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31 Aug

There are plenty of reasons Vancouver no longer the world’s most livable city


Posted by: Kimberly Walker

There are plenty of reasons Vancouver no longer the world’s most livable city

Brian Hutchinson  Aug 30, 2011 – 9:00 PM ET | Last Updated: Aug 30, 2011 8:22 PM ET

Vancouver has lost its title as the world’s most livable city, but we soldier on. What has changed, really, since the last survey? We’ve experienced another hockey-related riot, bigger than the 1994 donnybrook. We’ve added a second large bicycle lane downtown to impede traffic and commerce. We’ve witnessed more loopy city council politics. Encouraged by Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Greenest City Action Team, we’re growing more chickens in our backyards, and now there’s wheat out front. The real estate market continues to punish middle class families. Consistency. That’s what Vancouver is all about.

And yet the city was dropped two pegs by the Economist Intelligence Unit, an off-shoot of the Economist magazine. The EIU produces annual livability rankings and city profiles, and sells them (current issue $3,150) to credulous, monied folk. Vancouver was the EIU’s top pick for a decade until Tuesday, bloody Tuesday. Now we’re Number Three, behind Melbourne and Vienna.

Toronto is ranked the world’s fourth most livable city. Calgary, fifth. So now we know: The annual survey is bunk.

More proof? Vancouver was bumped, the EIU explained, because of transportation issues. It cited precisely one, the “recent intermittent closures of the key Malahat highway that resulted in a 0.7 percentage point decline in the city’s overall livability rating.” The Economist’s intel team might have checked a map; the Malahat Drive, as it’s properly known, is a pretty but treacherous section of the Trans-Canada Highway. On Vancouver Island. A 90-minute ferry trip from Vancouver, across the Strait of Georgia, and then another hour’s drive after that.

The only recent extraordinary event along the Malahat occurred in April, when a fuel truck crashed near Goldstream Provincial Park, spilling 42,000 litres of gasoline and 600 litres of diesel fuel. The Malahat was closed for 22 hours; traffic was forced to detour, an inconvenience to be sure. B.C.’s transportation ministry ordered a review of the incident and a subsequent 21-page report offered eight recommendations to improve traffic control and communications along the route. Responding to local ridicule and a Globe and Mail investigation, EIU survey editor John Copestake explained that the “Malahat Highway, despite the fact that it’s not in central Vancouver, [is] obviously in the broader region.”

While Vancouver has plenty to recommend it — and is a great place to live and work, for those who can afford it — residents know the score. Livability? What about shoddy home construction, and leaky condos? That crisis isn’t over yet. Or the almost billion-dollar boondoggle formerly known as Vancouver’s Olympic Village, now a privately owned ghost town?

Or an increasingly opaque municipal government? Hours after the Economist released its livability survey on Tuesday, Vancouver councillor Suzanne Anton and her municipal party, the Civic Non-Partisan Association (NPA), claimed that city bureaucrats “won’t allow the public” to scrutinize another batch of city-funded projects, green-themed citizen initiatives intended to make the city great again.

Vancouver’s Greenest City Neighbourhood Grants program is built to “generate more community involvement for the Greenest City goals in areas of zero waste, local food, trees/greening and active transportation.” A request for proposals was issued this year; 54 applications were received and reviewed by city bureaucrats for worthiness. Sixteen applicants were then approved to receive a total of $100,000 in taxpayer-supplied funds.

Ms. Anton, who is running for mayor in elections to be held in November, asked to see complete descriptions of all successful project applications. They arrived last month, along with a dire warning from city manager Penny Ballem. Keep the details to yourself, or face a lawsuit.

“This is confidential information which should not be disclosed to any third parties,” Dr. Ballem’s warning reads. “After consulting with Legal Services and the Information and Privacy Manager, I remind you that this [grant] information must be kept confidential, as it is subject to statutory restrictions on its disclosure pursuant to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy legislation.”

Ms. Anton was not impressed. “I’ve now seen the in-depth description of the Greenest City grant applications, but I’m forbidden from showing taxpayers the details,” she said Tuesday. The $100,000 is being spent on “wacky schemes that waste tax dollars,” she insists. Councillor Geoff Meggs says he’s “baffled” at Ms. Anton’s remarks, noting that City Hall has offered more disclosure than she suggests.

According to a City of Vancouver administrative report prepared in May, projects approved for Greenest City funding include a private tricycle courier business ($15,500), a “pilot project to explore small scale grain production by converting conventional grass lawns” ($5,000), and “a forum/conference on the physical and mental health benefits of time spent in nature” ($2,000).

Trikes, talk and homegrown wheat. Wacky schemes? Perhaps. But this is a city in ratings free fall; the Economist says so. We’ll endure what we must to climb back on top.