortunately one or two hoardings glimpsed from intersections didn’t offer much in the way of promise.
As much of this issue of the magazine reveals, many cities are getting the basics right and many more have arresting projects that demand mayors, developers and planners do some field work. It’s for this reason that we’re working on a new book devoted to the best in urbanism, which is due out in 2017. In the meantime we look forward to seeing you at our summer party in South Tyrol and various other events across our autumn schedule.
Wishing you a lovely summer. All comments, questions and requests can be sent to me firstname.lastname@example.org my trusty colleagues Mat and Hannah at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your support.
For more from our editor in chief, read his column in the ‘FT Weekend’.