Blogs from the board: A tale of two green spaces

Left:  Ce Soir Noir at Crab Park. Photo by author.  Right:  Plans for the Arbutus Greenway. Image by City of Vancouver.

Left: Ce Soir Noir at Crab Park. Photo by author. Right: Plans for the Arbutus Greenway. Image by City of Vancouver.

Welcome to our new series, Blogs from the Board.  Devon Deckant serves as Member Relations Officer on The Starfish Canada Board of Directors.

There is a long history of cities forming along an East-West divide.  Londoners recently ranked their city’s major neighborhoods, and bluntly characterized the West side as “posh” and the East side as “poor.”  In New York City, there’s the appropriately named Upper West Side (long a wealthy enclave bordering Central Park) and Lower East Side (historical immigrant area known for its gritty character, now cherished as a hipster haven) -- as much cultural reflections as geographic ones.  In Cleveland, Ohio (the largest city in the urban region I grew up in), the cultural divide between the East and West sides can be stark, with crossing the river that divides the two seen as a notable event.  Here in Vancouver, where I currently reside (in East Van, in case you’re wondering), Main, Ontario or Cambie Streets have served to demarcate the city’s halves between the haves (houses long valued at over $1 million) and the lesser-haves (houses that are approaching $1 million valuation).  Of course there are exceptions, however the overall trend is typical of many North American and European cities.

Environmental historians highlight climate as a primary factor in this split: prevailing winds carry weather from West to East in the Northern Hemisphere, carrying air pollution with them.  This led to land in areas further West gaining market value and land further East gaining facilities necessary to the industrial order.  

Hello, ports and rail yards and factories, goodbye clear skies

While it may be easy to brush this aside as a historical phenomenon, the trend continues today.  Obviously, the weather has continued to sweep across the region in a similar pattern (as part of what we call climate), but development trends offer continued evidence as well. Think about Vancouver’s Port on the Downtown Eastside, located in the fragile inlet rather than on the open waters of the city’s western edges, home to UBC, Pacific Spirit Regional Park, and the most expensive real estate.

Let’s take this comparison further by looking at two green spaces in Vancouver which exemplify some of the nuances of land use, planning, and civic participation in the East-West divide.  Just as one is coming into existence, the other is facing an existential dilemma.  The West Side stands to gain over 40 acres of green space and new sustainable infrastructure in the form of the Arbutus Greenway, while the East Side is poised to fight to retain (and had to fight for from the beginning) what little green space it has on the waterfront at Crab Park.  Let’s talk about the latter first.

CRAB Park at Portside

It was only recently that I learned about the social history of Crab Park at Portside; the park itself is a strikingly singular one -- rolling hills of green hedged in by a small sand beach, the Port of Vancouver, and the railroad terminus with the downtown skyline as backdrop.  For those unfamiliar, the park’s monicker is the rallying cry that led to its creation: Create a Real Available Beach*.  An eponymous committee lobbied for the park’s creation in the 1980s, accompanied by a dedicated cohort who staked their claim in the land which would become the park under a 40-year maintenance agreement with the City.

The park hosts alternative events like Ce Soir Noir and the cancelled-by-its-popularity Bike Rave while offering pretty much unparalleled views and green space in a neighborhood desperately in need of it.  Importantly, the park also serves to memorialize the missing and murdered Indigenous women of the Downtown Eastside.  It is also considered threatened by a new development proposal at the adjacent Port of Vancouver.  The preliminary plans call for using infill to expand the port’s physical imprint in Burrard Inlet, which in turn allows for greater shipping container capacity.

I learned about the controversial proposal while attending Car Free Day festivities on Main Street, an event which wears its politics on its sleeve about public access to space.  A concerned young person (it’s The Starfish, of course I’m going to highlight this!) informed us about the port’s plans to grow westward by seven acres.  The development threatens the inlet with increased tanker traffic, altered tidal flow and water quality (especially between the proposed expansion and the beach), increased risk of industrial hazard or spill (like last year’s chemical fire, which shuttered local residents indoors) as well as definitely diminishing the park’s North Shore views.

A presupposed tenet of parks is their lasting endurance, which can even be enshrined in the law (in the case of U.S. National Parks).  Thus Crab Park is facing an existential threat: what will the future look like from the shores of the beach?  Will the water remain swimmable? Will it still feel like Crab Park?  The proposal has reignited the debate over development of this waterfront, leading the concerned in a new effort to save a park that was hard won.  MP Jenny Kwan, representing Vancouver East, has taken a central role in the debates, calling this “sacred space”, and requesting a peer-reviewed environmental impact assessment (the port currently conducts its own).

Arbutus Greenway

Now consider the City’s planned Arbutus Greenway, which recently hosted Mayor Robertson for the symbolic removal of the first rail ties in the creation of 42 acres of open space.  The celebrated new greenway will provide ample new access for connecting the city’s enviably leafy Westside neighborhoods from Marpole to False Creek.  While not withstanding controversy itself, the new park will offer the benefits of green space and mobility to residents already fortunate in their proximity to large parks and waterfronts with beach access.  

The corridor was once a busy rail connection between False Creek and Steveston, but after years of disuse, neighbors reclaimed the area -- growing food in over 300 community gardens and creating walking paths along the corridor.  These community uses were deemed unlawful encroachments and threatened by removal by Canadian Pacific (the railroad company who previously owned the land).  Even though CP opposed these community uses, the City (and Courts) affirmed such purposes under the city’s plan for the corridor, which calls for maintaining community gardens while adding cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.  In the long term, the corridor may offer light rail transit, serving as a relief for the Canada Line while facilitating increased population density under Vision Vancouver’s plan.

We’re seeing the fruits of forward-thinking planning “hitting the rails”, with the municipal vision of greening the city backed by the sustainable value of community involvement.  The Arbutus Corridor, like Crab Park, is an example of prioritizing resource conservation priorities by reserving room for green spaces in our cities and investing in sustainable infrastructure.  Regardless of which side of the city they inhabit, these green spaces are built upon histories of resistance: from the 75-day occupation of Crown Land that led to the creation of Crab Park, to the guerilla gardens planted on CP land, to Clayoquot Sound and the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history in protest of clearcut logging; all turned out to be successful strategies in terms of conservation goals.

So while the Westside’s Arbutus Greenway is arguably a net gain for the entire city (and region), that argument becomes much easier to make once light rail lines along the corridor are guaranteed.  Despite disappointing results in the recent transit referendum, we are convinced that the Lower Mainland desires accessible public transit options.  Let’s hope to see plenty of people of all ages in pursuing that goal of expanded rail options here in the future.

As for the future of the only waterfront green space on the Downtown Eastside, it was protest that led to the park’s creation, and it may well be what preserves it.  The expansion of the port, the busiest in Canada, obviously contributes to economic development, but at a cost that is likely to be paid by a community used to paying such fees without reaping many benefits. It is worth noting that the port’s expansion is coming from increased Canadian demand; that means you, me and everyone we know.  So, being solutions-oriented folks, where does that leave us? Maybe this is where civil intervention tips the scales.  That might mean consuming less and protesting with our payments.  If you haven’t already and are able to, buy a (non-imported) bike and take advantage of the (growing) infrastructure and (fragile) resources at our disposal in this, the aspiring greenest city in the world.  You can find out more about the efforts by following #savecrabpark, and can find Jenny Kwan’s petition here.  

*Also documented as Create a Real Alternative Beach. References vary; for instance, in the SFU digital archives, a picture titled using “Alternative” captures an image of a banner using “Available” for the acronym’s A.