Photo: canadastock/Shutterstock

Why Vancouver Owns Seattle

by Drew Tabke Jul 3, 2012
This post is part of Matador’s partnership with Canada, where journalists show how to explore Canada like a local.

I LIVE IN SEATTLE, and we Seattleites tend to imagine our city as urban, trendy, diverse, progressive, elite, and so on.

A visit to the nearby city of Vancouver, BC is a good way to get some perspective on the reality of those ideals, so I stopped in on my way home from a camping trip on Vancouver Island. I checked out a few spots and took a quick look at how these two Pacific Northwest cities compare to one another.

Let’s start with their urban layouts. Both Seattle and Vancouver have about 600,000 people living in the city center. But Vancouver’s population density, about 13,500 people/square mile, is almost twice that of Seattle. This illustrates the style of growth each city has seen over the last several decades.

Since the 1950s, Vancouver has pushed growth vertically with residential highrises closely surrounding the business core of downtown, making the whole city easily walkable. Seattle, on the other hand, has been described as “a city of neighborhoods.” Over a dozen distinct neighborhoods are found peripheral to downtown, each a virtual independent town, yet all officially part of the city. Downtown itself is almost completely occupied by industry and office buildings and has very little livable space. It generally has to be reached by bike or motorized transportation from the surrounding neighborhoods.

Both cities are made up of diverse people. In Seattle, census data show 63% of the population is White, 14% is Asian, 8% is Black or African American, and 7% is Hispanic or Latino.

Vancouver is even more diverse, with 52% of residents speaking a first language other than English. By far the largest minority group is Chinese, making up 30% of the population. The diversity is immediately apparent — on random walks, you hear conversations in dozens of languages, see storefronts offering goods and services from all over the world, and smell some seriously amazing food.

One of my favorite spots is Sha Lin Noodle House (548 West Broadway, 604-873-1816). All the dough for dumplings and noodles is hand rolled and cut daily behind the big glass wall guarding the kitchen.

Another interesting point of comparison is the cities’ stances towards marijuana use. In the last two years, Seattle has embraced the approach of some other Western states (California, Colorado) regarding medicinal use of pot. Though still illegal according to federal law, state law now allows consumption and sale of the drug as long as the user has a “green card,” or authorization for use and growth typically given for the treatment of chronic illness and/or pain.

In Vancouver, a similar system for medicinal pot is in place. Taking it a step further, minor use and possession is virtually decriminalized completely. Some of the city’s cafes like New Amsterdam even permit dope smoking on their premises, with local law enforcement tending to look the other way. It’s a tenuous balance, however, as local or federal law enforcement can choose to enforce the laws at their discretion.

Finally, the thing I care most about: natural beauty and recreation. Seattle has coastline — Puget Sound — and the Cascade Mountains that surround the city give a sea-to-mountains range of recreational options. But just like its urban layout, Vancouver’s recreation is more accessible, diverse, and condensed.

Just on the edge of downtown is Stanley Park, an enormous place with dozens of beaches, over 100 miles of trails and roads, and numerous attractions and facilities such as the Vancouver Aquarium. Public transport can get you to any of the city’s three nearby ski areas, and beyond the city the options just get better. You can drive up the road to Squamish, or a little further to Whistler and have access to some of the most intense climbing, biking, and skiing on the continent.

I could go on, comparing these cities’ economies, surrounding suburbs and cities, and universities, but the trend of Canadian triumph would continue and I frankly don’t have the heart. Instead, I’m going to sign off and figure out how to get a work visa so I can live in the best city on the West Coast: Vancouver, BC.

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