Book Review - 'Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination'

Bob Ransford reviews the magical and often paradoxical relationship Vancouver shares with its natural surroundings as described in Lance Berelowitz's Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination.

September 21, 2005, 8:00 AM PDT

By Bob Ransford

Bob RansfordDream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination
Written by Lance Berelowitz (Douglas and McIntyre 2005)
Reviewed by Bob Ransford

Vancouver has become a favourite destination lately for planners, architects and civic politicians from around the world who want to see first-hand how Vancouver has executed the new urbanism in a downtown context.

Many who visit the city are immediately captivated by the city's spectacular natural setting, forgetting that they came to witness the diversity of Vancouver's inner-city urban texture. With a rugged wilderness just beyond the coastal mountains that frame the city, nature plays a huge role in shaping not only Vancouver's urban geography but also the mindset of its people.

The ocean, mountains and perennial lush rainforest greenery brand Vancouver in a distinctive way. That brand has a powerful influence on the local personality of the place even more than it does on the city's international persona.

Vancouverites like to think that their spectacularly beautiful city has not only good looks, but the urban sophistication of a grown up capable of earning a world-class status. The reality is that barely more than a century in existence, and for much of that time relegated to a remote frontier outpost, Vancouver was largely by-passed by the kind of urbanism that has earned other North American cities both acclaim and disdain.

It didn't take long for South African-born and London-trained planner and architect Lance Berelowitz to realize these uniquely Vancouver characteristics.

In his new book Dream City: Vancouver and the global imagination, Berelowitz poignantly recounts what he calls his "dream sequence - arrival", his initial impressions on arriving in Vancouver for the first-time in 1985.

It is exactly these seductive qualities that led Berelowitz to conclude that Vancouver was "a dream-like blend of the disarmingly and the refreshing yet tantalizingly familiar- a recapitulation of the old with an invigorating newness - that seduced... in short, Vancouver, on first inspection, seemed like a fantasy dream."

Many Vancouverites, according to Berelowitz, regard their city as a "necessary inconvenience on the natural landscape; it is a means to an end that has little to do with urban living but a great deal to do with the private pursuit of nature and leisure."

He describes the Vancouver fantasy best with his claim that the city is the ultimate vanishing trick - the more you look at it and the closer you get, the less of a city it is. It was "born of a set of accidental imperatives and nurtured more as an ideal state of mind rather than as an economic entity."

It is this fantasy that Berelowitz has tried to unravel as he lived and worked in Vancouver over the last twenty or so years, closely observing and carefully documenting what he terms "a city on the ascendance" reinventing itself in "hyper-real time".

The book offers a passionate exploration of the links between Vancouver's dramatic natural setting, its historical evolution and its emerging culture of new urbanism. He analyzes and dissects Vancouver and its people in eloquent prose and clever expressions that reveal his obvious love for his adopted home.

The book is not without criticism, whether it is about Vancouver's lack of an indigenous architecture or its banal urban design.

Berelowitz argues that Vancouver's natural blessings have made its citizens lazy, smug about their environment, even as they ignore it in city making. He is particularly critical of the lack of more traditional public open spaces at the city's centre.

He points out that a significant portion of the city's public realm is located along the waterfront, with public beaches and formal seawall walkways. These "edge" places attract Vancouver's public life away from traditional sites of civic activity, like city halls, court house squares, etc., changing the emphasis to use of public space to one of personal leisure.

He analyzes many of Vancouver's paradoxes in Dream City, a book that is part natural and social history text, part critical observation of our local built form and part astute social commentary.

One of the paradoxes Berelowitz points to is that the city's growth is founded on the paradox of urban development: destruction of the vary things that attract people here in the first place - the natural features of the landscape.

While his criticisms are sharp, they are offered from an informed, thoughtful and touching perspective. Berelowitz' love for Vancouver may not be explicit in his writing, but he does admit that there is something exhilarating about living in a city that is getting better year by year.

I particularly liked Dream City's detailed illustrations with Eric Leinberger's original suite of maps. The historical and contemporary photos, including some of Berelowitz own shots, add to the richness of the work.

Dream City is a great piece of writing and a timely review of Vancouver as invented and reinvented in modern times.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer and a Director of the Urban Development Institute - Pacific Region. Contact him at: [email protected].

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