Ever since the Lower Mainland of Vancouver was colonized by European and Asian immigrants, and displaced its original First Nation inhabitants, the citizenry has been locked in an ideological war. This war, centuries-long in the making, was brought by these new immigrants from wherever they came. It perhaps could best be described, in a modern context, as a classic titanic struggle between the “Gordon Gibsons and Sam Sullivans of the World.” Their names in other distant places, though different, embody the same struggle of two diametrically opposed ways of looking at life. Both points of view seek to direct the human experience and condition in two fundamentally opposite directions from the other. Ying and Yang, out of balance as it were, perpetually seeking to gain the upper hand.
Gordon Gibson, in this context, is a public policy commentator in Vancouver, and Sam Sullivan a former mayor of Vancouver. Both Gibson and Sullivan are native sons of Vancouver. Both have been involved for many years in real estate, urban design and local politically related issues. Gibson has been a Senior Fellow in Canadian Studies at the Fraser Institute, and Sullivan an adjunct professor with the UBC School of Architecture. Both also recently wrote articles that appeared in the Vancouver Sun (“Time to put the brakes on growth”, Friday, March 16, 2012 by Gibson; and “Anti-growth policies antiquated”, Sunday, March 27, 2012, by Sullivan). Sullivan’s article was a rebuttal of Gibson’s earlier piece.
For those who don’t remember Sullivan, from the outset of his term in office as Vancouver’s mayor, in 2005, he was a combative, abrasive politician (“Sam’s Civic Strike”) who professed a high-density development ideology (“Global Civic Policy Society”) and avidly promoted a major increase in Vancouver’s population. His Project Civic City, during its first two years of implementation, instead of reducing homelessness, drug offences and street disorder did just the opposite. Sullivan’s proposal for Eco-Density also raised a lot of eyebrows of concern. One of the debates of the day was whether high-rise complexes, with 300-square-foot apartments, were little more than tiny rat warrens or truly liveable, decent low income housing. Sullivan’s Eco-Density concept introduced the notion of laneway houses, that ever since have played a significant part in destabilizing former single family-zoned neighbourhoods, destroying their quiet, peaceful, private settings, while forcing many homeowners to flee in search of quieter digs elsewhere.
City planners and urban design architects throughout the Lower Mainland traditionally tend to eagerly espouse, as well, a “Sullivan-type” high-density philosophy, because it gives them, and their political allies, the green-light to continue to make similar expansionistic in-roads in their own municipal areas. One could draw an ideological parallel between various “Sullivan-type” graduate schools of economics and those related graduate schools of city planning and urban design. Both schools of academia, every year, everywhere in the world, continue to spew out yet more waves of those, who, like religious missionaries, fanatically seek to create the same lock-step policies of growth, expansion and ever more-densifying ways of perceiving life that now have brought the world to the edge of the calamitous abyss upon which it teeters.
Gordon Gibson, on the other hand, in his March 16 piece in the Vancouver Sun, suggests a fundamentally different philosophy that is heretical to the Sullivans of the world. Gibson has the audacity to suggest that Vancouver needs to halt expansion that has taken over in order to save the best parts of the city. He contends Vancouver is growing way too fast and accelerating at a phenomenal rate. Gibson makes the point that “there is no law, human or natural, that says this has to happen. We can be masters of our own destiny.”
But naysayers, like Sam Sullivan, counter with arguments that contend that, since its inception in the 1880s, Vancouver and surrounds have constantly acted like a giant funnel, sucking into its vortex an endless stream of people, products, transportation systems and financial investments to service a whole range of resource industries. Sullivan sees Vancouver’s destiny as unstoppable. If true, this might explain why Vancouver and those neighbouring municipalities of the Lower Mainland, who look to its lead, have, for decades, all but destroyed every vestige of their original architectural history and much of their once iconic natural environment. Perhaps it explains, too, why Vancouver, unlike other parts of the world that have managed to save much of their heritage and traditional communities, has instead chosen to forever feed the Vortex of the Giant Funnel, keeping it alive and well to continue to suck into its sphere everything that is new and breathlessly modern, while spewing out, as obsolete and redundant, everything that is old and traditional. Gibson warns, however, that, at some point, the high-density that such a monstrous funnel philosophy creates, eventually will reach a point of diminishing return once some kind of impacted Hong Kong, New York-type urban environment is realized.
Gibson instead calls for cutting down the number of building permits to developers, while giving them points for imagination, creativity and amenity rather than density, thereby making densification a more natural, gradual process rather than an artificially forced one. He bemoans the kinds of unimaginative, unnatural high-rise developments, which are springing up everywhere in the city, as well as in many surrounding Lower Mainland municipalities, as examples of the same kind of “Gridlock ... sameness of the glass curtain walls ... and lack of architectural diversity.”
