Celia Brauer: Revitalizing False Creek Flats—more paved-over human development or a place of transformation?

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      “Which way will my journey take me? Do I dare remember Snauq as a Squamish, Musqueam, Tsleil’waututh supermarket? Do I dare desire the restoration of grand trees to the left and in the rear of Snauq. Do I dare say goodbye?” 

      —Lee Maracle from Goodbye Snauq

      In 2010, I organized a mapping workshop for the False Creek Watershed Society to call attention to what existed ecologically in this region not long ago and what we could imagine for our common future. I invited artists to create works that spoke to this vision.

      Squamish Nation carver Wes Nahanee contributed a small woodblock. The map of present-day False Creek inspired him to shape a salmon along the shoreline, but the landmass on the east side and the salmon’s head were absent. Nahanee’s headless salmon was recalling the False Creek Flats—the eastern third of the waterway—which had been an intensely rich coastal wetland for millennia.

      In 1916, Vancouver’s government initiated a project that brought countless wheelbarrows of soil excavated from the Grandview Cut to fill in the Flats. This action extinguished the homes and breeding grounds of extensive terrestrial and aquatic plant and animal life, snuffing out centuries of connection the local First Nations—and the first "newcomers"—experienced while living close to a prolific landscape.

      I am a more recent newcomer, and in the past two-and-a-half decades, I have become strongly attached to the modern reality of Vancouver’s False Creek. My continued interaction with this inland waterway, and the strong sense of place it offers me, have affected me deeply.

      False Creek Flats a natural treasure chest

      To best describe the original waters and surrounding terrain of the False Creek Flats is to state that before colonization it was part of the Lower Fraser River Valley region. Not long ago, this area housed one of the richest ecosystems on Earth. Indeed, the original productivity of land and water—the "natural capital"—offered the economic driver for the Coast Salish First Nations for more than 10,000 years. It presented a constant food source and materials for clothes, dwellings, transportation, implements, and artwork. The social-ecological systems of the original people evolved to steward these multiple resources by creating a strong human-nature connection. This, coupled with the intense productivity of the land, formed a robust long-term relationship.

      The False Creek Flats were once a great open mudflat—similar to Boundary Bay today—that contained an opulent and pristine treasure chest. Eelgrass provided reproduction habitat for herring, and surf smelts laid eggs on the gravelly beaches. The outstandingly rich power of these small marine creatures—who made up for their lack of size by multiplying a thousandfold annually—supported a vast oceanic chain. They nourished other fish species and countless birds along with land and sea mammals such as bears, wolves, otters, seals, and whales.

      False Creek, circa 1904. City of Vancouver archives.

      In the spring and fall, the shallow waters of the Flats were full of migrating waterfowl travelling the Pacific Flyway, along with coho, chum, and steelhead salmon navigating to and from the numerous freshwater streams.

      A Squamish Nation elder once told me that sturgeon used to escape into the calm backwaters of the Flats. These prehistoric monsters inhabited all the local water bodies and were once especially prolific in the Fraser River. In their heyday, they grew as long as four metres in 100 years. Herds of elk gathered in the meadows at the eastern end of the Flats. This side also supported underground streams. Legends spoke about spring water originating as far away as Deer Lake in Burnaby. Another Squamish member told me that this part of the Flats was originally called Skwa-chays and it was believed to be a place of transformation.

      Settlement and transformation

      European settlement in Vancouver began in earnest around 1860. Some of the colonizers were searching for new wealth. Others were fleeing repressive governments, persecution, or overcrowding. Everyone profited from the move, as they encountered a plentiful land still packed with pristine natural ecosystems despite centuries of habitation by Indigenous people.

      But in the minds of the settlers, the value of a mudflat did not reside as a place of refuge for sturgeons and elk or a breeding ground for migrating salmon and birds. The European worldview had originated in a continent where the natural world was continually being depleted to fit the needs of an ever-expanding human population. So the newcomers did what they learned in the old country: swiftly going to work to make "good use" of the bounty they discovered. 

