Whenever I tell people I'm from Vancouver, I almost always get a smile and a reply along the lines of, "It's so beautiful there!" And it is—but there is more to it than that. I believe Vancouver is North America's most atypical city. The 27th largest metropolitan area in North America and one of our planet's youngest cities, Vancouver dishes up a wide range of attractions and activities, from whale-watching to powder skiing, para-sailing, nude beaches, and dim sum feasts. In one day here you can climb cliffs, deep-sea dive, comparison shop for Indian saris, and pick cranberries. The city has sexiness and it has drugs (God only knows what's inside all those freight containers passing through the harbor). The city has problems, but it also has solutions. And something about the place refuses to let globalization make it boring.
Vancouver is hemmed in on all sides—by the Pacific Ocean, the Coast Mountain range, and the border with the United States—so it can't build out. Instead, it builds in—and great architecture hasn’t been a priority: Most of Vancouver's buildings are on the ugly side. Local developers tend to cheap out with the line, "Oh, but I wouldn't want to distract people from the wonderful views." Right. I bring this up because if you try to find Vancouver's soul in the downtown area, you probably won't. The city's soul is outside the center, in the surrounding oceanscapes, parks, mountains, beaches, glaciers, and sky. Pair this magnificent natural environment with the astonishing churn of global money that enters the city, and you have a funky, glitzy, outdoorsy, high-tech, prim, hippie, glass-covered kind of city.
People think Seattle and Vancouver must have some huge rivalry going because we're neighbors, but we have so little in common that rivalry seems dumb. Unlike Seattle, Vancouver lacks freeways, and because of this it lacks one core center; instead, it has over a dozen centers. And unlike Seattle, Vancouver doesn't really manufacture anything; it's a hub through which things come and go, things like software, movies, and raw timber harvested up north (along with whatever is inside those freight containers). Very little originates here. In Seattle, everyone pretty much agrees to speak English; in Vancouver, your language is your choice. Which dovetails with Vancouver’s renown for great food: The city’s variety of cuisines and restaurants is a byproduct of everybody maintaining their native language and traditions—Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai—paired with a savvy populace who demand the best of abundant local vittles.
If one North American city were to become an independent city-state in the next century, forget Montreal or Miami or Quebec or San Francisco: Vancouver will be the first to make the break. Fifty years from now the auras of most cities will be pretty much the same as they are today. But this city by the ocean has yet to become what it will finally end up being. Indeed, if you haven't visited Vancouver lately, you haven't visited Vancouver.
Canadian author, artist, actor, and blogger DOUGLAS COUPLAND has lived in Vancouver since 1965. His many books include Generation X (1991), Life after God (1993), and the recent The Gum Thief (2007). His nonfiction books include City of Glass (2000), a conversational and photographic tour of the city of Vancouver.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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