A Grumpy Riposte to the Orthodoxy of “Vancouver” Magazine

I subscribe to Vancouver magazine. It tells me what’s happening in the arts in my city; it tips me off regarding new restaurants and good BC wines; it introduces me to people who shape our town for better and for worse. I like it, silly as its society pages are and oblivious as it is to all things religious.

I don’t like, however, a certain ideology at Vanmag. So I told them I didn’t in an article I hoped they would find room to print. Astonishingly, they chose not to publish the following screed. (Normally, of course, journalists enjoy being criticized and happily promote the views of those who find fault with their work—as do professors.) So, for your amusement and edification, I set out the following. (But I wish they’d published it instead.)

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You know the main problem with the people who tend to write for Vancouver magazine to tout the “new urbanism,” replete with paeans to “eco-density” and exhortations to mass transit? After years of faithful reading, I have discovered the crucial truth. By and large, they are writers.

These are people who don’t work normal days. They don’t punch in for an eight-hour shift. They don’t show up for early morning meetings and then slog it through until the boss lets them go at day’s (or evening’s) end. They live very different lives than most of the rest of us.

(I know about such people because I am one. As a university professor, I don’t have the same regularity of hours and insistency of routine as most normal people. And, as I shall show, that difference in lifestyle makes a difference when it comes to these subjects.)

The new urbanist types also tend to come from a select group of writers: single writers (either pre- or post-marriage), or writers in a childless relationship, or maybe even writers with a small child who now think they understand all that family life entails.

So these are people who generally do not have what was until very recently standard-brand domestic lives: Mom, Dad, and at least two kids.

(In that respect, I’m not one of them: my wife still manages to live with me and we have raised three sons, the youngest of whom is 19.)

The writers I have in mind nonetheless constantly wonder aloud in the pages of this magazine, as they do in similar media, how so many of their fellow citizens can continue to cling to our gas-guzzling automobiles and live out our quietly desperate lives in detached houses in soulless suburbs.

Well, here’s a flash from us silent infidels who refuse to convert to your ideology: We have no reason to take you seriously regarding your crusade—at least, not yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fresh ideas, even old ideas we’ve forgotten, about city life. I love Paris, and Barcelona, and San Francisco. And I have considerable public transit credibility: You earn that when you spend eight years walking twenty minutes through Winnipeg winters to stand for 10 minutes (or more, if the first bus is full) for public transit, and then do it all again at the end of the workday.

I’m all for better living in our cities. But I can’t take seriously most of the people who write about that subject.

Until you have worked a long day at a job some distance from home and then have to pick up a week’s worth of groceries at quitting time—in the rain, in the dark—then you cannot understand why we don’t take your advice and choose to trip gaily down the boulevard in the twilight, picking up a baguette, perhaps a few slices of prosciutto, a bottle of sauvignon blanc, and the makings of a clever little salad.

Until you have to run Junior to soccer practice and then take Junior Miss to tae kwon do lessons in the opposite direction with deep gratitude for your minivan (the most intelligent vehicle ever invented), you will have no clue why we aren’t opting for happy hopping on and off buses, trams, subways, or Skytrains.

Until you have to live anywhere in this city with a big hill to climb—and some of us have noticed that large inclines are abundant in the GVRD—you will not comprehend why the rest of us, even in pretty good shape, don’t want to bike it every day and so arrive at work flushed and sweaty—when any idiot can appreciate how un-demanding it is to ride from Yaletown to downtown.

As for eco-dunce-ity, let’s freely stipulate that to some extent it is more efficient and therefore in some respects better for the environment. I write this from Shanghai, where I’m lecturing this week, and I appreciate that piling people sixty stories high is more efficient than housing them in detached homes. Indeed, the Chinese figured out long ago that dormitories are more efficient still, and many Chinese still languish in conditions not one of VanMag’s writers would tolerate for longer than it took to gather the notes necessary for his next travel piece.

Why do these writers think so many Chinese have moved to Vancouver? Could it be that such emigrants have experienced the logical result of eco-dense thinking and vastly prefer to own their own home on their own land? And is piling people up in taller buildings really, in every respect, better for the environment? It’s better for insatiable developers, of course, and maybe for certain people in certain situations (say, writers who prize having a cute café staffed near every workplace and condo), but perhaps not better for every other member of the ecosystem.

So may I suggest a little rule for VanMag’s new editor: No one can promote eco-density or public transit—or bike lanes or carbon taxes—until he or she has raised at least two children through their teen years.

If you think because you now have A Kid in A Stroller and understand the demands of parenting that impinge on housing and transportation, you don’t. If you think because you have lived as a single or childless writer in lots of cities in the world and now are an expert on public transit for the masses, you aren’t.

Until you have to transport more grocery bags, or hockey gear, or offspring than you can easily guide onto and off of a city bus, in the rain, in the dark, then I must remind you of the venerable proverb my dear old pappy used to recite to me on many an occasion when I sought to venture an ungrounded opinion:

“Shut up.”