Advocacy, education and outreach in support of Vancouver's public spaces

By Michelle Pollard

June 2, 2014 at 9:59 AM

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Where’s the Creek? Daylighting to Restore the Urban Watershed

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Image: Dan Toulgoet

Image: Dan Toulgoet

When I was growing up my dad often made claims of fishing in a creek near his childhood home in South Vancouver. Since my dad comes from a long line of family members that often “embellish” the truth, (I’ve heard many a tall tale from earlier generations of my family, you know how they begin: “When I was a kid I had to walk 10 miles in the snow, uphill, wearing sandals just to get to school…”) I thought it was just another of those “embellished” stories my family members were so well known for. As a child I could not comprehend how Vancouver could be anything other than a city.

Even as an adult it is hard to imagine that less than 150 years ago the area that is now Vancouver was a dense temperate rainforest populated with diverse wildlife where a network of creeks and streams flowed and emptied into the Burrard Inlet, False Creek or the Fraser River. It was home to First Nations people who for thousands of years had more than adequately sustained themselves on the abundant resources that the watershed provided. In addition to the current exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver, Rewilding Vancouver, one only has to hike any number of North Shore trails to get an idea of what Vancouver was like before the arrival of European settlers.

Horse-drawn wagons on North Arm Road (Granville Street near 37th Avenue) circa 1895. Image: City of Vancouver Archives

Horse-drawn wagons on North Arm Road (Granville Street near 37th Avenue) circa 1895. Image: City of Vancouver Archives

While viewing a map of Vancouver’s creek system during an urban design lecture, I discovered that my dad was not telling tall tales after all. The map showed a creek near my dad’s childhood home in the exact place he had claimed. More recently, the UBC Library digitized the content of the Vancouver Aquarium’s old paper maps. This high-resolution digital map allows you to view the paths of old streams and the original shoreline of Vancouver. My dad used it to illustrate the creek’s location in relation to his family’s home. A few months ago he also found a photo taken around 1948 of his childhood friend standing in the creek bed, showing that even in the more recent past, parts of Vancouver’s creek system were still visible (had he produced this when I was younger, I may have been more easily convinced of his fishing claims). According to dad, the wooden bridge visible in the background of this photograph was where East 62nd Avenue crossed the creek.

Location of Creek with respect to my dad's childhood home. Image: Terry Pollard

Location of creek in relation to my dad’s childhood home. Annotations: Terry Pollard

Creek bed, South Vancouver circa 1948 Image: Terry Pollard

Creek bed, South Vancouver circa 1948. Image: Terry Pollard

So what happened? Where did all these creeks go? The arrival of the first Europeans brought a different set of values. To them nature was viewed as an inhospitable nuisance—something to be controlled and exploited. Within a few short decades the watershed’s abundant natural resources were extracted, processed and sold—replaced with a system of roads, streetcar tracks and sewers, buildings and railroads, non-native trees and plants. Creeks and streams were diverted, buried, paved over or just ignored—sometimes resulting in disastrous consequences.

Flooding at Broadway and Heather circa 1909. Image: Vancouver City Archives

Flooding at Broadway and Heather circa 1909. Image: Vancouver City Archives

Within the last half-century, however, a new set of values has emerged and we have a better understanding of ecosystem functioning and its value not only to the planet but also to our own well-being. With this new set of values, a new way of thinking about nature and its role in city life has also emerged and with it a movement toward integrating nature into the urban environment. One way to achieve this integration is by daylighting. Creek or stream “daylighting” is a strategy that restores creeks and streams back to their natural state. As the name suggests, it involves uncovering these buried, culverted creeks and bringing them back to the surface. While accomplishing this strategy in a built-up area is fraught with complications such as the up-front costs, working around existing structures and property ownership, the long-term benefits are several. Some of these benefits include:

  • Storage and absorption of stormwater run-off over their vegetated and riparian surfaces to improve water quality and prevent stormwater surges
  • Cooling the air to reduce the heat island effect
  • Providing public places of respite, recreation and access to nature
  • Improved aesthetics and neighbourhood beautification
  • Increased wildlife habitat and biodiversity
  • Opportunities for education about local history and ecology
  • Opportunities for stewardship, a sense of pride, community spirit and connection

Illustration by Richard Register depicting how aging built structures surrounding creeks can be removed over time to restore the urban watershed.

With such a range of benefits several cities in North America and elsewhere have adopted the practise of daylighting. One of the most striking examples is in Seoul South Korea. The Cheong Gye Cheon Project was initiated in 2003 and involved removing a freeway in downtown Seoul to restore the creek located underneath it. Lauded as a success, the most noteworthy benefits are the increased natural habitats for various fish, bird and insect species and a significant cooling effect with temperatures along the stream as much as 5.9 °C cooler than in other nearby areas. Several creeks in Vancouver have also been successfully restored including Spanish BanksMusqueamHastings and Still Creek with salmon returning to spawn in Spanish Banks, Still and Musqueam Creeks.

Cheong Gye Cheon, before and after. Image: http://www.streetsblog.org/2006/12/08/seouls-new-heart/

Is creek daylighting in Vancouver something that interests you? Want to get involved? Evergreen manages volunteers for these projects, and there are many more green volunteer opportunities listed on the City’s website. Other groups in Vancouver who advocate, raise awareness and provide volunteer opportunities for creek daylighting and restoration include: False Creek Watershed Society, St George Rainway Project, Langara Wetland Project, Gibby’s Field and Stanley Park Ecological Society. Explore the digital map provided with this post – perhaps there’s a lost creek in your neighbourhood where redevelopment might occur soon or where surrounding aging built structures could be removed in the future. For example, using UBC’s digital map, I discovered a creek that flows underneath the Arbutus Shopping Centre. This property is slated for redevelopment with opportunities for public input during the development permit process.

A creek running under Arbutus Shopping Centre. Image: Michelle Pollard

A creek running under Arbutus Shopping Centre. Annotations: Michelle Pollard

While the urban watershed can never be completely restored to its natural state, with so many potential benefits, projects like these set a precedent for future daylighting projects and represent one of the many ways Vancouver could meet its Greenest City 2020 goals. Imagine a creek running through your neighbourhood…

St. George Creek Imagined. Image: Bryn Davison

St. George Creek imagined. Image: Bryn Davison

For further reading on daylighting and the value of nature in cities, check out:

The Nature of Cities

Timothy Beatley’s Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning (2011)

Patrick M Condon’s Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post-carbon World (2010)

Richard Register’s Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance With Nature (2006) 

Mark Roseland’s Toward Sustainable Communities: Solutions for Citizens and Their Governments (2012)

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