Living with Skunks and Raccoons

In Vancouver, we live with skunks and raccoons.

That’s according to a brochure I picked up at the Firehall Library, explaining how those creatures and humans can survive, and thrive, together in Canada’s most livable and most expensive city.

Like any modern city, Vancouver is home to urban critters – squirrels, pigeons, crows, rats, mice – but here, despite how the city strings new glass buildings around Burrard Inlet and the North Shore Mountains, a wire ring on the pinky toe of Canada’s left foot, the wildnerness surprises with its resilience.

Skunks and raccoons crawl outside Vancouver General Hospital, crows bark at shoppers on Robson, a young black bear crosses Renfrew and East Hastings at dawn, a coyote drags a dog underneath bushes surrounding a Shaughnessy mansion, a sea lion pulls an 8-year-old girl from the Steveston docks, and killer whales feed in False Creek as a stand-up paddle boarder floats in warrior pose.

Instructions for living with skunks and raccoons contribute to our assumption, just as the earthquake-proof developments and concrete seawalls with partitioned bike lanes and Sunday farmers markets, that we Vancouverites are comfortably and safely co-existing with the natural Vancouver. A few tweaks to our routines here and there, everything outside our door is under our control.

That faith in living in wild Vancouver, an expectation reinforced by the brochure’s suggestions “to make co-existing possible” between “wildlife families” and human dwellers, such as covering window wells with metal mesh (skunks are “absolutely awful climbers”) and securing garbage in sealed containers, is cracked by doubts, regular and as real as the rain, about co-existing with Vancouver’s biggest beast of all, housing affordability.

While we have printed instructions about co-existing with wildlife, our adaptation to Vancouver’s housing ecosystem is not orderly nor explicit nor controllable.

Based on the narrative presently happening in the media and inside City Hall and at brunches on Main Street and in Facebook comments, many Vancouver residents have a tenuous hold on both current and future homes. Greedy landlords and limited housing options stymie the efforts of above-average-income-earners who in other markets are welcomed with open arms.

This year alone, there have been debates, discussions, rumors and policies pertaining to Chinatown developments, Cambie’s affordable housing corridor, the DES SOR (Downtown East Side Single Occupancy Room) hotels, University of British Columbia students owning multi-million-dollar estates in Point Grey, taxes on empty mansions.

We remain here, as anecdotes and data and our guts remind us, because many of us minimally satisfy our housing needs by adapting our housing standards to whatever is affordable in Vancouver, with the pay-off being residing in a beautiful and convenient and cosmopolitan city. We adjust both up and down; we stretch our limits as Vancouver housing stretches what is acceptable.

We give up a child’s bedroom for a view of mountains. We are one of several roommates in an apartment built for one. A drive-through area gets a marketable acronym. Someday we’ll have a yard because we can swim at Kits Beach today. Our moral gag reflex fails as we sign a $800K mortgage for a 900-square foot, two-bedroom basement suite.

We are aware, but not ready to accept, that we live here unnaturally, that our most personal plans and expectations, despite our income and health and status, are not guaranteed to root in the most livable city.

In turn, we replace our worries about housing, and the meanings associated with a roof and an extra bedroom and equity, with relief that we can enjoy Vancouver’s famed quality of life, finding some small plug to stop the anxiety. Very few people seem safe in their homes, but many can enjoy blueberry coulis hummus under the setting sun at English Bay.

It’s wild out here.

As skunks and raccoons search for cover in Vancouver, we too seek a cozy place to nest in the world’s most livable city. I think the critters have a better chance of sticking around.

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