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Stunning waterfront walkway didn't just happen

Waves caused by a strong breeze crash against the seawall along the English Bay side of Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia November 4, 2008.

Andy Clark/Reuters/Andy Clark/Reuters

Vancouver has one of the most remarkable waterfront walkways in the world, stretching from the working harbor in Burrard Inlet to the rough headlands of Pacific Spirit Regional Park.

Along the way it passes under the shadows of glistening residential towers in Coal Harbor, arcs around Stanley Park and rings False Creek, passing through bustling Granville Street Market on its way to Kitsilano Point. There is a major break in the pathway along Point Grey Road, but it restarts, linking a string of beachfront parks along Marine Drive and jumping over Spanish Bank Creek, where it is possible in December to stand on the bridge and watch a wild salmon swim upstream to spawn. At the northeast edge of Pacific Spirit Regional Park, the waterfront pathway disappears, just a few kilometers short of Wreck Beach.

When the tide is low you can continue along the beach, however, then pick up a rough trail system through the park woods, before the Musqueam Indian Reserve and industrial lands fragment parts of the trail along the north arm of the Fraser River.

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The stunning waterfront walkway clearly is one of the things that work in Vancouver, but it didn't just happen. The pathway began to take shape in 1911 when, at the urging of board secretary W.S. Rawlings, the Vancouver Park Board passed a resolution calling for land to be purchased along the English Bay waterfront. At the time, only 30 per cent of the English Bay waterfront was in public ownership - now nearly all of it is.

There are still some large, key sections of waterfront that are inaccessible to the public, but what has been compiled is already a stunning success, and the project isn't over.

"Through hard work and commitment and persistence, I think we managed to get a great deal of waterfront for the city - and we are still working on it today," said Danica Djurkovic, acting director of planning and operations for the Vancouver Park Board. "We have our eyes on certain parts of the city at all times and we have funding that is readily available … but we are also trying to balance out how the market goes and obviously don't want to buy land when it's most expensive, but be smart about it."

Ms. Djurkovic says the hope is that one day there will be a continuous, uninterrupted walkway all the way from Vancouver harbour out to East Fraserlands, at Boundary Road on the north arm of the Fraser, where a large, new housing development that contains a waterfront walkway is being built.

"It's one of those things that really takes a vision in the first place and a long-term commitment through generations to make it happen," she said. "Our hope is that [it]will all connect one day. Unfortunately, it does take time but I think we are optimistic we'll get there one day."

Jim Lowden, who retired recently after leading the park board planning department for many years, says the waterfront walk took a big step forward in the 1970s and 80s when developers bought into the concept and started incorporating the Park Board vision into their plans. The result can be seen all along Coal Harbor and around False Creek, where condominiums are set back to allow for strip parks and a walkway along the waterfront.

Mr. Lowden says when those areas were developed, planners were inspired by the success of the walkway on a narrow strip of parkland along the front of Beach Avenue in the West End.

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"There is really very little park space there, other than Stanley Park, and it became apparent the walkway had far more impact than its size would suggest," he said. "People were going down to walk there from the densely packed West End, and they really enjoyed it ….It worked because you had all of English Bay as borrowed space to look out on."

Mr. Lowden says in the 1980s the park board almost closed the gap in the waterfront walk along Pt. Grey Road, where private residences line the water between Jericho and Kitsilano Beach parks. But a deal, in which the city would assume responsibility for maintaining the cliffs in return for getting riparian rights from homeowners, fell through when the city also proposed putting a new road beside a seawall at the base of the cliff.

He says if the issue was revisited, with a guarantee of no road, residents might support it, and that would allow a key piece of the waterfront pathway to fall into place. Mr. Lowden say the city has worked for a long time at assembling the waterfront walkway it now has, and he expects that process to continue.

"There's nothing wrong with spending the next 50 years on it," he said.

Waterfront pathways


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For 99 years the Vancouver Park Board has been working on a vision of creating a system of waterfront parks linked by a public walkway.

The longest uninterrupted strip of waterfront pathway runs from Canada Place to the foot of Trafalgar Street in Kitsilano. The 26-kilometre stretch would take about 8.5 hours to walk, assuming a leisurely pace of about 3 km/h.

On the Fraser River, the longest uninterrupted waterfront walk is from Boundary Road to Argyle Street, a total of 3.9 km.

The most famous section is along the 9.9-km sea wall walk in Stanley Park.


The concept has resulted in almost all (more than 96 per cent) of the waterfront on English Bay and False Creek being kept open to the public.

Developers bought into the plan because they could dedicate less overall land to park space, but have greater impact with it, because it left the waterfront open for all to enjoy.

More than half the waterfront pathways have separate lanes for bikes and 76 per cent of them are paved, so they can be enjoyed simultaneously by cyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians.

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