Cities standing in for other cities in films and TV shows

A longer discussion of how holiday films treat big cities includes information on where these films are made:

The irony, of course, is that these movies that portray the cruel hustle of big cities and the virtues of small-town life are filmed in big cities that get high marks for livability. Christmas Town, like many products of the holiday rom-com industrial complex, was shot in the made-for-cable Christmas movie wonderland of Vancouver, British Columbia, which boasts an abundance of studios and proximity to a variety of urban and rural shooting locations. Vancouver is also a perennial high-scorer in urban happiness and well-being rankings, a place that Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery singles out for praise in his book Happy City. (As this first-hand report from the Christmas Town shoot reveals, conditions on set were somewhat less magical: Filmed on a suburban backlot during a heat wave, the movie used leftover ice from Vancouver’s fish markets as a stand-in for snow.)

Other films rely on Toronto, another Canadian metro with enviable livability scores, to play the urban heavy; while certain landmarks may stand out to local viewers, the mostly American Christmas-movie audience is none the wiser. They’re too busy inhaling the on-screen, small-town romance that Hallmark and its kin have carefully crafted to make us believe miracles happen—just not in the big city.

Many films are made in these locations given the cost of filming in Canada versus the United States as well as the ability of these Canadian cities to stand in for many American cities.

Instead of looking at just holiday films, how many American viewers notice anything amiss when they are actually looking at Vancouver and Toronto on the screen? Would they even notice? Between the use of different cities plus the use of backlots, a good number of television shows and films may include very few to no shots from the location depicted on-screen.

Does this matter in the long run for viewers? On one hand, not at all. Relatively few on-screen depictions of places actually involve much unique material from those places. Think of the average television show: the activity largely takes place within buildings – homes, offices, restaurants/coffee shops, and the like – and involves a limited set of characters. The show may be set in a prominent location yet it could take place in any large city (outside of some establishing shots or an occasional reference to local culture). On the other hand, seeing deplaced places – generic cities and neighborhoods – suggests every place is similar. Does it matter that Full House took place in San Francisco or How I Met Your Mother took place in New York City? Not really. An on-screen big city is largely like any other on-screen big city.

If holiday films need generic cities and neighborhoods, Vancouver and Toronto can work. If they truly wanted unique locations and let those locations help drive the plot – such that a story from Omaha would differ from one in Phoenix or Charleston – then the movies themselves would be richer and more complex.

Vancouver reaches goal of 50% of city trips not by car

How did Vancouver reach its goal of limiting car trips ahead of schedule? Here is one explanation:

It all began back in the late 1960s, says the city’s former chief planner (and urban-Twitter celeb) Brent Toderian, when residents rejected a proposed highway that would have torn up the dense urban core and separated it from its famous waterfront. Vancouver is still the only major North American city without a freeway running through it. The open waterfront became the location of the hugely successful Expo ‘86, which was themed around the future of transportation and featured the debut of the elevated SkyTrain, a swoopy automated light rail system. A new extension that opened in December allowed SkyTrain to reclaim its title as the world’s longest fully automated metro system in the world (besting the similarly driverless Dubai Metro). The system also helped pave the way for the dramatic transformation of Vancouver’s waterfront a couple of years later. Hundreds of new residences and offices were built, unified by pedestrian thoroughfares and the city’s seawall—which is “routinely ranked as the best public space in at least Canada,” says Toderian.

The 2010 Winter Olympics encouraged more car-to-pedestrian street conversations, and peppering the in-between years were lots of smart decision-making, such as turning a stretch of Granville Street into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s and the city’s 2008 strategic shift to support cycling as daily form of mobility rather than pure recreation. A mess of new protected bike lanes have pushed Vancouver’s active-transit infrastructure beyond the downtown core: “24 percent of our bike network is now considered [appropriate] for all ages and abilities,” says Dale Bracewell, the city’s manager of transportation planning. A $2 billion plan to expand TransLink, Vancouver’s mass transportation network, was approved last month by the mayor’s council, and stands to bring active transit options to parts of the city that haven’t had them before.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Such efforts do not happen overnight. This explanation involves decades of consistent efforts to provide other transportation alternatives. Many American places could benefit from less driving but quick fixes are difficult.
  2. Related to #1, how many places could sustain such efforts over decades? Are certain places like Vancouver more predisposed toward such ideas? There could be multiple reasons for this. Perhaps different urban cultures enjoy less driving. Perhaps the government here was particularly effective in funneling funds and resources to mass transit rather than roads. Perhaps the housing in Vancouver is so expensive that it is unrealistic for a lot of people to also pay for cars.
  3. Vancouver is often said to have a very good quality of life. Would Americans made the trade of a better life overall for people versus the individual freedom they often value to drive around when they want?

