Tale of two cities, Vancouver and Surrey


Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Vancouver, Mayor Dianne Watts’s Surrey get favourable ratings — except in a few key areas

Since the 2008 victory of Gregor Robertson in Vancouver and Dianne Watts’s 2005 mayoral win in Surrey, the city councils in British Columbia’s most populous municipalities have focused on leaving their mark in different ways. In Vancouver, an emphasis on the environment and equality has been inescapable. In Surrey, the efforts have concentrated on creating a city that is no longer regarded as merely a suburb.

Insights West conducted a unique survey recently, which looked at the level of satisfaction of residents of Vancouver and Surrey on a wide range of services. We posed similar questions last year to the people of Calgary and Edmonton, as the two Alberta cities prepared for their municipal elections.

At a glance, the results of the survey show that city dwellers are delighted with some issues, but extremely troubled by problems that are varied and that could not be packaged under a “Metro Vancouver” banner in a provincewide survey.

More than seven in ten Vancouverites think their municipal government is doing a good job dealing with three issues: tourism, sanitation and the environment. Two of these issues are intertwined, as the push to make Vancouver the “Greenest City” included a modification in how residents deal with their household garbage. The change in collection, and the introduction of Green Bins for organic waste, has not caused unhappiness.

What else is Vancouver City Hall doing well? At least half of residents endorse its actions to promote arts and culture, ensure public safety and enhance the overall quality of life of residents. Still, this does not mean that there are problems that can be ignored.

Vancouver’s ratings on issues such as managing development and growth, dealing with transportation and dealing with homelessness and poverty are decidedly lower. Some of these numbers are directly affected by decisions City Hall has taken in the last three years, including bike lanes — an issue that tends to polarize people who commute to Vancouver but don’t vote there — and the pace of development in specific neighbourhoods.

In Surrey, the municipal government also gets favourable reviews on six of the 10 competencies tested, including sanitation, arts, environmental protection, tourism and quality of life (Surrey also has household organic waste collection). In stark contrast with Vancouver, where development has become a lightning rod for opponents of the current mayor, a majority of Surrey residents are happy with the way their current administration is handling the city’s growth.

However, Surrey residents are longing for solutions in other areas. The level of satisfaction with transportation policies is not particularly high, but on two issues — crime and poverty — only one in four residents are ready to praise the municipal government.

Our followup questions on the causes of crime reveal that residents of the two cities do not think this issue is exclusively in the hands of the mayors and their councils. Addiction and the drug trade are regarded as the main culprits for the perceived rise in crime in Surrey — an understandable connection since 18 of the city’s 25 murders last year were drug-related. But three in four residents also point the finger at an inadequate court system. Discussions about establishing a Surrey community court have gone on for years, and the idea was recently endorsed by NDP MLAs in their “Surrey Accord.”

Across the two municipalities, it is noteworthy to see a large proportion of undecided respondents on the question of what Vancouver and Surrey are doing to help small business. Creating the conditions for businesses to thrive is an essential component of world-class cities, which may be negatively affected by the emotional reaction to seeing small boutiques and cafés go out of business.

However, the one key issue where reviews could be better is transportation. The impending Victoria-mandated referendum has raised doubts about the ability of municipal governments to effectively act on promises and plans, and this uncertainty is showing up in the large proportion of respondents who are not giving their cities a positive review.

There is an inherent difficulty in looking at the possible outcome of this referendum because no question has been designed. But our numbers do suggest a disconnect between constituents — whether they drive, take transit or ride a bike — and their governments that is not present on some of the other issues that were tested.


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Photograph: BCNDP