This summer a few of us engaged in a bit of fun radio hijinks, as local CBC reporter datacruncher and ranker of all things Justin McElroy let loose his most recent bracket-style crowdsourcing campaign to determine, once and for all, the Best Neighbourhood in Greater Vancouver.
Of course, empirical data clearly puts the Brow of the Hill at the top, making the entire enterprise redundant. But this is not about empirical data, it is about framing a conversation about the neighbourhoods where we live, where we would like to live, and what we value in our communities. Though most people likely voted for their home because of civic pride and the tendency is to cheer for the home team, there was also an idealization of other places where we don’t live. What is it about Steveston (where the vast majority of the voters don’t live, and most rarely even visit) that made it our collective favourite?
The bracket form of the competition caused most of us to change the horses we were riding several times, as each week more neighbourhoods were eliminated. I (of course) voted Brow early on for both the empirical reasons and because of my homer tendencies. But I also felt the need to vote for the two neighbourhoods for which I am the designated City Council representative – Glenbrooke North and Queensborough. Gotta support the team. This did not go well for me, or them, as my support seemed to the quickest path to elimination in the contest. But I did learn along the way, and the more I thought about it, the more I found myself making the case for Sapperton.
I made up a very short mental list of the things I want in a neighbourhood. Walkscore, local shopping, services and employment, housing variety, socio-economic diversity, access to transit, low risk of car reliance, closeness to a curling club, a local pub, access to local green space, and mindful and engaged community members. Sober reflection had be considering Sapperton meets or beats the Brow on most of these measures.
But there is the less tangible. A couple of weeks ago, we went out for an evening walk on a Saturday and dropped by ABC Brewing for electrolytes, then found ourselves on East Columbia at 9:00pm. It was vacant. Most of the restaurants were closed or closing and there was just no-one out and about. We grabbed a (great!) donair from a take-out spot and chilled in the Parklet as the evening cooled off, but East Columbia was a quiet as our backyard. One part I love about being in a City is seeing other people, the energy that comes from sharing the evening streets. Downtown New West is not Bourbon Street, or even South Main, but a few patio drinkers and people walking to the theatre or home from the sunset at Pier Park make it feel alive most pleasant evenings – otherwise why not just go live in the woods? Or Pitt Meadows? Being in the Brow makes Downtown a 5-minute walk away on a Saturday night.
Thing is, this is *my* list. Other people want other things. I don’t have kids, so school catchment isn’t important to me. Some people want quick access to the freeway so they can drive to… wherever all those people on the freeway are driving to all the time. Some want to have a 4-car garage facing a cul-de-sac, others need to be on the beach, or want to be surrounded by Victorian and Edwardian houses. There are a million measures, some tangible, some not, that make up Neighbourhood Character*, making the search for the “Best” a fun distraction, but ultimately meaningless.
That said, I thought the paths the polls took were interesting, and there may be some insight to be found in how we as a larger region (or at least, the CBC-listening cohort in our region) view our communities. Queens Park was the longest-lasting New West neighbourhood, likely because it has a familiar name and aesthetic to the 95% of voters who do not live in New West. I mean, no-one in Burnaby or Surrey knows what the hell a Brow of the Hill even is.
When the contest got down to the Final Four, I rode a bike to the neighbourhoods to get some real-time input on what the appeal of each may be. I am aware I may get sounding petty judgy in the next paragraphs, but these are my opinions, based on the measures and persona filters I admit to above.
I honestly find very little to distinguish between Steveston and Fort Langley. Both are “historic” town centres that lean heavily on that colonial heritage as a means to define themselves. Though both have pleasant walkable commercial centres that are bustling on a sunny weekend, you know that the majority of people having fish and chips or ice cream cones came here as regional tourists, and don’t live in the neighbourhood. These are neighbourhoods where battles for neighbourhood character are fought fiercely. The still-vacant-a-decade-later “marine” retail spots in Steveston, and the recently-razed-by-a-city-Councillor properties in the Fort Langley are evidence that idyllic doesn’t come easy, and not everyone agrees on what defines the space. Ultimately, both are great places to ride your bike to and stop for coffee or lunch, but it’s not long before I’m ready to ride home.
Pitt Meadows is a fast-growing auto-oriented suburb sprawling from the crossroads of a regional highway and an archetypal stroad. There are beautiful polders and dike trails and access to nature, and there are endless 3,500-square-foot 2-car-garage houses on cul-de-sacs with alphanumeric names. The core of the community is densifying with increasing housing diversity, but it is clear that the automobile rules the shape of the neighbourhoods and shopping centres. It is wide-open, pretty green, and very tidy looking, but with a walk score in the 30s, not my jam.
Mount Pleasant was the surprising Vancouver finalist, which may reflect McElroy’s craft-beer-data-oriented fan base, or may be the result of people down-voting the more obvious alternatives like the Drive or Kits out of spite. But I pass through Mount Pleasant regularly on bike commutes, and have always loved the vibe. An interesting mix of housing, easy access to commercial streets on Broadway, Cambie, and Main and ample breweries thereabout. Mount Pleasant Park on a sunny Sunday is a chill green oasis filled with picnicking people hipper than me, the food truck right there. There is no beach, and density increases still cause local angst, but this may be as Lotus Land as anywhere else in Vancouver. Given the choice of the final 4, this is the neighbourhood I would choose, for all the urban amenity reasons that make me love the Brow and Sapperton.
And it may not be your thing. If one thing is clear, it’s that what we value in a neighbourhood is as personal and varied as the neighbourhoods themselves. Some fetish built form, some the vibe of the denizens. Some want big back yards, some want active front porches, some want balconies with views…
But the Brow is the Best.
*“Neighbourhood Character” is a phrase we hear at every Public Hearing, and it eventually arrives whenever there is a discussion of zoning and land use in the community. The point that there is no clear definition of it, or that everyone has their own unique definition of it, makes it equal parts a powerful idea and completely meaningless.