Density, mixed use, and the right to bear umbrellas

The other weekend, my Hot Research Associate and I made a break for the border in order to temporarily escape Seattle. We stayed at The Buchan, an older, charming “European style” hotel in the West End of Vancouver, just a block away from Stanley Park. Apparently, one possible element of the European style is that individual rooms do not have a bathroom; rather, there are bathrooms and showers for common use at the end of the hallway. In this respect, European style is not unlike a hostel except, what with the Buchan being more elegant, there are less grungy, horny, pheromone-dripping travelers seeking quick hook-ups. We opted for a room with a private bathroom, seeing as there were enough pheromones leaking between the two of us and we’d hate to be rude by dripping them onto others.

Perhaps the most charming element of the room was the television. Like my Hot Research Associate, I have a certain weakness for watching cable television in hotel rooms. I can’t explain this propensity but, like furry bunnies grazing peacefully in a meadow, it seems like the culmination of all that is righteous and innocent in the world. Thus, one late afternoon, we came back from being out on the town and lulled off to a nap while watching Raising Arizona before heading out for a late-night dinner. Oh, back to the television: unlike most hotel TVs, the one in our room was a positively cute model with no larger than a 12-inch screen. It was lovely.

But allow me to rewind a bit. We arrived in Vancouver not by I-5. Though speedy, it is a somewhat uninspired route through some of the most beautiful country. Rather, we took Route 9, a wonderful two-lane ribbon that winds its way through the north Cascades and deposits one at the border about half an hour to an hour east of the Blaine-White Rock crossing. This route is well worth the extra hour of travel time it adds.

Sometime shortly after I moved to Seattle in the Fall of aught-two, I ran across a UseNet post in which an acerbic observer describe Seattle as “a waterside shantytown”. Though I generally disagree with that assessment, I’m highly amused by it. Building on that case, then, I frequently describe Vancouver as the chic, cosmopolitan, and world-class metropolis that this waterside shantytown dreams of becoming. As evidence, I offer several observations: density, mixed use zoning, and a well-dressed citizenry.

A drive into town via route 99, or Granville, will eventually reveal that Vancouver’s core is dense and vertical. Most importantly, the majority of these vertical structures are residential. Also of importance is their proximity to the central business district. Vancouver’s core is not only vertical and dense, it is extremely walkable.

Such density gives these neighborhoods a decidedly “big city” feel, a buzz, a strong pulse of urban life. But it goes beyond that. As we were walking around one evening, my Hot Research Associate observed that in these dense residential areas there were more things occurring. There was an abundance of mixed uses built into the density. As a result, small strips of alternative business districts, mere blocks apart, were embedded into the tall buildings. Each micro-neighborhood (Davie Street, Denman, Robson) had a distinct, subtle flavor that, although close and easily accessible to another, set it off as if it were miles away. I suspect such a situation creates greater diversity with respect to opportunities, interactions, and sustainable economic bases. At the same time, tucked into these dense blocks, were touches of small neighborhoods. For example, many of the side streets had a surprising number of quaint, almost anachronistic, corner stores occupying single or double story structures.

Density and mixed-uses seem to go hand in hand. Spatially, density is the anti-sprawl that allows for increased size without increasing surface area. Mixed-use, then, is the social and economic engine that makes density sustainable, civil, and desirable.

Furthermore, in several locations, we observed businesses behaving in a more civilised manner. In the States, a McDonalds, for example, usually screams its presence. Typically, it is a small fortress surrounded by a moat of parking lot. It also features large signs that either encroach onto the street or hover high above intersections. In central Vancouver, we found numerous counter-examples to this mode of construction. McDonalds and 7-Elevens — as well as their signage — blended into their buildings rather than imposing upon them. They were tucked into blocks in which one business abutted another; parking was not a concern.

Finally, we cannot dismiss the sartorial evidence. It rained early on Saturday and, as a result, we both ducked into a drug store to buy umbrellas. Hoods would have been unseemly for such a chic city. Whereas the polar-fleece-vest-clad barbarians down south rely on hoods, the civilised people up here sport fine climatic accoutrements. In general, we noticed a higher per capita use of umbrellas up here.

My Hot Research Associate speculated that, in the Pacific Northwest, people still cling to the romantic notion that we live in the wild, rugged outdoors. On the other hand, Vancouver can dispense with that rubbish as it is ironically no longer in the Northwest. After all, the northwest of Canada really is wild and untamed. Thus, Vancouvertonians don’t fool themselves; they tote umbrellas and, as a result, have built a civilised and cosmopolitan metropolis.

Having bought myself a stunning, full length, fuchsia umbrella, I took to it like lightning takes to a raised golf club. I relished carrying it even when it wasn’t raining; it served as an excellent pointer when I launched into an impromptu explanation of some useless topic. In the future, no matter what attire I decide upon for my flanuering, the umbrella shall be an essential part of the ensemble!

Speaking of well-dressed people about town, the Canadians seemed much better put together overall. These were by no means slouchy Americans with ill-fitting clothing. We’re such slobs what with our misplaced priority on comfort. What’s more, even the not-so-well-dressed in Vancouver looked much better than their southern, backwater counterparts. My Associate believes that attitude plays a large role. People here seem to carry themselves better. She is correct. Having relatives in Toronto and Montreal, I have been visiting Canada all my life. Since a very young age, I have noticed that Canadians walk with a slightly more royal air. It is a result of the Dominion Residue hanging in the atmosphere. This makes Canadians look better no matter what they are wearing. They could be wearing an avocado and two tomato slices and would still look better than the average Seattletonian sporting a red ballcap, yellow fleece vest, striped grey and white long-sleeved shirt, baggy black cargo pants, dark green wool socks with white toe seams and heel patch, and sport sandals.

If this is what dumping the monarchy has gotten us, I beg King George’s post-humus forgiveness! Quick, get me constitutional scholar, a quill, and some parchment; I feel an Amendment coming on!

A well-dressed citizenry, being necessary to the style of a sartorial Seattle, the right of the people to keep and bear umbrellas, shall not be infringed.

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