Why is Vancouver Such a Nice City?

Matthew E. Kahn's picture

Last week I was up in Vancouver participating in a "Roundtable" discussion focused on whether Vancouver's politicians should pass policies to "protect" commercial activity downtown from displacement caused by the red hot residential condo market. At this roundtable, I had the opportunity to meet Brent Toderian. He is the City of Vancouver's Director of Planning. I was very impressed with him. It now strikes me that "free market" enviro/urban economists (such as myself) and urban planners should talk more often. Permit me to generalize based on 2 data points! Both urban economists and planners believe that vibrant high quality of life cities have a bright future. We both believe that diversity is a key input in having a vibrant city. Where we may disagree is whether government should be playing an active role to "produce and maintain" urban diversity.

Is there an efficiency justification for government getting involved and "picking winners" in determining who to offer tax breaks and subsidies to? As the price of land rises in a great city such as New York, San Francisco or Vancouver ----how do the middle class adjust? As a current Los Angeles renter, I feel their pain! On some days, I'm ready to impose rent control in Beverly Hills so that I can claim my piece of paradise for $2,000 a month! (I'm kidding).

In New York City, the middle class have been squeezed out of Manhattan. If you can get by with a one or two bedroom apartment such urbanites can still find housing there. Queens and the Bronx do have plenty of affordable housing. I'm sure that similar neighborhoods exist in San Fran and Vancouver. It is clear to me that transportation accessibility is a key issue here. If you are able to commute from the Bronx to downtown Manhattan pretty quickly, then you can be part of the vibrant scene during your "productive" hours and then retreat to what you can afford in the residential community.

Urban transportation breaks the link between where you live and work. I do agree that there are environmental costs associated with many modes of urban transportation. I was quite impressed by the high % of people who live and work in downtown Vancouver. As I discussed there, a consequence of rising price of land downtown is that this will accelerate job suburbanization (especially for the non-deal makers) and Vancouver will see a rise in reverse commuters --- people who live downtown and work in the suburbs? Is this bad? Not, if the transportation modes can be greened to minimize impacts on local air pollution and contributions to greenhouse gases.

In the case of Vancouver, I'm optimistic that the downtown can survive just fine even if many of the current employers get up and leave. These employers would move out to the Vancouver suburbs rather than leaving the region. If workers can commute within the metropolitan area, current workers wouldn't even need to change jobs or residences to adjust to the changing circumstances.

So, to end this disjointed blog entry --- when urban planners look at downtown Vancouver and its greeness and high land prices --- who deserves credit for its high quality of life? Did good urban planning cause this success? If you think so, what is your evidence? What is the "counter-factual" here? I view San Francisco and Vancouver to be almost "twins" --- both look pretty great to me. Did urban planning have a larger impact on one of these cities than the other? In both cities, quality of life continues to act as a magnet for the skilled and this guarantees their tax base. Given that many footloose employers chase the skilled, new firms will cluster in these high quality of life cities and growth will continue .

Matthew E. Kahn is a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment.



It is reasonable for the

It is reasonable for the government to "pick winners" when the government has (a) already invested billions of dollars in a transportation network designed to bring commuters to the regional center (downtown), and (b)seeks to avoid having to spend exceessive amounts of money on automobile infrastructure to facilitate reverse commuting, and (c) was partly responsible for the success of the condo market through urban design policies that emphasized livability/walkability.

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