Urbanists from the City of Vancouver love telling others about the accomplishments of their city. Usually after telling everyone about the awesomeness that is the City of Vancouver (which does world-leading things), they proceed to question why every other municipality in the region doesn’t copy exactly what Vancouver does. I’ll tell you why.

Surrey City Hall. Source: reflections

One of the big differences between the City of Vancouver and every other municipality in Metro Vancouver is the legal frameworks. The City of Vancouver gets its authority from the Vancouver Charter. Other municipalities in the region have to work under the framework of the Local Government Act and Community Charter.
This impacts all sorts of things from Vancouver’s unique Parks Board, to how developers contribute to the betterment on the community.
While several lengthy posts could be dedicated to explaining why the Vancouver Charter is special, the short of it is that the City of Vancouver can do a lot more than other municipalities in BC.
One of the other big differences between the City of Vancouver and other municipalities is its tax base. The City of Vancouver had an estimated population of 640,469 in 2014. It collected $1.56 billion in revenue. That is a per capita revenue rate of $2,435.
The City of Surrey had a population of 513,322 in 2014, and collected $844 million in revenue. That is a per capita revenue rate of $1,644.
The City of Langley, where I live, had a population of 26,652 and $43.3 million in municipal revenue in 2014. That works out to a per capita revenue rate of $1,625.
When it comes to revenue collection, the City of Vancouver is a leader in the region. The City of Surrey actually spent more money from developers in 2014 than Vancouver; most of Vancouver’s revenue comes from property tax.
The City of Vancouver has a lot more money available to use for municipal infrastructure and services than other municipalities in the region. This in on top of the non-revenue contributions it is able to extract from developers due to the Vancouver Charter, and the demand for development in the city.
Another thing that sets Vancouver apart is its party-style political system. While some municipalities have slates, they pale in comparison and are less divisive than the Vancouver political system.
Vision Vancouver, for example, is able to accomplish their agenda more effectively because of the unique way that Vancouver politics work, but the highly-polarized political system in Vancouver hurts the rest of the region at times.
Separated bike lanes are a perfect example. Because Vision Vancouver wanted bike lanes in Downtown Vancouver, the NPA didn’t want bike lanes. This created a controversy, and a chilling effect on other municipalities in the region that wanted to install separated bike lanes. They did not want to have Vancouver-level of controversy in their municipality.
It wasn’t until places like Calgary, and even my home town of Vernon, started installing separated bike lane with little controversy that other municipalities in the region started installing separated bike lanes in earnest.
Most municipalities in Metro Vancouver are actually looking to Surrey for leadership on how to provide cycling infrastructure. Surrey has been slowly building a greenway network and on-street separated bike lane network with little controversy.
A Surrey Greenway. Source: waferboard

So while the City of Vancouver has been able to do a lot of great things to improve the quality of life for people that live there, many of the things that Vancouver has done can’t simply (nor should they automatically be) replicated throughout the rest of the region.


  1. Hear that folks?
    it’s our fault that someone’s bikelane wasn’t built. It wasn’t the repeated example of how bike lanes are going to be controversial in most places where you actually have to take away parking to make room for them, as opposed to places where two-way streets are already so wide that you could paint some door-dinger lanes without effecting anyone’s parking.
    Nope, must be Vancouver’s fault.

    1. Brendan, what you forget is that Vancouver was built-out in a very different era as compared to Surrey. Not all cities are fortunate enough to be built around streetcar grid. From an urban planning perspective, the rest of us are tasked with re-purposing street networks that were built out under a very different paradigm. I don’t think the author is laying blame here; he’s saying Vancouver’s circumstances are unique, including local politics.

  2. As one who lives in Vancouver and works in the suburbs I can’t help interpret this piece as being tainted with sarcastic non-sequiturs. Vancouver is not the “centre of the universe” because of the Vancouver Charter or any other act.
    Vancouver, by dint of being the historic economic and social centre, takes on a disproportionate share of regional amenities and responsibilities. Most of these are assumed without complaint or demands for fair compensation, but the occasional event like the Olympics, Symphony of Fire, and both Stanley Cup riots drive the point home. None of these events would have been hosted by any other Metro city. Most of the rioters smashing glass and setting fire to Vancouver stores were from the suburbs, as are a good proportion of vomiting and fighting Granville Mall clubbers who drive up the VPD overtime budget every weekend. Ditto the annual fireworks competition where 500,000 suburbanites enjoy Vancouver’s well maintained public beaches.
    Even with the Vancouver Charter, the city still had to get special permission to go very deeply into debt to the tune if a skinny billion bucks to rescue the Olympic Village. No other city or jurisdiction volunteered to help. Vancouver taxpayers alone were on the hook for over a million dollars per capita in Olympic debt, not suburban taxpayers or any other jurisdiction. Sure, the deal was flawed, but without Vancouver the 2010 Olympics would not have happened, at least not with a viable athlete’s village. And through relatively sound management, the city eventually got its money back through condo sales. And the suburbs came in droves, s did tourists, and Vancouver’s major hand in the event was key to its success and the success of the regional transit system that moved 2.7 million people a day mostly to the core during the peak days.
    Along with accepting more than its fair share of density comes the costs of servicing that density with fire, police and engineering services. Nathan alluded to some of Vancouver’s more shallow but famous initiatives like cycle lanes, but not the wisdom of creating a high density core that fostered a significant reduction in overall emissions and traffic counts, and servicing it with an innovative salt water pumping system and electrical generating stations that will be activated when the Big One hits. No other city in Western Canada has done this, and many cities in the Metro are still stuck with a political cowardice to deal with developers who do not want to put parking underground even in the denser areas, and who cannot admit publicly they have a homeless problem too.
    There are some cities in the Metro who have an equal number and value in development permits as Vancouver, but who have only 1/3-1/2 the staff to process it. This is not a matter of Vancouver being overstaffed, but of these cities being understaffed to the point of breakage. With tax rates a fraction of Vancouver’s, other cities can afford to sluff off and transfer responsibilities to the big city.
    So, in a spirit of cooperation I propose that Vancouver share some if its core assets. Let’s build that SkyTrain line down the Fraser Highway to Langley, then pump up the BC Place stadium with helium and float it along with the arena to Surrey and Langley. Please take the sports bars and Granville clubs too. Maybe Vancouverites will then see their taxes go down while the taxes in these other cities naturally go up to compensate.

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