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.

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.