      The post-colonial transformation of False Creek displayed all the features of a fast-forward of Canadian history: 400 years of a western-world invasion condensed into less than half a century. The original primeval forest was quickly clear-cut to become a scorched-earth landscape, then it was milled into millions of board feet of lumber. The numerous salmon streams that crisscrossed the land gradually filled up with organic detritus and the newcomer’s garbage. They then disappeared under pavement and into sewer pipes.

      In the Flats, flocks of migrating birds were shot out of the sky by residents; complaints about the noise contributed to the bird’s demise. In just a few decades, what was once a landscape teeming with natural life evolved into a used-up empty place surrounded by people with an endless appetite for natural resources.

      After the eastern mudflats and False Creek shorelines were filled in, the water area shrank to about a quarter of its original size. The Flats became home to railway yards, food-processing plants, and other light industry and businesses. All around, a great deal of toxic pollution and abandoned development garbage accumulated.

      In the following decades, trade by rail diminished and much of the land remained inaccessible to and underutilized by the burgeoning population in Vancouver and beyond. Over time, artists settled into vacated industrial buildings and some enterprising citizen groups created lavish landscapes in Strathcona and Cottonwood Community Gardens. These sites were particularly successful endeavours. They evolved from the legacy of previous environmental interests, which had been persistently vying for restoration of the area’s original ecological wealth.

      Modern planning favours business over environment

      But the powers that governed the land had other ideas. In the past decade, the great further push of human commerce and an endless need to fill every square inch with "progress" has once again descended onto the last section of undeveloped land in the "backwater" of the False Creek Flats. For-profit enterprises and large public institutions are clamoring for available empty real estate. Because Vancouver is a city wherein undeveloped land is scarce, this has helped to drive the real-estate values to astronomical levels. 

      The City’s first public document came in early 2015. It had been “working with the Vancouver Economic Commission to develop a plan for this unique economic neighbourhood within our city”. The intention was to engage people in order to “help the Flats flourish as a more productive, sustainable and connected area”. It invited people to “define its future”.

      After the Vancouver Economic Commission did its work and the business surveys were finished, the city completed "Phase One—Framework and Principles". It then conducted an online survey and created the "launch" event. Next came more public workshops and an advisory committee was struck. In total, stakeholders returned more than 15,000 surveys.

      We are presently at "Phase Two—Emerging Directions". At the last public event, participants were asked to fill out small pieces of paper that were titled "I Wish My Flats". These are displayed in a summary document.

      When I searched this latest paper for some key words, what I found was interesting: 48 mentions of business, 31 of industrial, 26 for street (which incorporated map references), 27 of food (including food banks and food systems), 12 of economic, and eight of parking. As for the other "stakeholders", there were 18 mentions for community (eight for community gardens), nine for artist, eight for water, six for parks, six for trees, two for history, and two for aboriginal. There were zero hits for nature, fish, salmon, plants, birds, and bees. Not surprisingly, neither herds of grass-munching elk nor shallows-basking sturgeon appear in this report. They are  now permanently evicted from their ancestral homes in the False Creek Flats.

      Clearly, the environmental groupings I sought did not complete as many surveys as the business crowd. They needed sympathetic people to represent them. The salmon spirits, alongside with eelgrass, birds. and shoreline trees—never mind lost elk and sturgeon—do not have the same lobbying power as those overpowering economic interests that made their needs known first and foremost. In truth, flora and fauna do not figure prominently anywhere in the human balance sheet of politics, consumption, and commerce. They are only represented when they provide desirable benefits for people.

      Natural ecosystems have little intrinsic worth

      Absent also in these survey results are the long list of environmental folk who worked to create numerous initiatives in the area for the past half-century. Perhaps they did fill out some surveys. But it’s more likely that as elders in green activism they had grown tired of fighting the strong current of the "human economy". And they probably had the sense that their opinions would not be given more weight than those of the general public. This despite all the years they worked as volunteers to champion the history and natural ecosystems of the Flats and contribute positive developments to the False Creek landscape to date.

