Is Vancouver Ready for the High Line Effect?
The $200-million park planned for Northeast False Creek could become a glittering urban gem—and another dividing line between rich and poor.
June 29, 2017
After decades of playing host to nothing but layers of fallow concrete, a pocket of severely underused, yet ultra-valuable land on the shore of Northeast False Creek is finally slated for reinvention. The concept design for a 31-acre waterfront park not only promises to right the wrongs of past planning missteps and fulfill longstanding commitments to condo-dwellers along its edges; it also serves as a vessel for the aspirations and imaginations of surrounding communities as the city seeks feedback on the current design proposal.
But as much as the park has potential to become a glittering gem in the urban landscape, a positive legacy for the city that, as one planner put it, must be “authentically Vancouver,” it also carries the risk of becoming a divisive force in a city already engulfed in the widening gap between rich and poor.
We can look to New York City’s High Line to see how similar urban renewal projects have generated significant economic activity along with potent gentrification, leaving surrounding communities, many of which are lower-income and racialized, alienated and displaced.
As it happens, avoiding that fate in Vancouver falls in large part to one of the leading minds behind New York’s much-lauded linear park. James Corner, whose company Field Operations led the design and construction of the High Line, is also the lead landscape architect and de facto spokesman for the $200-million False Creek project. His vision for our city is significant but vague on the matter of inclusion. “We believe this park will become, in a sense, the new central park, the new centrepiece, both symbolically and literally physically for all of the various neighbourhoods that surround it.”
Remaining open to all those neighbourhoods—Chinatown, the downtown eastside, Yaletown, Strathcona and Mount Pleasant—is no small feat considering another instigator of the High Line, Robert Hammond, is now warning the project should serve as much as a cautionary tale as it does inspiration. Hammond, the executive director of Friends of the High Line who dreamed up the NYC project, said planning consultations “rarely got to the heart of what really mattered” to surrounding communities, according to a mea culpa published earlier this year for The Atlantic CityLab. “Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?,’” he said.
In addition to being a stunning visual spectacle and an extraordinarily creative use of public space, the High Line—built on a decommissioned rail line—is an undeniable economic force, but such a boon is not always a benefit for all. A 2015 report unabashedly celebrated the “High Line Effect” and credited the park for “almost single-handedly” reviving “a strip of Manhattan that had been largely ignored,” and directly contributing to $100 million in property tax increases. Hammond has since taken stock of the social costs, asking what many in Vancouver are now thinking: can such a park “also be considered a place that benefits everyone?”
Prominent Vancouver urbanist Andy Yan has his doubts. “There is a danger of creating a poor park and a rich park,” said Yan, the director of SFU’s City Program and a designer with the Canadian Institute of Planners.
“The devil is in the details in the specifics of Northeast False Creek,” he said, noting a forecasted, six-lane Pacific Boulevard could very well create an economic division between the tourists and well-heeled residents who will use the brand new waterfront oasis with its “great lawns” and those existing residents relegated to Andy Livingstone Park, the turf-field leftovers that generated headlines as a needle-strewn “zit” on the face of Vancouver’s opioid crisis. “This project doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Yan said. “It exists within in an urban fabric that is social, cultural and economic. I think it’s incumbent on the city as well as the developers to show how well they can connect and can build up that fabric.”
Corner seems to know what challenges lay ahead of him—but although he’s studied up on our city, he doesn’t call it home. Ultimatley, responsibility falls to Vancouverites to get the park they want. “It is really important to recognize these are very diverse neighbourhoods,” he said. “They have different expectations of what this park might be.”
Some are happy to be getting any park at all. Fern Jeffries is not caught up the specifics of the project—she just wants to see it done already. “There is all this foofoorah about the new neighbourhood park,” said the community advocate who has been at war with land-owner and developer Concord Pacific for decades over its delays on delivering the promised green space. “I have been through three or four different park plans. This is by far the prettiest and by far the most expensive. Will it ever happen?”
Many are counting on it. A self-identified city of reconciliation, Vancouver has a lot to prove when it comes to incorporating the needs and wants of existing communities. Steven Eastman, co-chairperson of the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Committee says the park poses an opportunity to do just that. “We have opportunity here to share in our shared history and our parallel history,” said Eastman, an Ojibwe man born and raised in East Vancouver. “If we can acknowledge the past in the right way, learn from it, and do better going forward, we have an opportunity here in this plan to mobilize and create a better understanding for more Vancouverites and visitors that the history here is a lot greater than 150 years.”
Eastman is confident the park and official neighbourhood plan can reflect Indigenous, settler and immigrant communities by recognizing what this city was and where it’s come from. In addition to supporting the interests of the three Coast Salish nations, he promotes building an Aboriginal cultural centre in the park or elsewhere in the neighbourhood. A longhouse is also an option as are other forms of recognition through art, monuments or the use of indigenous words for landmarks, plants and place names near X̱áywá7esks.
“These opportunities rarely present themselves in Vancouver,” he said.
Canada’s colonial record of assimilationist ambitions is not the only example of racialized displacement among these square blocks of the Downtown Eastside. For example, in nearby Chinatown, the neighbouhood is fighting for its identity. It’s not the only one.
Hogan’s Alley, the few Vancouver blocks once home to a concentrated black population, was bulldozed in the 1970s to make way for the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts, now being torn down to make way for a the new community that will border the park. The irony is not lost on Wayde Compton, a writer and activist who has helped build mainstream recognition for the black community that was lost. If residents don’t have ample say over what happens down the block from their homes, they are stripped of control and risk being put out, subject to the days’ political whims. With whatever will replace the failed freeway, Compton said he worries it will “lock into contemporary gentrification.”
He is now on a 16-person volunteer committee dedicated to park stewardship along with Anthonia Ogundele, a gallery owner who explores race through art. She is paying careful attention that public space in the park “acknowledges the history of past displacement and subsequent future development does not create the same.”
A park worthy of the “legacy” title used by the landscaper and promoted by the city can eschew gentrification and recognize historical wrongs as well as welcome diverse users, she said, but only if the city hears and then also heeds their feedback. As pretty as the design seems at first blush, she said, “The park doesn’t have that oomph for me yet.”