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.
Like Berkeley, both the East and West sides of Vancouver originated as separate municipalities from what is now downtown Vancouver. Known as South Vancouver and Point Grey respectively, they amalgamated with Vancouver in 1929 to form the city we know today. But they held on to many aspects of their unique identities, from zoning laws to high street models originating from the days of the streetcars, to lower density (albeit the pre-war walkable version), and it is for these reasons, among others, that they still look so different from downtown Vancouver, despite being part of the same city. But they don’t actually look so different from Berkeley, California. Spot specific comparisons can be easily made, from the influence of DIY activism in Commercial Drive, to the nature inspired wooden houses that abut Pacific Spirit Park (like those of architect Bernard Maybeck, who defined a woodsy Berkeley style that was totally unique from the white city across the Bay), to the park itself (like Tilden Park in Berkeley), to the hippiefication-turned-yuppification of Kitsilano, to Nimbyism (for better or for worse), to the influence of UBC on its adjacent neighbourhoods (which despite ever increasing housing costs remain home as to a large number of professors and students, never mind the fact that Greenpeace was founded in Point Grey and the 100 mile diet in Kits) and to the smaller more working class dwellings of the more southern and eastern parts of the city, which remain home to non-yuppie and diverse populations to this day, just as several more out of the way neighbourhoods in Berkeley do. And while UBC is not UC Berkeley and thus we may never achieve the same level of fierce intellectualism as the “People’s Republic”, and doesn’t have a city council that spends its time debating whether Polish solidarity is an authentic expression of the Polish working class or a tool of Cold War imperialism (as the Berkeley one hilariously did 1981), there are still things that we can learn from the place, and hopefully thrive on, since we already share so many similarities.
For myself, it has been to see how an urban environment can be shaped by something more than good planning and densification, but also by the good acts of individual and well-meaning citizens. Though I still maintain that the West and East sides of Vancouver (and Berkeley for that matter) could use some serious densification to really reach their full potentials, the work of grassroots organizations remains just as important in the building of great urban communities.
One of the biggest things that I took away from Berkeley was the fact that despite its intense yuppification and the cultural dominance of upper middle class elite, community activism remains incredibly strong there. Of course it helps that many of these elites are aligned with the university or have made a living selling high priced organic California cuisine, or are just, quite simply, Michael Pollan (who I found myself standing next to at the Cheese Board, a Gourmet Ghetto landmark, one day), but it’s not like Vancouver is short on these people either. However, it seems as if the vast majority of community initiatives here, especially in richer neighbourhoods, are about resistance to change rather than efforts to create better living environments.
One of the most unique city projects I encountered in my month in Berkeley was the system of 135 public paths that are found throughout the city, and provide a richer urban environment for all. And what is most amazing about this fact, is that the most spectacular of these public thoroughfares are actually found in the Berkeley Hills, one of the city’s richest neighbourhoods. This means that anyone who wants to walk through the hills can use these paths to go up and down, and thus avoid the confusing streets and detours that follow the ridgelines. Most of these paths, as a result, are actually staircases, which take you between houses and past people’s yards, providing not only beautiful views of San Francisco Bay, but opportunities for interaction between the private and the public spheres. It’s the exact opposite of what normally happens in rich neighbourhoods, which is exclusion: the emphasis on privacy and the building of walls, shutting out your neighbours and not participating in society as a whole — in other words, the very opposite of good urbanism.
The Berkeley paths are owned by the city of Berkeley and largely maintained by a volunteer organization known as the Berkeley Path Wanderers association. It might sound like a name chosen by a bunch of privileged old ladies with too much time on their hands, but hey, what’s wrong with that if they’re making their city a better place? They also produce a map which highlights all the paths within Berkeley, so that you have the opportunity to explore them whenever you’re out and about, whether you’re just wandering or are you’re simply looking for a faster route to work. I used this map many times walking between the UC campus and the hills, downtown and the Marina and found that not only were the paths usually more efficient than following the windy conventional streets, but they also added significantly to my psychological wellbeing. Aesthetics should not be underrated when it comes to building urban environments. Besides being an incredible asset for the city, the paths are also, quite simply, bucolic, whether they pass architecturally unique houses and gardens, wind around fountains and the public Rose Garden, or lead you to a shady park. And best of all, some even have become public art projects or places of personal self expression. On one of the paths, for example, the owner of the house next door had placed poetry on her fence so that passers-by might appreciate the wisdom of Edna St. Vincent Millay or Derek Walcott.
So why not do this in Vancouver? How beautiful would it be to have more public walkways, especially in the form of staircases! We don’t have as many hills as Berkeley, but there are several places where they would be perfect. From the top of my head, the hills in the vicinity of King Edward and Quesnel Street would be ideal, as it is notoriously difficult to walk through this neighbourhood without taking severe diversions. I know that there are a couple of walking paths there, but why not more? La Buca is located at the bottom of the hill and is a very good reason to get some exercise in the area! I could also see these sorts of paths going into the northwest parts of West Point Grey, leading to the beaches, or in False Creek, or even on the slopes of southeast Vancouver, leading down to the Fraser River.
It’s safe to say that one the biggest measures of a great city is how walkable it is. And Vancouver is walkable, in both its street grid and its seawall. But why not diversify our walkability, and in the mean time raise the ante on breaking down barriers between public and private, rich and poor?
Ellen Johnston considers herself a wanderer, whether tramping through the rain-soaked streets of Vancouver in an attempt to pry loose the layers of our urban fabric, couch-surfing across America, or getting lost in the souks of Marrakech. Since that is not a full time gig, she fills her days with music studies, writing, occasionally running her own cookie company Cookie Elf, and most recently studying Spanish in Mexico City. She grew up in Vancouver, attended university in Philly and London, and has now hopped to New York City for awhile, though Vancouver will always be home.