The BC Provincial government has just announced their intentions to provide Vancouver with what is, according to our esteemed Premier Gordon Campbell – who, incidentally, based much of his political career on opposition to expanded gambling in the province – “a whole, new entertainment complex for British Columbia”. This $450 million ‘destination resort casino’ (and consider those words closely…they become important) will be plunked down smack dab next to BC Place Stadium on the last undeveloped piece of False Creek, on the eastern edge of downtown, and will provide what is certain to be, as one of the potential developers put it, “a unique opportunity to be able to fly into town for a game or a concert, check into your hotel, go to dinner, maybe play a hand or two, and then be able to go to the concert”.
My god! “Maybe play a hand or two”???! How do you suppose the geniuses behind this proposal might answer the question, ‘what is a city’?
However, before we can even begin to guess at potential responses, it is imperative that we examine just slightly more carefully ‘who is the city for’?
Beyond the provision of jobs and a retractable roof for the great civic monument that is BC Place, the city is pretty much out of luck when it comes to discernible benefits from the development itself. The land in question is owned by the province, exempt from city zoning and thus equally immune from a fairly common process whereby developers will contribute to the local neighbourhood by providing amenities such as space for libraries, community centres, or the like in return for a zoning concession or two from the city.
“That won't be an option this time,” said city councillor Geoff Meggs.
Armed with this information, claims made by the provincial government and other eminent boosters that the development will represent anything other than cash in hand for government and several thousand jobs to the city – which to be fair, is nothing to sneeze at – can indeed be seen as at best being made speciously, and at worst, disingenuously. (An intriguing statement by the premier that a casino in the heart of the city will provide “cultural opportunities” reveals something of the character of this development. On the surface it seems hard to imagine what in the way of culture could be had at such a complex. Oh, I suppose that a really good Elvis impersonator or a Triumph tribute band could loosely be considered ‘cultural’, though it’s difficult to see how such an experience need be had in downtown Vancouver – Las Vegas, or the neighbouring suburb of Richmond for that matter already offering a satisfactory selection of Elvises and classic rock reunion tours!)
That these two ends – cash and jobs – can be presented to the public as a good is perhaps the most important point here. No doubt, a fine argument can be mounted that several thousand stable jobs is in fact a public good, that some share of the revenue generated by the gambling will help keep our taxes low, and that the economic spinoffs of the elite clientele the casino is beneficial to local business. All true, I suppose, but what underlying social ethos is being made readable here?
Not only is the use of public land being traded on narrow claims of economic benefit, but also towards an end that cannot reasonably be argued to be socially productive nor have any real redeeming social value. No, the value being extracted here is of a purely economic variety, similar in kind to the economic value of an oil spill in Alaska as expressed as a percentage of national GDP.
Beyond the sinister symbiosis between gambling and our governments represented here, it becomes very obvious that the building of such a complex is not meant to improve the lives of city residents. Nor, is it intended to help alleviate the city’s housing problems or address in any way, meaningful or not, the homelessness that has been growing in our society since the mid-90’s. But if it is not meant to make better the city, then to what end?
It is well known among those who care to spend their valuable hours on Earth studying such things that cities have been increasingly caught up in the dynamics of globalization and shifts in the structure of labour and property markets. The politics of cities has also shifted. Canada presents a particular set of issues, but let it simply be said that while cities may exercise some degree of autonomy within their own boundaries, they are also caught up in a web of dependence with their wider regions, over which they often have little influence. Alongside the backwards-looking Gateway program – a multi-billion dollar highway expansion project intended to facilitate the more efficient movement of freight from port facilities into the North American consumer market – this mega-project is but another example of the provincial government’s efforts at “selling” the city in the global marketplace. As Nick Blomley explains,
Although place promotion has a long pedigree, the mobility of investment has encouraged many … governments to engage in more aggressive programs of place marketing, positioning themselves as platforms in an emergent economy of flows. More entrepreneurial programs of urban governance, in which cities compete aggressively to attract capital, tourists, and government funds, have been identified, with a consequent shift from an emphasis on local liveability and the life opportunities of local residents to an externally oriented logic of the bottom line.
In other words, the casino is not a socially productive use of a common asset, but rather it is meant to attract, accommodate, and entertain an elite international class.
Public land being handed over to private developers not to provide any common goods or even general social use, but to build a casino complex, an ‘entertainment epicentre’ (yet another exuberant term employed by the premier) that does nothing to make the city a better, more liveable place for the vast majority of us already here.
It definitely begs the question: for whom this city?
 Blomley, Nick. Unsettling the City. New York: Routledge, 2004. 29.