Vancouver’s Diversity Advantage

Last month, the widely read British magazine The Economist named Vancouver the best city in the world to live based on its “livability index” survey. It was the fifth year in a row Vancouver finished in first place. The survey, conducted by the “Economist Intelligence Unit”, ranks cities around the world based on 40 individual factors in categories such as stability, health care, environment, education and infrastructure.

Those of us who have lived in Vancouver can certainly attest to its incredible natural beauty, the high quality of its education and health care systems and its stable political and social environment. Right now, the city is in the midst of undergoing some major upgrades to its transportation system and I’m sure we will all be happier about the city’s infrastructure once the construction is completed!

One thing that I doubt is fully captured by The Economist report (I haven’t read the whole report; I’ve only seen the press reports) is the extent to which Vancouver benefits from its incredibly cultural and racial diversity. This is something that would be difficult to measure in a survey of the kind conducted by The Economist, but I believe it is perhaps Vancouver’s single greatest advantage compared to other major cities around the world.

According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), “38 per cent of the [Vancouver] metropolitan region’s total population is foreign born, and two-thirds of the adult population is directly connected to immigration, being immigrants themselves or children of foreign-born parents…. Vancouver is home to 14 per cent of the population of British Columbia but 24.5 per cent of its total immigrants.”

As UN-HABITAT also points out, “[w]hile many point to Vancouver for its environmental consciousness and physical beauty, it is, in effect, the city’s cultural diversity and resources that work most effectively toward strengthening its environmental sustainability and livability.”

Of the cities that finished in the top ten in this year’s Economist survey, only Toronto (#5) and perhaps Sydney (#7) have comparable levels of diversity among their populations. Obviously, such diversity is a consequence of a well-functioning and relatively open immigration policy at the national level as well as the ability of these cities to attract and retain immigrants from a variety of countries.

Vancouver’s history as a city of immigrants is well known. The city has been home to significant numbers of people of Chinese, Indian and Japanese origin for the better part of a century. In recent years, those populations have increased considerably. From an economic perspective, the advantages Vancouver enjoys based on its large Asian communities are hard to quantify but certainly substantial.

It could be argued that the two leading economies in the next century will be those of China and India. Certainly, their huge populations make them likely to be formidable economic powers as they develop large, prosperous middle classes. Vancouver, as well as Toronto, will undoubtedly benefit from the fact they have very large and visible Chinese and Indian populations, which can facilitate trade and other economic cooperation between Canada and these countries.

In the case of Vancouver, we also boast significant Korean, Filipino, Iranian and Japanese communities as well as smaller communities of immigrants from countless other countries around the world.

As well as economic advantages, I believe this level of diversity enriches the social and cultural lives of all of us in any number of ways. From the number of languages we hear spoken on our streets, to the various backgrounds of our friends, neighbours and co-workers, to the variety of foreign foods we have access to in Vancouver, our city’s diversity makes all of our lives richer and more rewarding.

What I find most exciting about this diversity is the level of acceptance and tolerance it has and will encourage among the young people now growing up in Vancouver. When you have had an opportunity to study in a classroom full of students whose collective family origins spread across the globe, you come to understand difference and diversity at a deeper and more fundamental level. Being able to interact with people from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds from an earlier age can only encourage young people to get to know and relate to individuals as individuals and not as part of a larger, somehow foreign, group. This is will allow the generations of Vancouverites growing up now to take even greater advantage of the incredible diversity that surrounds them.

So, as this is my last column for Ming Pao, I am happy to end on a positive note: it is my belief that Vancouver is exceedingly well-placed to take a position as one of the leading cities of the twenty-first century — not only for the reasons citied by The Economist but because, thanks in part to a relatively open and well-functioning immigration system, it has become a truly global and international city.