'Unfamiliar Street' is a travel column in which we take you around the world and introduce you to a cool STREET far from the well-trod gravel of Prospect Avenue.
To enter and leave Vancouver, you have to pass through its heart. Crossing the Lions Gate Bridge over Vancouver’s harbor (the namesake of the Canadian film company Lionsgate Entertainment), you enter Stanley Park, a wooded landmark of walking paths, shores and a display of Totem Poles.
It’s there that you enter West Georgia Street, a major avenue that cuts through some of Vancouver’s major landmarks: The Fairmont Hotel, of the famous Canadian hotel brand based in Toronto; the Vancouver Art Gallery, a world-class museum inside a repurposed city hall; and Rogers Arena and BC Place, the home of the Vancouver Canucks NHL team and Whitecaps FC, respectively.
West Georgia Street is something akin to New York’s 5th Avenue, home to many high-end retail locations, such as the Vancouver outlet of Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canadian department store that got its start with fur trapping in 1670. It also hosts the public amenities such as Vancouver’s massive public library, and across the street, its post office. Closer to the sports arenas, West Georgia Street is defined by sports bars and pubs. West Georgia Street transitions into Prior Street when it intersects with Main Street, and its counterpart, East Georgia Street, is more residential.
As I walked along the puddles of Georgia Street over spring break, I marveled at a city so inviting, walkable and clean. It was the stuff that American urban planners’ dreams were made of. How did it come to be?
Founded in 1867 as a logging town named the enticing-sounding “Gastown,” the settlement was renamed “Vancouver” after the Canadian transcontinental railroad was built. Today, Vancouver is the fourth most densely populated city in North America.
Vancouver is well-known for its strong urban planning. It even has a name for it: “Vancouverism.” Urban planners in the 1980s pursued a policy of high-rise residential developments along with mixed-use retail and residential uses. The result is a city ranked with the 5th highest quality of life in the world, (behind Vienna, Zurich, Auckland and Munich) and perhaps unsurprisingly it is the priciest city in Canada.
Vancouver’s hosting of the 2010 Olympic Games motivated its expansion of its subway and transit system, known as SkyTrain. Coming from my experience with the generally effective but notorious Washington, DC Metro, (the entire system was closed Wednesday last week for a decidedly non-routine, emergency safety inspection), I was impressed at the Vancouver system’s cleanliness and timeliness.
Vancouver is also as diverse and culturally vibrant as it is well-planned. When the United Kingdom transferred governorship of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, it led to a large migration of British Chinese to Canada, particularly Vancouver. Today, Vancouver’s population is about 20 percent Chinese, lending itself to a city with some of the best Chinese cuisine in North America. The demographics are also reflected in the Vancouver’s signage: many public signs are subtitled in Chinese, rather than Greater Canada’s more common emphasis on French.
Like its Pacific Northwest cousins, Seattle and Portland, Vancouver has the climate of a “temperate rainforest.” That is to say, it rains a lot. Statistically, it rains every other day from November to March, so if seasonal affective disorder were a problem for you, it would be unwise to live there.