How did oil-guzzling Calgary overtake Vancouver in the Economist’s Liveability Index?

Lovely, lovely Vancouver. Image: Getty.

Vancouver residents felt a sting to their sense of urban pride when they saw last autumn that their city had lost to Calgary in a ranking of the world’s best cities by the Economist magazine. The magazine creates the index for their professional, globetrotting demographic.

The Economist’s “Global Liveability Index” by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) surveys and analyses 140 cities using both objective and subjective measures including qualities they believe to be important to have a nice day. Categories include stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. Vancouver won top global bragging rights for four years in a row, starting in 2007.

Back in 2011, Melbourne beat us out; Melbourne is the kind of city that Vancouverites might call an “esteemed peer”. Vancouver and Melbourne could be considered cities of the same kind: with waterfronts designed for recreation, and an economy fuelled more by café culture than by industrial parks and a commitment to “green”. But this is the first year Vancouver did not receive the top ranking among Canadian cities.

Calgary, the city that beat Vancouver, is the poster city of suburban sprawl. Oil-guzzling is a sport as Calgary continues to absorb growth by expanding into the hinterland.

Although the trend may be starting to turn around, Calgary has long led the pack of Canadian cities with a high per centage of residents living in car-dependent suburbs.

Calgary’s economic development engine is not the knowledge-based high tech sector, not services, not manufacturing; it is primary resources. Conventional energy extraction accounts for nearly one-third of Calgary’s GDP, according to Calgary Economic Development. How could Vancouver have changed so much that Calgary is now considered “more livable?”

The reason given for relegating Vancouver to sixth place this year, and elevating Calgary to fourth place, is “stability.”

Lack of stability

Vancouver has been ecodensifying for over a decade. In his end-of-career address to the Canadian Institute of Planners in 2004, the former co-director of planning for the City of Vancouver, Larry Beasley, attributed the success of Vancouver’s model of urban planning to its neighbourhood scale.

This type of planning ensured widespread citizen participation and built a “living first” downtown. The premise was that good jobs would follow a good place to live. Also, they valued urban design which in turn valued sustainability and social equity.

Beasley boldly claimed that if other Canadian cities could learn these lessons too, Canadians would become “true experts at city building” for the world to follow. And for a decade or so, cities from Brampton to Dallas to Abu Dhabi followed the Vancouver model, and the truth of Beasley’s conviction became self-evident.

But now, according to the economic elite, the Vancouver way, and local opposition to the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Coast, are threatening investor confidence in the stability of the democratic process in Canada.

Alberta has taken offence to the civic and political opposition to the pipeline. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley threatened to block refined petroleum shipments to B.C. and wine shipments from B.C. to Alberta. Others accuse B.C. of being one provincial government that is, “holding another to ransom”.


Is Vancouver slipping?

The dark side of Vancouver’s livability agenda is rearing its head. The cost of land and housing have skyrocketed, leaving a very different picture of “living first downtowns”. At the same time as they grow in popularity, support and enthusiasm for higher density neighbourhoods and attached housing is tempered by growing negative associations.

These negative issues include: lack of affordability, polarising class dynamics, crowding, loneliness, social isolation, dysfunction, drug abuse, lack of neighbourliness and community life. There is also concern about risks to cities in the future, from deteriorating air quality (notably, from forest fires) to flooding and other climate change-related risks.

Add to this the wild cards of the upcoming municipal elections in Vancouver. These crises make clear that there are flaws in the Vancouver model of urban livability. They factor into a shifting sense of Canadians’ support for, and hesitancy about, the value of compact urban living and the value of Vancouver’s planning wisdom.

The EIU analysts admit that the difference between the cities at the top of its list is small. In the midst of a lethal drug crisis and affordable housing shortage, is livability good enough in Vancouver to even merit a sixth place finish?

A reversal for what makes a city livable

Aside from that, however, what the reversal in ranking between Vancouver and Calgary signals is a reversal of rules for what makes a city livable in the eyes of the global elite.

These EIU ranking results signal that the stakes are much higher than local; the world’s economic elite are watching. And they lack a feeling of “stability”.

It signals that the Vancouver model of urban development, once the halcyon of livability and the model for all others to try and follow, is not losing ground because of its starry eyed optimist views, a “Mayor Moonbeam” parody of its own reality. Nor is it losing ground because its leadership is “too cozy with developers.”

Vancouver is losing ground in the minds of the global elite for the most existential of reasons. It is a model of neighbourhoods as the building blocks of planning, where the neighbours are invited and expected to have a voice. Compared to Calgary, this appears to be a marker of instability, to the extent that they cannot predict how much Alberta oil the city is willing to act as throughput for.

In other words, Vancouver is losing ground because its planners have been laying the political, economic and cultural groundwork for an urban economic alternative to primary resource extraction and expansionist oil-dependent suburbanisation.

There is no question that Vancouver does not have a perfect model. What is at question is whether Vancouver will ever have the chance to refine the model, or whether Vancouver will face a geyser of pressure to revert to a model that offers more “stability” — for the readers of the Economist Liveable Cities index, at least.

The Conversation

Meg Holden, Professor and Director, Urban Studies and Professor of Geography, Simon Fraser University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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