Famed contemporary urban theorist, activist, and author Jane Jacobs had a definite idea of what urban parks should look like.
So did the celebrated 19th-century naturalist, philosopher, and author Henry David Thoreau.
But their perceptions of parks for people were as different as the visionaries themselves.
That two such contrasting concepts could be reflected in a pair of neighbouring East Vancouver parks—recreation spaces scheduled to be linked by yet another park surrounding a resurrected watercourse—is a nod to the city’s inclusive parks planning.
Two distinctly different parks that share a common purpose: to enrich city dwellers’ lives, albeit in different ways.
One of the parks is the four-hectare Hastings Park Sanctuary, known to most Vancouverites as that bunch of trees they see behind the fence between the PNE’s Playland and Renfrew Street as they are speeding west on East Hastings Street.
The other is the larger New Brighton Park, 10 hectares in area and a bit more than a kilometre north of the Sanctuary, hemmed in between the Hastings Racecourse, the Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevator, the working port, and Burrard Inlet.
The two influential American campaigners (Jacobs against so-called urban renewal; Thoreau against slavery) were no strangers to militancy to get their messages across. Jacobs was an advocate of what she termed “civic resistance”, and Thoreau championed “civil disobedience” almost 100 years earlier.
Jacobs, who eventually moved from New York to Toronto, even got herself arrested and briefly jailed (for inciting a riot, among other charges); Thoreau did the same (for tax evasion due to moral objections).
In Jacobs’s most famous work, 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she expounded upon her ideas of how cities’ downtowns should be designed for people, including the importance of sidewalks and a diversity of surroundings for neighbourhoods—residential, cultural, industrial, and retail—to create safe, lively, and interesting spaces.
Parks, she said, should have a multitude of uses to bring visitors back, should be near places of busy human traffic, and should be enclosed by an assortment of structures while still being large and open enough to allow plenty of sunlight.
“The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighbourhoods,” she wrote.
New Brighton Park would appear to fit the theorist’s conditions almost perfectly, what with its proximity to high-volume roads and its popular heated outdoor pool, concession stand, benches, washrooms, paths, educational signage, wide-open spaces for picnics and sports, beaches, and even a dog park. Its amazing views of the inlet, the Port of Vancouver’s industry, and the North Shore mountains are a beautiful West Coast bonus.
A shoreline restoration project, an initiative between the park board and the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, was completed in 2017 and saw the addition of paths, viewing decks, and a pier; a restored saltmarsh area on the park’s east side; and the planting of thousands of native shrubs and trees.
The renewed wetland is already attracting fish—including juvenile salmon—and other wildlife, among them migratory birds and waterfowl.
Perhaps the only thing missing is pedestrian traffic from a mix of urban users, but the park is easily accessible by bike, car, and foot, and two of the city’s oldest neighbourhood mixes of retail, residential, and industrial uses are just blocks away to the west: Hastings-Sunrise and Grandview-Woodland.
And immediately to the east is the hill up to Burnaby Heights, a residential area with a vibrant southern retail boundary on Hastings that attracts shoppers from kilometres away.
New Brighton’s bustling vibe on a sunny day is a testament to Jacobs’s prescription.
The nearby hidden, tree-filled (and shady) Sanctuary, on the other hand, would seem to fit her slightly disparaging description of parks that are “too ill-located, and hence too dull or too inconvenient to be used”.
But that dovetails nicely with Thoreau’s preference for a somewhat tamed but quiet wilderness, close to the cultural amenities of civilization while still allowing one to commune with pastoral nature.
Thoreau, famously, lived on a wooded property called Walden for two years. It was located on a pond near Concord, Massachusetts, and it was there, while living frugally in a hand-built cottage, that he penned 1854’s Walden, his best-known work, a paean to self-discovery, spiritual growth, and the simple life.
In it, he said that people “need the tonic of wildness”. Writing in his journal, he declared that every town should have “a park…where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation”.
The Sanctuary—created on paper in 1996 by the city and park board after years of lobbying by community volunteers—started life in earnest in 1998, when PNE buildings and blacktop disappeared and landscaping began in the bowl-shaped depression.
A large upper pond drains into a smaller one, and groundwater, rain, and surface runoff collects in the bigger lake, which is stocked with trout twice a year.
A path circles the main pond’s wooded margins, where footbridges, a small marsh boardwalk, and elevated viewpoints allow serene contemplation of local and migratory songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, and other wildlife.
More than 140 bird species have been recorded there or passing through, and a bobcat wandered the woods a few summers ago. Woodpeckers drill, owls and hawks hunt, and belted kingfishers can be seen diving for fish from their favourite island perches. Bald eagles nest nearby, and great blue herons wait patiently for a sushi lunch to come within striking range.
But only on the nicest days will a visitor pass more than a dozen people while making the rounds beneath the cooling shade of the now tall trees.
When Playland is open, the distant shrieks of young thrill riders punctuate the silence, but that only underscores the almost preternatural wilderness feel. Hastings Street’s nonstop traffic is never more than a few hundred metres away, but it can’t be seen and can hardly be heard.
How fitting that an unseen creek, covered in a culvert a half-century ago, is scheduled to be “daylighted” within a thread of green space and used to connect these two disparate Vancouver parkland gems.
And how apt as well that it will also tie together, in a sense, the rural and urban recreational philosophies of two visionary thinkers born a century apart but both well ahead of their times.