      It is not surprising there was “a great deal of interest and input from a variety of stakeholders at a series of public events as the first phase of (their) planning process and public consultations”. The Flats are central to a city with high land values and an ever-expanding population who migrate here from all over the globe. Unlike in the original Indigenous worldview for the past 10 millennia, today’s land has a great deal of value in economic systems only because it is "used" for housing, businesses, or resource extraction. Natural ecosystems have very little worth for their own sake.

      In essence, to many people today, land, water and the species they once supported in the False Creek Flats are little more than a historical fantasy. These are mentioned in the planning document as something to which we should pay homage.  The city does wish to create a "green" environment with some parks and trees and, possibly, water. But it feels less of a core value and more of an afterthought. 

      The overarching notion of the new Flats planning exercise has a similar feel to the worldview that overlaid the land and water a century ago. To me and others in the present-day not-for-profit community, there is a niggling feeling—or, shall we say more honestly, a great dread—that the Flats will once again be transformed into a place where human needs form the base of the equation. The pervading vision is, once again: "Let’s not dream too much here—after all, we live in a city.”

      Despite Greenist City claims, economic interests consulted first

      And looking at the time line of planning consultation for the False Creek Flats, you feel a predominant human-development future unfolding. The first step in fall 2014 was to solicit input from the Vancouver Economic Commission and do a business survey. After the completion of Phase One, the results were circulated to “internal technical team from various departments of the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Economic Commission”.

      The opening statement on an early report was: “How can the False Creek Flats contribute to Vancouver’s economic vision of a high-performing economy that successfully levers the City’s global profile and momentum as a centre of innovation and entrepreneurship?” Apparently, you can’t do anything in an urban context these days without first asking the official money makers if it’s okay. But how can it be otherwise when the land only has value when it exists for the use of our own species?

      And yet Vancouver declares it is working toward being the “Greenest City”. Yes, the Phase 2 summary speaks about initiatives afoot in the Flats for green businesses to flourish, more parks and trees, and urban farms. There is some talk about climate-change mitigation and seismic vulnerability, because Vancouver exists near an earthquake subduction zone. But most of the emphasis appears to be how this place will ultimately work for the "two-leggeds" of the world. People have the desire to make the Flats the “Greenest Place to Work in the World. It needs to be well-served by transit and there is a desire to have intensification of industrial and office employment.”

      At the end of the summary, there is a two-page section that speaks to "Environment, Energy and Climate Change" and it states there is a wish to “re-establish the environment as a primary structuring element”. In general, who could argue with these ideas? But somehow the statements don’t seem robust and fuelled by the right objective. When the text is further elaborated upon, the words seek, investigate, and explore appear repeatedly. This does little to inspire a strong goal to tackle urgent issues head-on.

      Many of my nonprofit associates believe that the Flats redevelopment should be planned with an underlying design of "blueways" and green spaces. The "I Wish My Flats" requests were all over these ideas and yet they don't appear high up in the city’s final summary. Such constructions would channel water and do flood control similar to what was done in Southeast False Creek. And ecosystem connections could be the basis for the whole area, because it was once a mudflat full of various species.

      And although remediation of the soils would certainly be expensive, there are landmark precedents of industrial-lands reclamation all around the world. Those have given back life-giving water and green spaces to urban communities. Humankind has shown that if the will exists, we can move mountains. Why not use this enterprise to re-create some natural landscapes?

      Invite First Nations, volunteers to discussion table

      Vancouver has shown itself to be a leader in the discussion of reconciliation with local First Nations. If the Flats were once a site rich with food and spiritual reality for the original people—and it was radically colonized more than 100 years ago—the best way to practise reconciliation is to invite direct consultation with First Nations individuals and local bands to see what can be re-created.

      The city has also just approved a Biodiversity Strategy. What an excellent opportunity to put the "head back on the salmon" and work with First Nations alongside the local creative, gardening, and environmental community. If there is to be true reconciliation with our original peoples, shouldn’t a serious "decolonization" of the land be foremost on everyone’s mind?

      This region has already spawned positive human enterprise through artist studios, community gardens, and environmental-stewardship groups. For example, the "St. George’s Rainway" crowd wants to bring water back to their old creek site and encourage more waterways in the Flats. The False Creek Watershed Society and its members have talked about greening and "blueing" the Flats for years.

