Features
Richard Lam/AP

Vancouver's playground

City tales | The restoration of storm-ridden Stanley Park has united a city

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

VANCOUVER, B.C., Canada- Gale-force winds reaching 75 mph struck one of Canada's most treasured urban jewels in December 2006. The 1,000 acres of Stanley Park, a largely preserved wilderness on the northern waterfront of downtown Vancouver, shuddered and writhed under the force of nature's gusts. Some 10,000 trees, many hundreds of years old, snapped at the base or were uprooted altogether. In a mere two hours, the city's pristine playground morphed into an ecological ghetto of twisted limbs, landslides, and debris-covered beaches.

Matt Clark, who has lived and worked in the city for 13 years, recalls the collective numb that descended on local residents in the storm's aftermath. "I came for a walk the very next day, and there were a lot of people just in shock," he said, standing in a grassy section of the park's southwest corner on a recent crystal-clear morning. "There were entire trails that people would walk every day completely covered, and many of those are still gone."

But on this sun-kissed morning in 2008, the absence of a few trails seemed of little concern to the hundreds of people enjoying their metropolitan oasis. The sounds of quacking ducks and gentle ripples lapping pond reeds filled the gaps between plodding joggers and chatty walkers out for exercise. The setting looked every bit the part of an undeveloped countryside, save the view of massive high rises jutting up behind the trees.

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Stanley Park will celebrate its 120th anniversary this September, a deadline for which officials are rushing to reopen popular trails and fix all damage to the 5-mile seawall snaking around the park's northern periphery. Plans also call for the installation of signage throughout the park to educate the public about the region's ecology and settlement history.

The rapid completion of such projects testifies to the outpouring of private and public resources that pressed for cleanup efforts to begin immediately in the storm's aftermath. Local billionaire Jimmy Pattison, owner of the Ripley's empire, personally donated $1 million to the restoration campaign, calling the park "an important part of our part of the world." It is of special importance to Pattison's world as the place where he proposed to his wife.

About 6,000 other citizens and private organizations chipped in another $2.5 million for the public space. And local and federal governments pledged $6 million. That outpouring of support and the resultant increased sense of ownership among local residents prompted supervisor of park maintenance Eric Meagher to declare the storm "one of the best things to ever happen to Stanley Park."

But even as the mandate for restoration unified the community, it also sparked controversy over just how to proceed. Some environmentalists argued that forested areas should be left alone, downed trees and all, since the winds responsible for such destruction represent an important piece of the natural setting. That position did not sit well with those eager to once again use the park's 17 miles of trails.

The case for utility won the day, and workers began hauling out timber by the truckload, planting new saplings in their wake. Today, Stanley Park again functions as one of the most spectacular green spaces in North America, drawing 8 million visitors annually. It is an attraction on par with New York's Central Park and serves city dwellers in much the same capacity.

Though some signs of the storm's devastation remain-tree stumps, mangled brush, areas of seawall damage-the city has ceased its mourning. Grief has turned to pride.

Longtime local resident William Blanchard, who recently helped erect a bench in the park to memorialize a friend lost in a car accident, believes the city's whole identity emanates from the preservation and enjoyment of the space. "Vancouver has developed because of Stanley Park. It's a natural beauty, and that just extends right through the city," he said, citing Vancouver's artistic architecture and urban layout. "Thank God for the park."

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