“Where are you from?” the bartender asked me.
“Vancouver,” I replied.
“Did you know it was voted most livable city in the world in 2004?” he asked.
I was impressed he might know this, although wondered if it was true in 2004.
“But we’re no longer number one,” I told him. “I think it’s now Vienna or Zurich. Have you been there?”
“No, but one day I hope to move there,” he told me as he went off to get my pisco sour.
I was in Providencia, one of Santiago Chile’s upscale neighbourhoods. I had been invited there by Ciudad Viva, a local NGO researching what makes certain urban spaces attractive and popular.
In collaboration with the School of Architecture at the Catholic University, they had been studying three well-known retail areas including La Vega, the city’s sprawling wholesale and retail public market.
The study team wanted me, along with a professor of architecture from Barcelona, to provide international perspectives on their initial findings.
I shared with them an idea I first heard from a West Vancouver resident who had been participating in a neighbourhood planning study.
Sometimes a place has to change if it wants to stay the same. However, planners and designers must be careful not to alter the character and qualities that brought people there in the first place. I thought this might be particularly true for their aging La Vega market.
I shared with the study team the challenges facing the Granville Island public market. For many years it had been a favourite place for Vancouver residents to shop. However, over the years, the market attracted so many tourists, local residents were increasingly discouraged from shopping there.
The situation was exacerbated by new supermarket designs. When the Granville Island public market first opened, there was no Urban Fare, Nesters or Choices. Today these supermarkets offer many of the qualities and amenities of a public market and are forcing Granville Island’s administration to rebrand its facility to bring back the local shoppers who made it so popular in the first place.
While Santiago could learn from Vancouver, we could also learn from Santiago. During my one week stay, I observed a number of ideas that might be transferred to our city. As many visitors and Chileans now living here well know, Santiago has a lot of taxis, reportedly more than New York City.
But it also has serious traffic congestion problems that it has been trying to address by building new roads and freeways under the city. It has also been making some effective improvements to its public transit system, especially the buses.
One of the things I noticed is the buses quickly pick up and drop off passengers through front, middle and back doors. They can do this since at busy bus stops, passengers pay at the platform before getting on the bus, by tapping their electronic transit cards. Other South American cities employ a similar approach. Hopefully Vancouver’s transit system will too, one day.
I enjoyed Santiago’s busy Metro subway system. It is surprisingly clean and many of the stations are very beautiful. I sometimes got off at stops just to see the creative station designs and artwork. I never do this in Vancouver.
I was also delighted by the city’s wide sidewalks. I was told in some instances roads had been narrowed to make the sidewalks wider and in turn accommodate outdoor restaurant seating and licensed and “informal” street vendors.
Throughout Santiago there is an abundance of public art. Fascinating pieces of sculpture can be seen along streets and in parks. There are also murals everywhere. While some are little more than elaborate graffiti, others are quite extraordinary and form part of a business and restaurant design.
While Santiago is struggling to accommodate an increasing number of cyclists, many of whom ride on the sidewalks, I often saw large secure bike storage facilities near Metro stations and shopping areas.
More taxis, better bus loading, wider sidewalks, more public art and secure bike storage: these are just a few of the things, along with pisco sours, that Vancouver should emulate from this fascinating South American city.