      Nonprofit groups are created and operate out of love—not money. There have been numerous volunteers, dreamers who are haunted by the demise of what used to be and encouraged by the richness of what could exist once again. Some groups to note from the 1990s were: City Plan, Eco-City, Southeast False Creek Working Group, and Environmental Youth Alliance. For at least half a century, others have joined together to fight for the right of urban ecology to flourish around False Creek.

      They planted gardens, engaged the public—including, most importantly, schools and neighbourhood houses—wrote history books, created plans and artworks, painted murals, built bio-swales and rain gardens.  These people are professional engineers, planners, architects, landscape architects, executive directors, teachers, and professors. They are the dedicated parents, visual artists, and storytellers, gardeners, farmers, community organizers, ecologists, and anthropologists, along with the environmental, community, and heritage activists looking for a positive future for all species.

      For them, dreaming about a reenvisioned False Creek Flats is not just a passing fancy. They are passionate, committed people who committed their hearts and time to come up with realistic and innovative alternative ideas. Are they just to slink back to their day jobs and swallow their interest in something more than a humancentric environment because an unsustainable economy must dominate once more?

      Flats could be Vancouver's jewel in the crown

      There are excellent precedents of positive development just to the west: Granville Island and South False Creek. There is also the created creek, island, and shoreline in Southeast False Creek. These sites joined industry, nature, artists, housing, and business in an encouraging mix. Our local environmental visionaries foresee going even further with the False Creek Flats, which could be the jewel in the crown and put Vancouver on the map. They imagine creating a place where the water, the land, animals, plants, birds, insects, and small mammals can live near False Creek once again. This is what is described in the "rewilding" and "biodiversity" strategies. Isn’t it time we had a strong intention to put this into place first and foremostènot as an afterthought? 

      And yet the great march of human commerce continues, clear-cutting more history and building concrete expansions for the benefit of humans. Or maybe not even for them. The Flats are filled-in mudflats that would liquefy in an earthquake. Engineers tell us that when important buildings such as a hospital and university are to be built there, they will be made safe by driving piles deep into the bedrock. They say,:"Don’t worry; everything will be okay." One wonders how such a plan is entirely safe. Can we truly be certain this will not be a liability and that people in these structures are secure—especially after such an event? Are there clear precedents for their safety, or are we once again declaring that humans are above natural law?

      “We travel to Snauq, False Creek and Vancouver to say good-bye. In one sense I have no choice; in another, I chose the people who made the deal. In our cultural sensibility there is no choice. There are fifteen thousand non-indigenous people living at Snauq and we have never granted ourselves the right to remove people from their homes. We must say good bye.”  When Lee Maracle, a writer and artist of Coast Salish ancestry wrote Goodbye to Snauq in 2004, she was referencing the Coast Salish village that once existed at the mouth of False Creek. The houses and gardens of the Squamish people who lived there in 1913 were burned down by the Europeans who expropriated their land. This was just another sad episode, as the local First Nations watched in horror while the richness of the area fell all around them.

      Our society must create a strong intention to rebuild a healthy moral base after this tragic history. In order to do this, flora and fauna, land and water must certainly do more than make money for humans. They must first exist for their own sake. Because land and other species offer solace to the human soul, they create a much-needed healing of our relationship with the planet. This cannot be just a sideline, a last-minute inclusion. It is the true back story that should be the baseline for every new human development. All our ancestors had an innate connection to nature; a slight ontological shift can certainly put this back into our lives.

      How will the Flats look generations into the future? Will it still be just "using up the land" for our own purposes? Because make no mistake: the default quickly slides back to the old worldview. It doesn’t have to be so. Author and historian Murray Bookchin said: “To restore humanity as a meaningful terrain for sociation, culture, and community, the megalopolis must be ruthlessly dissolved and replaced by new decentralized eco-communities, each carefully tailored to the natural ecosystem in which it is located.”

      Today we have a chance to revitalize the last parcel of False Creek land in a holistic way, offering some life and soul back to land that had been stripped bare. What’ll it be for the False Creek Flats, Vancouver? More paved-over development for human sor a true place of transformation?