Google “ the worlds most liveable city” and Vancouver comes up. Reading on about these liveability surveys and Vancouver is also classed as one of the worlds most sustainable cities. When 4 of the Hemingways are either working in or studying urban design and with yours truly being half Canadian and only ever going there once before for a brief two day stopover in Quebec, then its about time we visited Vancouver.
From the moment you start the descent, you can see that Vancouver is blessed, snow capped mountains, a massive river delta and huge coastal inlets. The airport is crisp and modern but not “up itself” like some of the architectural airport statements.
You are downtown within 20 minutes, passing through liveable suburbs with streets with trees, coffee shops, local scale retailers, green spaces, nothing iconic, nothing that tries too hard just good old fashioned homely places.
Sometimes places just feel right and in so many ways Vancouver feels right. The Hemingways like shopping, we like our vintage clothes and our 70s and 80s vinyl soul music, we like our furniture and interior products, we like the serendipity that enthusiastic and knowledgeable independent store owners bring to the shopping experience. Most British cities seem to think that if they can attract some international designer labels or a Harvey Nichols then they have achieved urban regeneration, but isn’t this just another step towards wearing the badge of “clone town” unless it’s mixed with serendipity?
London, New York and Paris are great places to shop because they have various areas to shop that all have a different feel, there has always been “upcoming” areas where entrepreneurs can get cheap rents and have a go… that’s how Gerardine and I were able to start Red or Dead back in the 80’s by finding affordable spots in Soho, Covent Garden, Camden and Kensington… gentrification and the buying up of streets by the pension funds have just about put paid to this and London is worse for it. Vancouver is on a much smaller scale than London, having a population not much bigger than Leeds but it still manages to provide variety and a whole series of areas to visit. Its a compact city, with a fantastic public transport system, from good old fashioned trolley buses to the retro futuristic “sky train”. But we walked, I love walkable cities. We walked from Downtown, through Gastown, along Main St and Commercial Road, finding vintage store, after thrift store after vinyl record store and everyone seems to know where there are hidden vintage clothes store. This is a wealthy city that enjoys thrift but is not afraid to celebrate high quality architecture and public space. Our first day was spent doing this in incessant rain but it’s a sign of a great city when the rain doesn’t get you down ( just as well as it rains a lot in Vancouver) .
Walking round the wonderfully landscaped waterfronts, zig zagging across the harbour on the cute Aquabuses, marvelling at the magnificent residential glass towers with their verdant roof gardens, terraces and green roofs, and hopping off to visit the wonderful food markets of Granville Island and what has to be the most mouth watering supermarket in the world “Urban Fare” in the regenerated textile district of Yaletown… (its worth a trip to Vancouver just to see how our big retailers should be treating us… giving us produce that looks like its been selected from the choicest producers from the best farmers markets)
Vancouver also has its gritty side, scrape beneath the laid back San Franciscoesque feel to its bohemian suburbs and there are potheads everywhere, on one bus ride along Hastings Street we seemed to pass through an “Escape from New York” film set of thousands of drug addicts and prostitutes…Gerardine was glad we didn’t stumble across this area on one of our suburb seeking city rambles.
But it never seems threatening. I have never come across a friendlier city. Get your map out and you can be sure that almost immediately someone will ask if you need help. If you take a taxi, the driver is invariably friendly and turns into a tour guide (grumpy London cabbies take heed). This friendly laid back, modern hippy vibe is a very attractive element to Vancouver.
A highlight of our time in the city was hiring bikes (there are cycle hire stations all over Vancouver) and cycling round Stanley Park and its city beaches, picnic, recreation and play areas and on to the beautiful and wild Wreck Beach by the lovely University Of British Columbia. And you can put your bikes on bike racks on the front of buses and the bus drivers help you put them on… thats an integrated sustainable transport system.
Mum and Dad are crap skiers but part of being a parents that are awful skiers is to allow our kids not to not follow in our footsteps in this respect (they wont have as many belly laughs as crap skiers have though!!). Vancouver has the skiing facility of Grouse Mountain on its doorstep but we chose to take the two hour Ski Bus to North Americas premier ski resort, Whistler. The journey up was great, Whistler is a nice town. Great skiing, or so my kids told me, by day, an amazing selection of outdoor gear shops for the late afternoon, good quality restaurants and even a club with 80’s old school hip hop icon Afrika Bambaataa performing!!
Yes Vancouver is sustainable, it has a Climate Change Action Plan with an aim to reduce carbon emissions by 20% from 2004 by 2010, the newspapers are full of stories about plans to turn all the city’s waste into power, and discussion of how to grow the city sustainably, it seemed like every other car and taxi is a hybrid fuel Toyota Prius. But to me the most sustainable things about Vancouver is that you can walk it, you can cycle it, there’s great public transport, it understands and enjoys thrift. Its council and architects pride themselves on building sustainability into the buildings (their Green Building Strategy is to be applauded) and are building at high density. But unlike in many English cities, the high density apartment blocks add to the city, have a quality about them that is making a new history for the city rather than just building “buy to let” small investor apartments that will probably get pulled down in 30 years like is happening in much of the UK (London generally excluded). This is a city where I could bring up a family and live within spitting distance of a downtown office. City living, at high density is the most sustainable way we can live but Vancouver is also blessed with location. Hiking, beach walks, stimulating cycling, skiing, access to wilderness, water sports, fly fishing for salmon and trout are all on the doorstep, add to that the retail therapy, in all its manifestations, great cafes and restaurants and great housing and apartments.
Sustainability is intrinsically linked to liveability and happiness and I can see why Vancouver comes top of that pile.