Which is the better place to live, Portland, OR, or Vancouver, BC?
Well, Vancouver keeps getting high marks in international surveys of urban livablity. Yet a few weeks back, the BC-based online magazine The Tyee ran a series of lively and well-written articles by Christine McLaren arguing Portland bests Vancouver on some key measures of quality of life.
Since I live in Seattle, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. And in principle I love this sort of inter-city cage match, since it focuses people’s attentions on what other cities are doing right, and how we can improve livability in our own backyard.
Still, after diving numbers a bit (I admit it, I can’t help myself) I feel like I just had to add my two cents to this debate—and point out a few places where I feel like those articles are off base.
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Now, to be fair, I think that McLaren gets many things basically right. Take bicycling: McLaren argues that Portland has a much more bike-friendly culture and infrastructure than does Vancouver. And I can find at least some numbers that seem to back that up. For example, Portland has slightly higher rates of bike commuting than does Vancouver: within the Rose City itself, about 3.9 percent of commuters get to work on bike; the figure is just 3.1 percent (pdf link) in Vancouver. (Note, however, that Alan has a different take on bike-friendliness in Cascadia.)
But then there’s homelessness. McLaren points to Portland’s recent progress in tackling its own homeless problems as evidence that Vancouver’s homeless policies and funding sources simply aren’t up to snuff. Perhaps that’s right. But focusing on a few of Portland’s successes misses a huge and somewhat hidden blemish in the Rose City’s homeless record: Portland puts vastly more people in jail than Vancouver.
The numbers on homelessness rates themselves are a bit dicey. Both cities do one-night counts of their homeless population (here’s Portland’s, and here’s Vancouver’s). But the counts are hard to compare directly, since they were done on different dates, used slightly different methods and definitions, use different geographic boundaries, and could have different error rates. Because of the methodological confusion, I’ll call the numbers on homeless rates a draw—while noting that the raw counts found that Multnomah County alone, with only 714 thousand residents, had slightly more unsheltered homeless folks than all of Metro Vancouver, which is three times Multnomah’s size.
But the difference in prison and jail populations between BC and Oregon are simply staggering, and subject to the none of the data confusion that surrounds homeless counts. Oregon’s state prison system houses almost 14,000 inmates, and Portland’s jail population tops 1,300. In contrast, British Columbia has more total residents than Oregon, yet only about 2,700 total inmates in its jails and prisons. Apples to apples, Oregon imprisons more than 5 times as many people as BC. And, of course, many of Oregon’s prisoners are locked away for drug crimes—which is at the root of many of Vancouver’s most public homelessness struggles.
The bottom line: including Portland’s large and growing prison population puts the city’s “success” in homeless policy in a different light. Portland’s homeless problem may seem less pressing, but that’s largely because—as is completely typical in the United States—Portland locks a large portion of its homeless problem in jail, where it’s harder to see.
Then there’s the argument that Portland’s simply a better city if you’re young, creative, and underemployed. Compared with “Blandcouver,” McLaren argues, Portland is cheaper, more interesting, less obsessed with money, and has a better bar scene. And she suggests that Vancouver’s faults have driven young people out of the city.
Perhaps she’s on to something—and having graduated from the “young, carefree” demographic myself (sigh), I’m perhaps not the best person to judge.
But this is one of the first times I’ve run across a paean to high unemployment: “The city is full of semi to un-employed twenty-somethings happy to work casual hours carting coffee beans in exchange for an easy lifestyle.” By the official counts, she’s right—there really are a lot of Portland residents who can’t find work. Nearly one out of every eight Portlanders who want a job can’t find one right now. In Vancouver, it’s just one in fourteen. And while “funemployment” can be ok if you’re young and carefree, if you’re on the brink of homelessness, or have someone depending on you for financial support, there’s nothing fun about it. And that’s especially true if you get sick: every single resident of BC has health insurance, but one in six Oregonians has no protection against the financial risks of
Of course, unemployment trends can turn on a dime—and Vancouver’s current employment rates may owe more to the Olympics than to anything else; the city could be facing some severe aftershocks once the games are concluded. Regardless, while I have no problem with celebrating Portland’s mellow, laid-back vibe, I think there’s a danger in being complacent about unemployment; for a lot of folks, it’s not an opportunity to be enjoyed, but a pressing problem to be solved.
