The Man-Made History of Stanley Park

On 27 September 1888, the opening of Vancouver’s landmark urban park signalled great promise for the young Pacific metropolis. Under a cloudless sky, the waters of Burrard Inlet sparkled in the sunlight as spectators gathered at Prospect Point to mark the official opening of Stanley Park.

Provincial and civic dignitaries marched in procession from Powell Street to the park and took their places on a platform before the crowd. Mayor David Oppenheimer gave a speech to formally open the park and to deliver authority for its management to the newly appointed park committee.

This is one of the best-known moments in the history of Vancouver, famously chronicled by the city’s first archivist, James Skitt Matthews. However, historians have failed to note the significance of Oppenheimer’s remarks on that day. Vancouverites take for granted the natural beauty of Stanley Park, the so-called jewel of the city, but when Oppenheimer spoke of it in 1888, he saw future potential, not inherent beauty. He recognized its many “natural advantages” but considered them deficient without the aid of human intervention. He believed that, in a process of careful improvement, “art will unite with nature in making this the finest park on the continent.” Only the union of human artifice and natural scenery would “ultimately realize our present hopes of being able in a short time to say we have the most beautiful park in the world.” In short, Oppenheimer and other early park advocates saw a natural landscape in need of a helping hand.

This perspective might seem extraordinary to the contemporary tourists and admirers who value Stanley Park as an untouched area, unaware of the enormous, but largely concealed, human effort that has gone into managing its production. An examination of Stanley Park’s early management shows that advocates and Park Board officials actively sought to “improve” nature by controlling non-human forces that threatened to alter the visual or aesthetic appearance of the “virgin” forest. Their primary concern was the construction and preservation of scenic beauty and the enhancement of wild, unrestrained nature. Those alterations in turn transformed both the landscape and the ecology of the peninsula. Continue reading….

Environmental history enables us to better understand the shifting meanings of nature and wilderness, complicated terms that are as much a reflection of social and cultural constructs as they are material realities. The modern concept of wilderness in the United States has its origins in interwar debates about the impact of highway construction on national parks. The work of Paul Sutter and other historians shows that wilderness, like parks, is an idea subject to change by historical circumstances. As William Cronon puts it, this is part of “the trouble with wilderness,” for “wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural,” a mask that suggests an inextricable, yet somehow inscrutable, interconnection between humans, nature, and the idea of wilderness. Of course, humans are a part of the natural world; their actions shape, and are shaped by, complementary and sometimes countervailing non-human forces. Similarly, the meaning of wilderness is shaped by the interaction between people and the environment. The people who created Stanley Park shared the common modernist belief that engineering and scientific intervention could produce an aesthetically satisfactory landscape, one that was grounded in a romantic and static vision of nature.

Unlike other North American urban parks, such as Central Park, Druid Hill, Golden Gate Park, and Mount Royal Park, Stanley Park was not designed by a single landscape architect. From its inception, it was valued for its dense forest, the centrepiece of its landscape, and thus was never subject to much rapid, wholesale reconstruction, as was the case, for instance, with the western sand dunes of Golden Gate Park. Instead, the board sought to improve its appearance through long-term alterations that gradually transformed the landscape, particularly via its forestry policies. Rather than relying on the advice of landscape architects, the board employed engineers and forestry scientists to enhance nature in the park. Although they were not trained in the techniques of naturalistic constructivism, these experts changed the landscape and ecology while simultaneously concealing their efforts, producing the illusion that the park was untouched. Continue reading……Once Stanley Park was created, city council’s first challenge was to provide access to it. Ocean tides often rendered it inaccessible by foot, and the few people who were brave enough to make the journey did so by boat. In fact, since the 1860s, very few non-Aboriginal people had been to the peninsula, except for its residents and the crews who had cut timber there. Though it was praised for its splendour—the lofty cedars, hemlocks, and firs amidst a tangle of underbrush—its natural conditions needed alteration if better access were to be provided.

In October 1887, Vancouver ratepayers approved a bylaw that enabled city council to raise $20,000 through debentures to build a public road around the peninsula. The bylaw stated that it was in the “interest and welfare of the City of Vancouver that improvements should be made and a public road or drive should be constructed” in order “to give the citizens access to the Park.”

The Board of Works, the first public body responsible for the park, managed the construction of the road. Engineers divided the project into six sections, built from November 1887 until September 1888, just before the opening of the park. The road’s serpentine route roughly followed the first path surveyed around the edges of the peninsula by CPR land commissioner Lauchlan Hamilton in 1885. Contractors erected a bridge across Coal Harbour to link city streets with the new road. Once complete, the project, which required the labour of more than 50 men and numerous animals, had laid roughly 37,000 feet of road at a cost of $19,982.84.

The reconfiguration of the peninsula’s perimeter, the removal of thousands of cubic feet of earth, and the destruction of hundreds of trees constituted a major transformation of the landscape and ecology. Crews covered the road with a light gravel made of crushed shells, which according to an engineer’s report, “present a remarkably white appearance, added greatly to the attractiveness of the park.” Workers procured the covering from nearby middens composed mainly of clam and mussel shells, and human remains, which they uncovered during construction.

The curvilinear route of the road was inspired by the Greensward Plan, which was created by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted for the design of Central Park. Influenced in its turn by the early British landscape tradition, the Greensward Plan established many North American standards for park design in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Drawing on his experience as an apprentice to Andrew Jackson Downing, Vaux intended the circuitous roads of Central Park to contrast with the rigid grid design of New York City’s streets. If Central Park were to be a rural retreat for city-dwellers, as Vaux and Olmsted envisioned, its roads should break from the pattern of the city to provide pleasant country drives. Vaux and Olmsted tried to follow the natural contours of the park’s topography to incorporate a naturalistic feel into the roads. They also constructed buildings, bridges, and furniture in a “rustic” style, using stripped-bark logs and rough stonework of simple design.

Vancouver’s first park committee aspired to create a network of roads, paths, and bridges that mimicked this form of landscape design. In 1888, however, the final report on the park road pointed out that “much requires to be done in making drives and serpentine walks, underbrushing in close proximity to the road, planting evergreens, grass-seed, and making rustic arbors and seats.” Dissatisfied with this state of affairs, the park commissioners noted that “a large amount of debris left along the sides of the road injuring to a great extent the beauty of the drive and which should certainly be removed.” Their principal concern was that the debris should be burned so that the edges of the road would display no signs of the improvement project. Underbrushing (clearing undergrowth) and replanting would give the road the appearance of blending into nature as though it had always existed. With careful use of these techniques, the human impact on the landscape could go virtually undetected.