The numbers are depressing. In the past four years, 2,243 houses in Vancouver have been demolished and replaced by new ones. That averages out to 1.5 houses a day.
And then there are the gardens and trees. No one is keeping track, but we know a great number of prized gardens have been lost with those houses. And in the past 17 years, almost 50,000 trees have been cut down in Vancouver. Last year, an average of five big trees per day were chopped to the ground, the vast majority to make way for new construction, according to a recent city report. University of B.C. urban planning adjunct professor Andy Yan provided the demolition data.
In the Dunbar area, expert gardener Margaret Murray put her 1918 bungalow on the market in order to downsize to a nearby apartment. She sold it for $1.6-million, with a long closing date that would allow her to move out this spring. But the house, a charming little home surrounded by lush plantings on W. 24th Avenue, is already on the market again. The new owners are flipping it for $200,000 more. Ms. Murray assumes that her house, like many others recently sold in the neighbourhood, will be torn down and replaced with a new, larger home.
“That’s typical of what’s happening around here,” says Ms. Murray, standing outside her home, having just moved her belongings out the day before. She’s returned to salvage some of her precious plants, which she knows will likely end up in the landfill, like so many other gardens and houses in her neighbourhood. The gardening community is shrinking. As old Vancouver homes get bulldozed, so too do its lovely gardens. We are losing our tradition of old-world gardening that went along with the old homes, as well as many rare and unique specimens of plants and trees.
“The thing is that the communities are changing. Many houses on this street, for example, are now empty. And the other big problem is the loss of gardens,” she says. “Vancouver is very famous for its gardens, and you just don’t see the individual gardens anymore. Everything has become generic. Nobody cares about charm anymore.”
We’re getting the plant-world equivalent of builder’s beige: landscaper plants that are hardy, but hold little interest.
Ms. Murray has three soaring Birch trees in her front yard, all white bark and chartreuse leaves that flicker in the wind. They are unusual and striking, but they are also in the way of whatever new house will get built on her property.
For builders, it is cheaper to simply scrape the property clean rather than attempt to salvage house or garden materials. The loss has had a devastating affect on the citywide green canopy, which is vital to reducing carbon emissions and making Vancouver what it is – a beautiful city. Ironically, the very beauty that brings people to Vancouver – its beauty – is being eroded as the city grows.
About half the tree canopy is on private property. In 1996, Vancouver introduced a bylaw that allowed the removal of one big healthy tree a year. It applied to any tree more than 20 centimetre in diameter at chest height, and its removal didn’t need to be justified. When it was introduced, it was clear that it was antithetical to a green city.
In the first year, only 84 trees were cut down under the provision. Last year, 1,800, or 5 per day, were cut down – the most since the bylaw was introduced, he says. Remember, those were only the big trees.
Finally, nearly 20 years later, the city has put an end to the shortsighted bylaw. No longer can you chop down a big tree without obtaining a permit. In the meantime, the damage has been done, with a drastic decline in tree canopy. It’s going to take 40 years to recover the loss, says Malcolm Bromley, general manager of parks.
Judging by response to the new bylaw, there is still a big demand to cut down trees. When the change was announced two days before it was to go to council, there was a ten-fold increase in applications to remove trees.
There are upcoming plans to do an inventory of significant trees, to plant new ones, and to review fines for illegally cutting down trees. But Mr. Bromley believes public pressure to retain trees is the best approach.
“Increasingly people see gardens and trees as part of the heritage,” he says. “But the park board or the city can’t do this alone. As we’ve seen, the largest opportunity to regrow the canopy is on private property.”
A big question is whether the changed bylaw will have enough teeth to protect Vancouver’s greenery. One of the new conditions to take down a tree is if it falls within the building envelope. Considering that most of the new houses are larger than the previously existing ones, it follows that a lot of trees will be inside the new envelope.
“Some people have the capacity and means to build big, and to do that, they maximize the footprint of their lot. Why do they do it? Because they can,” Mr. Bromley said. “But now we are asking people to factor in the impact on trees: ‘Really think about it. There’s an 80-year-old tree there. It’s 60 feet tall, and a wonderful piece of the landscape and very valuable. Do you really want to cut it down?’”
If recent history were any indicator, the answer would be a resounding “yes.”
Thomas Hobbs is synonymous with Vancouver gardens. Mr. Hobbs is the owner of Southlands Nursery and author of two gardening books. He also owned a Point Grey Mission Revival heritage home with a garden so resplendent that it was included in the book, 1001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die. Not happy with the way Vancouver was going, Mr. Hobbs sold his beloved house and escaped to a farm in Langley. He says his former mansion is now a rental and the prized garden has gone to seed.
“I cashed out,” he says. “I did take some of the treasures, but I left a lot there because it was a famous garden. And now it looks horrendous. Every real estate transaction is like a setting sun: ‘Good-bye, house. Good-bye, garden.’ Nothing is being recycled or salvaged any more. The new house that replaces what was there is grotesque. It’s kind of like the Wild West, just anything goes.
“I moved to South Langley specifically because Vancouver is so depressing.”
The loss of trees touches a special nerve with Vancouverites, perhaps even more than the loss of old houses. The trees and gardens go together as the houses fall.
“Vancouver has some of the best gardens in our country, and the developers and profit-oriented flippers they don’t even have any interest in the plants. All they want is the land and they scrape it clean. It ends up looking like a septic field,” Mr. Hobbs said.
“Over the years there have been entire species wiped out. A lot of these old estates, especially in Kerrisdale, the people were invested in their gardens for 50 years, and there were mature specimens of things. But once the house sells, they don’t leave much.
“The total disregard for trees here is more urgent than even the architecture and the houses that are going.”
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