Then there’s the contention that young people are hightailing it out of Vancouver—a claim that, as far as I can tell, occupies some sort of weird middle ground between deception and nonsense. Says McLaren: “Since 1996 the population of young people in Metro Vancouver has actually decreased by 10.1 percent.” Yet data on the website of BC’s statistical agency shows that the only absolute population declines have been among kids 10 years of age and under. And that’s entirely due to broader demographic trends that are prevalent throughout the province: starting in about 1995, British Columbia’s fertility rates started to fall. The steepest declines were among teenage girls: birth rates in the 15-19 age bracket fell by more than half over the period. Today, an Oregon teenager is more than three times as likely to have a baby as a BC teen. So to a large extent, the decline in “young people” that the article bemoans is largely the result of the rapid progress BC has made in reducing teen births—a trend that’s hardly worth criticizing, in my view.
Besides, compared with the rest of the province, Vancouver’s a veritable magnet for the under-30 set. Between 1996 and 2008, the under-30 population in greater Vancouver increased by 54,000; in the rest of the province, under-30s declined by 40,000. The only thing that I can think here is that McLaren and I are looking at different numbers, since I just don’t see how it’s possible to argue that young people are abandoning the province’s largest metropolis.
I don’t mean to be too harsh—McLaren’s articles are entertaining and well-written, and have stimulated a lot of worthwhile discussion. And there’s no question that there are things that Vancouver could be doing better, and some things at which Portland excels.
But for any Vancouver doomsayers out there, I think a reality check is in order: by my count, the city’s doing better than some of its critics would have you believe.
Vancouver photo courtesy of Flickr user Ecstaticist under a Creative Commons license.
Vancouver homelessness photo courtesy of Flickr user Jackie Kingsbury under a Creative Commons license.
People who live in the lower mainland distinguish between Vancouver the city, and the rest of the metro area. Most of the complaints about cost of living etc are focused on the city. Young people have no choice but to move to the suburbs, because the city has become a place for the rich only. (Note that Surrey and surrounds are growing much faster than Vancouver).All the accolades about environmentally friendly urban development refer to the city of Vancouver; most of the population live in the suburbs, which are much more like the standard sprawling US city than not. A better comparison for Vancouver the city is probably Boulder, Co. A place for rich people to hang out. And conveniently the working class is across the river, out of site, and where they can’t clog the beaches and the parks.
Oregon, which contains Portland, was ground zero for the Pabst Blue Ribbon revival movement.Q.E.D.
I see several major flaws with your response to the McLauren article. Assertions made about homelessness by looking at jail (there are no prisons run by Portland or Multnomah County) is off-base. The vast majority of the homeless are not drug dealers and are not in jail. That is just poor journalism. I find it offensive that you somehow ‘criminalized’ homelessness to make a point or to make numbers crunch. Two major policy decisions made by the Reagan administration affected homelessness in the US more than any other factors – defunding both mental health services and affordable housing sources. Portland as a city, can only do so much in this context. Considering they have worked within such policies deserves accolades and better understanding.
and it is remarkably difficult to obtain the hipster beer pabst in places far from this epicenter!
All of the Portland problems you specify are actually USA problems.