Sam Sullivan, on the other hand, suggests that Gibson’s recommendations are selfish ones that favour homeowners who happen to be lucky enough to reside in quiet, tranquil, more-liveable communities in areas located beside the kind of monstrous high-density funnel he heralds. Sullivan makes the argument that “slow growth” advocates, like Gibson, are indeed nothing more that sophisticated special-interest groups who are actually the ones who are the cause of all the demolitions that have occurred in once more affordable, low-density, single family-zoned neighbourhoods. Yet Sullivan fails to recognize or acknowledge the more dominant part that high density developers, city councils, city planners, urban design architects and real estate interests, in truth, play as the real sophisticated special interest groups, who continue to radically transform the entire Lower Mainland, whether or not the citizenry likes it or not. Sullivan even suggests that a new, much more huge, “fourth wave” of urban reform (high-density sprawl?) needs to occur, where municipal governments unapologetically embrace his concept of The Fourth Wave Center For Urban Reform.
Sullivan’s criticisms don’t address Gibson’s contention that the real problem with the out of-control high-density philosophy of Vancouver’s municipal government is that much of its civic budget comes from developers cost charges. “To counter that,” says Gibson, “we all would have to naturally pull in our belts a bit if growth slowed, but that lower costs would then follow quite soon.” The Sullivans of the world would be horrified by such a suggestion.
One of the most serious bones of contention between Gibson and Sullivan is that Gibson believes Vancouver cannot take on as much of the world as apparently want to come to Vancouver, and that there are many other places that future immigrants could go. Gibson points out that, “There is nothing in the Constitution of Canada or the United Nations human rights code that says anything about a right to live in a particular desirable spot...Be it London, New York or Vancouver.” Gibson believes it is still do-able, though, to make accommodations for people wanting to downsize but still live in their old neighbourhoods,” while adding, “But we don’t need to make accommodations for everyone who comes from away and would like to live here.” Gibson makes a most critical point when he writes, “Vancouver’s quiet neighbourhoods need to be vigorously defended by local municipal government.” His piece ends with the cautionary note that, “Densification sounds like a wonderful enviro idea. Until you have to live there, at which point it is too late.”
Sullivan’s only response is to mock Gibson’s advocacy for preserving such quiet, tranquil neighbourhoods in urban settings. “It’s unfortunate,” he writes, “that Gordon chose to find a peaceful and idyllic life in the place where our biggest city was placed...He no doubt benefits from the vitality that comes from the density of people and experiences.” Sullivan glibly suggests the best alternative for those like Gibson is that, “People who want no change should go to the 99.9 per cent of the province that is non-urban and people who embrace change should go to urban places.”
Sullivan’s argument is a seriously flawed one, because it wrongly assumes that people who like peace, tranquillity, a more human-scale way of life, with as much green space around them as possible, are somehow against all change. But this is patently untrue! Yet he is dismissive of Gibson’s idea of slow growth as having already been tried in the 1960s and proven to be a failure. Once again blatantly untrue. It never has been truly tried, only undermined and sabotaged whenever and wherever attempted.
This long-standing historical argument between the Gibsons and Sullivans of the world (i.e. “Smaller Is More”, “Bigger Is Better”) will most certainly rage for as long as the two sides have breath. Yet the ever-present elephant in the room with them, that cries out to be openly and forthrightly addressed, and yet never will be until the day we all hit the wall together with a sickening thud, is an ever-burgeoning, out-of-control world population.
Hopefully, though, before that day arrives, they will find enough common ground to come together, discuss their views without rancour, and arrive at a meeting of the minds based upon a path of densification tempered more by simple common sense and even, dare one say, a sacred sense of place. Ying & Yang in balance, as it were.
In the meantime, every reader no doubt will at once identify with one side or the other. If one is into living a simple, low-key, unobtrusive way of life, they most probably will identify with the Gibsons. But if they are more into power, control, acquisition, greed and domination, they probably will agree with the Sullivans. The one, dismissed as hapless voices in the wilderness, while the other deemed to be leading us in the direction of an entirely different kind of more dreaded wilderness of the future that many, like author Cormac McCarthy, grimly refer to as The Road.
Jerome Irwin was the founding president of the Lower Capilano Community Residents Association 27 years ago in North Vancouver and has been a community activist ever since. He sees “the North Shore's natural iconic beauty, unique historical heritage homes and traditional single-family-zoned neighbourhoods as cultural treasures to be passed down as priceless legacies to those generations yet to come.”