Coming in to land at Vancouver International Airport, it's already obvious why so many people have been seduced by Canada's third-largest city, although the reasons themselves have little to do with urban development, and everything to do with its immediate proximity to the sparkling Pacific Ocean, the beautiful Gulf Islands just a hop and a skip to the west, and the snow-capped Coast Mountains immediately to the north.
Parks & a superstar skyline
You might also glimpse the vast expanse of Stanley Park, the largest city park in North America, a short stroll from the West End; miles of easily accessible beaches; and a city skyline that's straining to challenge the big boys in stature and shiny self-belief. Norman Foster, Arthur Erickson and James Cheng all put up buildings before the Winter Olympics came to town in 2010, an occasion that galvanised Vancouver and also gave rise to a glittering range of Olympic sporting facilities. The Games had been the impetus for substantial improvements on the scenic Sea-to-Sky Highway, which connects Vancouver with its co-host Whistler, 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the north. The Canada Line, a new metro line that connects the southern suburb of Richmond with the airport and the downtown core opened late 2009.
Vancouver: the world's most liveable city
Its building boom and the Olympic success all speak of a city brimming with optimism and pride – with good reason – Vancouver is regularly named as one of the world's most liveable cities, and most Vancouverites believe this to be true. It's a young, healthy, cosmopolitan place with a positive attitude towards diversity (there is a large and growing Asian community here) and a lot of lip service paid towards the environment (Vancouver was the birthplace of Greenpeace, and BC Premier Gordon Campbell has pledged carbon emission targets that outstrip California's).
Of course, this idyllic picture is not the whole truth by any means. For decades politicians have failed to address the problems of the Downtown Eastside, a derelict neighbourhood that is infamous for having the highest HIV infection rate in the western world. The widening social inequality endemic throughout North America is glaringly obvious here. Whether the Olympics can inspire real solutions for the homeless only time will tell, but a spate of gangland shootings in 2007 and 2008 reveals that drugs rings are deeply entrenched in the Lower Mainland, and conviction rates have been dismally low.
The airport itself is a symbol for Vancouver at its best and very worst. Its expansive, airy international lounges showcase displays of West Coast art, bubbling waterfall features, and even an aquarium wall. The ambience is serene and friendly. Yet this was also the site where, on 14 October 2007, 40-year-old Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died after being Tasered by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers. He had been waiting ten hours in the customs area, apparently ignored by customs and security officers alike.
The 21st-century city
The one side of this split picture is no more true than the other. Vancouver is a beautiful 21st-century city with a lot going for it, as long as it stops buying into its own image and ignoring the problems on its own doorstep.
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