Dave—you’re absolutely right. Which makes it quite complicated to compare cities in different countries. FOO—much the same is said of Seattle & Portland—and, indeed, of any big city and employment center that people want to live in or near. Boston/Cambridge, San Francisco, NYC, Chicago, etc. I think it’s a widespread phenomenon closely linked with the perceived attractiveness of a city. Generally speaking, the better a city is to live, the more people are willing to pay to live there, and the higher the cost of living differential between the city and other places nearby. It’s one of the consequences of success. But unlike Boulder, which *limited* housing development in the city through height limits, Vancouver’s been expanding housing supply. Housing in the city might well be even more expensive if it hadn’t been for all the new development…
Having lived in both Portland and Vancouver, I give Portland an overwhelming lead over Blandcouver (a description I couldn’t agree with more). I will offer that Vancouver has far better transit as a result of its density, but the bike culture in Portland is superb. Vancouver is also immensely more international than Portland, but somehow oddly, this does not make it a more vibrant or interesting city. Instead Vancouver is rather tribal – you stick to your group and outsiders are not all that welcome. What Portland has over Vancouver is a enormous sense of civic pride and community engagement – resulting in grassroots initiatives and creative problem-solving that enlivens the city and gives it heart.
I’ve lived in both cities for extended periods of times as well and I get sick of reading these comparisons because, basically, everything that is great about Portland (community, bars, coffee shops, quirky randomness, etc.) is not in Vancouver and everything that is great about Vancouver (far far superior transit, cosmopolitan, international, diversity, the ocean, amazing natural beauty, good density, universal health care, etc) is not in Portland. I propose we figure out how to combine the two cities to make what would clearly be the best city in the world.
Larry, and that combination would be…. Seattle!
Leo N. Egashira
This is just slightly off-topic, but I like to point out that one major factor that makes Seattle a better place to live than San Francisco is that we have the two wonderful cities of Portland and Vancouver nearby. What nice metro area is near SFO? San Jose or Sacramento?
New figures released this week:”Oregon had about 639,000 residents, or 17 percent, without health insurance based on a 3-year average between 2006 and 2008.”http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/09/census_17_percent_of_oregonian.html
Regarding comments made of Vancouver having a “far better” transit system, not so. Portland leads Vancouver in light rail infrastructure having many more miles of track as well stations. The bus system too is as extensive as Vancouver’s and certainly more “bike friendly”. Portland is also ahead of Vancouver in entertainment and cultural offerings across the board. It is time the people of Vancouver realise the sun does not rise and set only on their fair city.
Freedom Socialist Party
Sunday, November 15, 3:00pmRegulating Portland Sidewalks: Are civil rights being kicked to the curb?After repeatedly ruled unconstitutional, the “sit-lie” ordinance is being replaced by Portland City Council with a Sidewalk Management Plan. Hear from homeless and civil rights activists about whether the new strategy addresses the rights and needs of the poor, homeless, and dissenters, or prioritizes downtown business interests by making poverty a crime. This meeting will be held at the Bread & Roses Center, 819 N. Killingsworth St., Portland. (1/2 block west of N. Albina; TriMet bus lines #4 and #72). There is a requested $2 door donation. A Hearty Harvest meal will be served at 2pm for an $8-$10 donation ($4 for unemployed and strikers).For more information call 503-240-4462 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Regarding comments made of Vancouver having a “far better” transit system, not so. Portland leads Vancouver in light rail infrastructure having many more miles of track as well stations. The bus system too is as extensive as Vancouver’s and certainly more “bike friendly”. You’re an idiot. One need look only to transit ridership numbers per capita to see Vancouver has superior public transit. Greater Vancouver does about 145 boardings/person/year. Portland does less than half that number (about 64). And you can’t compare Portland light rail to Vancouver’s rail. Vancouver’s rail is 100% grade-separated. Portland’s has long stretches where it runs in the street. For that reason Portland’s “trains” are much, much, much slower than Vancouver’s. Vancouver also has far superior service frequency. Vancouver’s buses has superior service frequency as well for that matter, with some routes running at 3 minute headways during peak hours. Portland doesn’t come close.
You have to be kidding.Vantucky is not a city.It is a leech.
I believe the article was supposed to compare Vancouver WA to Portland, Not Vancouver BC.