“Electronic justice” after Vancouver riots

Some online responses to the recent Vancouver riots (see here and here) are now being called “electronic justice“:

The more than 3,000 words posted online (replicated in full below) were called an apology and it seemed a remarkable display of contrition by a young woman caught on video looting a tuxedo rental outlet, wearing a Canucks shirt and a broad grin, during Vancouver’s ignoble Stanley Cup riot. But the screed that followed dished as much justification and vitriol as self-flagellation and regret, leaving many readers cold to Camille Cacnio’s reconciliation.

It is seen as the next stage in an emerging form of “electronic justice” that has accompanied the riot. The naming and shaming came first, a time-honoured way for a community to express dismay and disgust, as people posted photos of suspected perpetrators online. It was a modern version of the medieval stocks, when an offender was held in a square for public humiliation. It seemed a suitable response: a mob exposing participants in a mob; crowdsourcing v. herd mentality.

But the extent and viciousness of the online identifications and humiliation is causing discomfort as well. Self-appointed cyber sheriffs emailed the employers, family, schools of the suspects…

Christopher Schneider, sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, calls it “vigilante justice in cyberspace…. It is a very dangerous path we’re taking. It is quite unsettling. The role of social media in this is profound.”

I’m sure this could be tied to larger discussions about online anonymity and what people are willing to do online that they may not be willing to do in person.

I’m not sure what the lesson is for the woman who posted this long apology. On one hand, it sounds like she wanted to take some responsibility. On the other hand, she simply made herself a bigger target. Perhaps we could settle on this: beware what one posts and/or admits online.

I wonder what the “employers, family, schools of suspects” did when they received news of who had been involved in the riots. Without such emails, many might not have known who was involved. But regardless of how they find out, are these collectives obligated to take action?

If this “electronic justice” is dangerous, might we reach a point where authorities crack down? Already, more websites have become much more strict about what comments they will tolerate.

Sociologist who studies sports riots tries to explain Vancouver riots

On Thursday, I threw out a few ideas about the riots in Vancouver after the Canuck’s Game 7 loss. A sociologist who has studied over 200 sports riots suggests what happened in Vancouver was quite unusual as it followed a loss rather than a win:

In fact it is so unusual that Jerry Lewis, the author of Sports Fan Violence in North America, told CBC News that what we saw Wednesday night “might be called the Vancouver effect.”

An emeritus professor of sociology at Kent State University in Ohio, Lewis has looked closely at over 200 sports riots in the U.S. and none of them followed a loss by the home team.

That little quirk aside, however, Vancouver’s night of rampage does fit relatively well with the overall pattern of sports riots in North America. From his research, Lewis has identified five common conditions:

  • A natural urban gathering place.
  • The availability of a ‘cadre’ of young, white males.
  • Championship stakes.
  • Deep in the series.
  • A close, exciting game.

It appears that the riots in Vancouver followed some of the patterns of sports riots (the five cited above) except for the fact that they came after a loss. Lewis and another academic go on to suggest that the rioting in Vancouver “was simply an expression of frustration.” Another academic also suggests that North Americans tend to pout after sports losses while European crowds are more liable to cause trouble because they see it as an attack on their identity.

If all of this is true, then the real question to ask is why this happened in Vancouver (and also happened in 1994)? Lots of cities go through big sports losses and there are a lot of frustrated sports fans every year as only one team can win a championship in each major sports. What leads to a different reaction in Vancouver? This sounds like it could be a very interesting case study.

Championship wins and losses as an “acceptable” time to riot

It has become a somewhat common ritual (though it doesn’t happen in all instances): a team wins a championship and happy fans celebrate with small riots and civil disturbances. But the script got flipped Tuesday night in Vancouver after the Canucks lost Game 7 to the Bruins:

Almost 150 people required hospital treatment overnight and close to 100 were arrested after rioters swept through downtown Vancouver following a Canucks loss to the Boston Bruins in the decisive Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals…

Rioting and looting left cars burned, stores in shambles and windows shattered over a roughly 10-block radius of the city’s main shopping district.

Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said “organized hoodlums bent on creating chaos incited the riot” and noted the city proved with the 2010 Winter Olympics that it could hold peaceful gatherings. A local business leader estimated more than 50 businesses have been damaged…

“The destructive actions and needless violence demonstrated by a minority of people last night in Vancouver is highly disappointing to us all,” the team statement read. “We are proud of the city we live and play in and know that the actions of these misguided individuals are not reflective of the citizens of Vancouver or of any true fans of the Canucks or the game of hockey.”

The rest of the article goes on to suggest that people in Vancouver are shocked that this happened. But this brings up some interesting questions:

1. Why riot after the outcome of championship series and not so much at other times (like at the Olympics)? Sports do invoke a lot of emotions but as a friend suggested to me recently, sports help channel passions into non-destructive channels. So people these days get so worked up over sports that it spills into civil disobedience? Perhaps we are taking sports too seriously.

2. Could there be small groups of people in cities that are looking for excuses to do things like this and then seize upon the circumstances of a sports championship? If this is the case, then there are larger systemic issues to deal with. At the same time, it means that a city can blame some “bad apples” (“organized hoodlums” in the story above) rather than admitting there may be bigger problems.

3. I wonder how much stories like these continue to push people toward the suburbs.

High housing prices in Vancouver due in part to increase in Chinese homeowners

Vancouver may be known as one of the most liveable cities in the world but the housing prices are also quite high. This is in part due to an increase in Chinese homebuyers:

Buyers from mainland China are leading a wave of Asian investment in Vancouver real estate as China tries to damp property speculation at home. Good schools, a marine climate and the large, established Asian community as a result of Canada’s liberal immigration policy make Vancouver attractive, said Cathy Gong, who moved from Shanghai to the Shaughnessy neighborhood on Vancouver’s Westside about three years ago.

China, where home prices rose 28 percent in Beijing and 26 percent in Shanghai last year, according to the country’s biggest real estate website owner SouFun Holdings Ltd., has taken steps to curb property speculation within its borders. Chinese home prices gained for 19 straight months through December and climbed in almost all 70 cities tracked by the government during the first quarter. Premier Wen Jiabao placed curbs on mortgage lending, boosted down-payment requirements and limited the number of purchases.

“As the Chinese get more and more prosperous, they are diversifying their assets out of China,” said Jim Rogers, an American investor who moved to Singapore from New York four years ago so his daughters could learn Chinese. “Vancouver is very high on the list.”…

The current group of Chinese homebuyers in Vancouver is the third “wave” from Asia since 1990, following Taiwanese and Hong Kong immigration, said Manyee Lui, a veteran Vancouver realtor. “People from mainland China are the new immigrants,” Lui said.

This is a reminder that real estate truly is a leading industry in the global economy as people from different countries seek out desirable properties. In escaping a real estate bubble in China and increased regulation but with money to spend, Chinese homebuyers are now looking at Vancouver. (Vancouver may not be the only place: I also recently wrote about a story of Chinese residents building “monster homes” in New Zealand.)

It is interesting to note the reactions of Vancouver residents: the influx of Chinese homebuyers has raised housing values, perhaps pricing others out of the market, and the schools now have a large number of non-native English speakers. At the same time, I assume Vancouver residents take pride in the cosmopolitan nature of their city. One resident mentioned the possibility of the government restricting foreign homeownership – is this really the route to go? Will this end up turning into a debate between local and global interests?

The rankings of liveable cities

Architecture critic Edwin Heathcote of the Financial Times asks why the most livable cities in the world, such as Vancouver, are not necessarily the the most loved cities.

This is another argument that deals with methodology: how exactly does one determine which cities are the “most liveable”? If just one or two factors are tweaked by certain publications, the list changes. Just like college rankings (recent thoughts here), such lists should be viewed with some skepticism.

Additionally, the criteria used by publications is not necessarily the criteria used by citizens who have some choices about where to move. Indeed, such lists seem to presume that these are the choices people would make if they had equal opportunity to move within their own country and/or around the world. Of course, most people have more restricted options due to job availability, price, personal preferences, location of family, and more.

In reading about this, it also strikes me that lists of liveable cities also might not make sense to many Americans: why would they want to live in a city when a majority have already chosen a suburban life?

h/t Instapundit