by Ellen Johnston | I recently spent a month in the city of Berkeley, California, a place too independent to be described as a suburb of San Francisco, and yet totally a part of the Bay Area’s metropolitan network. I say this because while it stands in the shadow of its bigger, more glamorous sister across the Bay, it remains such a vital force on its own, through its longstanding political activism, amazing intellectual resources (UC Berkeley ranks as one of the greatest universities in the world), and pivotal role in the local food movement (hello Chez Panisse). While I was there, I found myself considering the differences and similarities between Vancouver and the Bay Area, and what we can learn from them, especially when it comes to urbanism, and the interaction between built environment and culture.
Vancouver has long been compared to San Francisco, and the reasons are palpable: they are both dense, multicultural, located in spectacular natural environments, are very LGBT-friendly, have long traditions of activism, are filled with hippies and weirdos, yoga-pushers and lotus eaters, are home to mild yet often moody weather, have great food and are generally considered to be the most liberal cities in their respective nations. But while this is all true, the actual feeling on the street can be quite quite different, especially because the hyper-density of downtown Vancouver casts an illusion over the whole city, both statistically and physically. Unlike San Francisco’s more uniform mid-rise density, ours is one of great contrasts: a forest of tall residential towers in the downtown core surrounded by the East and the West sides, which, with the exception of a few neighbourhoods, have been hesitant to move beyond the single family dwelling model. Apartments exist, and rowhouses seem to be finally making an incursion into these parts of the city, but they still remain a small fraction of the buildings compared to the downtown core. In short, while our demographics sing San Francisco, the physical reality of Vancouver is something more akin to Hong Kong throwing up on Santa Monica, Portland or – most apt of all – Berkeley. Read more