Since its official opening nearly 125 years ago, Stanley Park has played an outsized role in the development of Vancouver. No other single landmark has had a greater influence on the shape of Vancouver, and no other urban park has played such a pivotal part in the emergence and development of a major city in Canada. The 400-hectare rainforest has even had a cameo on The Simpsons, in an episode when Bart and Lisa strolled past Lord Stanley’s statue and the totem poles during their visit to Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Vancouverites guard Stanley Park so jealously that it has become, as one newspaper editorial once put it years ago, “a fetish of untouchability.” When windstorms ravaged the park in 2006 and 2007, hundreds of British Columbians opened their wallets to donate money to restore its fallen forest. B.C.’s wealthiest man, Jim Pattison, was moved to donate $1-million. In spite of the extraordinary cost and labour involved, the community rallied around the park and united to rebuild.
Stanley Park has long held that sort of power: to unite, to stir our emotions, and even to breed controversy. More often than not, however, the power of the park can be seen in its ability to shape neighbourhoods, influence transportation infrastructure, and inspire ideas about the place of nature in the city.
The West End, now one of the most densely settled residential areas in North America, owes much of its desirability and prestige to Stanley Park. When Arthur Wellington Ross, a real estate developer and close associate of the Canadian Pacific Railway corporation, suggested in 1886 that Vancouver city council should use the western peninsula near downtown as a public park, he did so with the hopes of transforming the nearby area into a prestigious new residential neighbourhood.
The West End emerged as Vancouver’s first elite neighbourhood, and its influential residents strove to keep it that way by guarding Stanley Park. They enjoyed breathtaking views of the park and the North Shore Mountains from their Seaton Street (now Hastings) mansions. Throughout the early 20th century, they fought proposals for sawmills, electric streetcar routes and stadiums, all to protect the park that gave their neighbourhood its prestigious status. By the late 20th century, ordinary Vancouverites had inherited this extraordinary neighbourhood from the CPR executives and similarly resisted new developments that threatened its visual appeal, including protests in the 1970s against the construction of a Four Seasons hotel and apartment complex at the Georgia Street entrance to the park.
Stanley Park also influenced Vancouver’s unusual transportation infrastructure. When North Shore property developers and suburban politicians approached Vancouver’s city council in the mid-1920s with plans to build a bridge at First Narrows, Stanley Park once again found itself in the middle of a heated political battle that reshaped Vancouver and its region. Most Vancouver voters opposed the idea of building a First Narrows bridge because it would necessitate the construction of a highway through the middle of Stanley Park. As one Vancouverite wrote to a local newspaper regarding the proposal, “No vandalism must be permitted in Stanley Park, the wealth of which to the citizens of Vancouver is worth many bridges.” In 1927, this sentiment won the day in a referendum that ultimately delayed the construction of the bridge.
By the early 1930s, economic conditions had changed. British Columbians were suffering the brutal consequences of the Great Depression. In 1933, during a moment of weakness, Vancouverites voted to approve the construction of a bridge and highway through Stanley Park. However, park engineers insisted that the roadway follow a gentle curve so as not to give the appearance that the park was severed in two.
Vancouver’s downtown stands out from those of other North American cities because it has no freeways – in part, thanks to Stanley Park. Beginning in the late 1950s, city council and the provincial government drew up plans for an elaborate new high-speed freeway system and bridge to better link Vancouver with its burgeoning suburbs. The Park Board, with generous public support, stood firm in its opposition to the construction of a new bridge and freeway. As Park commissioner George Wainborn said, “We should make it plain that we shall not tolerate any more of the park being taken for a highway.” The board’s principled stand against another bridge at First Narrows forced city planners to bend their freeway plans around Stanley Park, ultimately resulting in new proposals to build the bridge across Coal Harbour. Planners never built a third bridge, and Vancouver voters eventually rejected the proposed freeway system. Instead, due to the desire to protect Stanley Park, they got the Seabus as a public transit option for crossing Burrard Inlet.
As much as it has shaped the development of the city, Stanley Park has also influenced the collective imagination about nature and history in Vancouver. In 1939, the Vancouver News-Herald claimed that the park was necessary because “a city that has been carved out of the forest should maintain somewhere within its boundaries evidence of what it once was, and so long as Stanley Park remains unspoiled, that testimony to the giant trees which occupied the site of Vancouver in former days will remain.” Although Stanley Park’s forest has been disturbed and changed in numerous ways over time, it continues to represent an imagined version of the past, which has allowed Vancouverites to reflect on their own history. The park stands as a living metaphor for Vancouver’s origins and progress. It has become a temple of atonement for the environmental destruction that was necessary to build the city.
The decision to transform the small peninsula adjacent to downtown Vancouver into a public park in the late 19th century had numerous unforeseen consequences for the development of the city. As ideas about parks and nature changed over the course of the 20th century, the emotional attachment Vancouverites felt toward Stanley Park endowed the unassuming peninsula with tremendous political influence. By the end of the century, planners, engineers and politicians approached urban development in and around Stanley Park with extreme caution. The public outpouring over the storms of 2006 and 2007 further illustrate the influence of Stanley Park over Vancouver – a city whose history has been inextricably entangled in the history of its park.