photos: Habitat Island in Vancouver. Photo: Margaret Miller.

Second nature?

What rewilding the city says about us

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Several times a month I bike past a small island located close to the southeast shore of Vancouver’s False Creek. On first glance, the island seems quintessentially Canadian. With its rocky shore, brush, and tall spikey trees, it looks like something from the brush of a wilderness painter. Maybe this connection is what makes it seem strangely familiar, like something I can’t quite remember. The first few times I rode by I did not see anybody on the island; the only people I saw were just standing and looking at it from the shore. But over time, numbers grew—people began to sit on one of its logs or rocks, walk its path, or lie on its beach.

The island wasn’t always there. It wasn’t there when I left the city in 2007, but when I came back in 2011 it was, a small island connected to the shoreline by a stone walkway. Since I first noticed it, it has fascinated me and drawn me to it for reasons I didn’t fully understand.I resolved to examine where the island came from, why it was there, and try and uncover what story it might have to tell. I decided to follow my intuition, which told me that it had something to tell me about a world diminished and in decline.

False Creek, where the island is located, was once the site of salt and freshwater coastal wetlands. Historic descriptions of the area describe tidal grasses and swamps at low levels, and dense bushes of Pacific crab apple higher up. Since the 1960s, mega-events like Expo ’86 and the 2010 Olympics fueled the urban renewal of False Creek. Light industry has been moved out and the lands that had been polluted have slowly been restored and developed for housing and entertainment venues (BC Place Stadium, Edgewater Casino, and Science World). The 32-hectare South East False Creek (SEFC) Neighbourhoodis one of the last areas of False Creek tobe developed and is advertised as “one of Canada’s leading sustainable communities and Vancouver's first comprehensive sustainable neighbourhood development...[It] will, when fully developed, provide a mix of land uses, be home to 10,000- 12,000 people in market and non-market housing, and demonstrate exemplary practices in energy and water conservation, innovative infrastructure practices and transit oriented development,” according to Vancouver’s PWL Partnership. PWL are the landscape architects who designed most of the public spaces now found at SEFC.

It was as part of the landscape design for SEFC that a 0.6-hectare island was created. Sixty thousand cubic metres of rock, cobble, gravel, sand, and boulders left over from construction of the Athletes’ Village were used to build the island, shoreline, and inlet. Indigenous trees, as well as shrubs, flowers, and grasses were planted along the waterfront path and on the island. Its street address is 1616 Columbia Street, and its official name is Habitat Island.

“I’m curious about Habitat Island’s potential to be viewed as a work of art that is not so much designed to fuse natural and human elements as to critique our manipulation and destruction of nature.”


“Special wild places:” a brief history

Habitat Island was identified by the Vancouver Park Board as a site that should be included as part of their rewilding plan, an element in the City’s “aspirational goal” to become the Greenest City in the World by 2020. The hope is that by pursuing a policy of rewilding, citizens will have more access to the natural world and nature will have more access to the city.

The Vancouver Park Board’s 2014 “Rewilding Vancouver” action plan imagined “a city where everyone can have rich and meaningful experiences in nature as a part of their everyday lives.”

One of the objectives of the Park Board’s plan was to create “Special Wild Places in the City,” which include forest, shoreline, stream, wetland, and marine environments. Habitat Island was included in a list of 28 of these biodiversity “hot spots” located on public and private lands across Vancouver.

Habitat Island’s dead trees and branches, native vegetation, and natural shoreline have already attracted a range of wildlife and birds, say supporters of the plan. Fish are also returning. Pacific herring have returned to spawn for the first time in many years. Possibly as a result of the herring spawn, orcas and grey whales have been seen in the harbour and False Creek as recently as August.

Bush, beer, and contemporary art

Habitat Island’s visual similarity to an island in the Canadian wilderness also seems to have made it irresistible to people yearning for a bush party experience in an urban setting. As a result, by summer 2014, locals were calling Habitat Island by another name: Beer Island.

During the hot summer weather of2015 the island continued to be a popular destination for people seeking a rustic party venue. The Vancouver Police Department has taken steps to patrol the island more regularly so as to curb the rowdier antics.

Habitat Island is many things to many people. Initially created to fulfill a bureaucratic requirement in the development of the affluent new SEFC neighbourhood, it became part of a rewilding policy, and a destination for urban partyers.

But I wonder: Could it also be a work of contemporary art? The island has parallels with the work of ecological artists who fuse natural and human elements in urban settings in beautiful and meaningful ways.

Plus, the island is in close proximity to several pieces of artwork in and around Olympic Village that I think speak in different ways to our way of being in the natural world. Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser’s “The Games Are Open,” for example, is a bulldozer constructed of ‘environmentally- friendly,’ biodegradable wheat board recycled from the neighbourhood’s luxury condos. Over time, and with the help of the community, the piece has been returned to the earth, an organic mound surrounded by chain link fencing.

In the commercial heart of the Olympic Village, Myfanwy MacLeod’s “The Birds” are 5.5 metre sparrows whose large size makes a visual statement about the impact of the birds. English settlers introduced sparrows to North Americain the 1800s. Since then, the birds have driven out many other native species and wreaked havoc on ecosystems, paralleling the impact settlers had on the lives of Indigenous peoples.

In “A False Creek” by Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky, chromatic blue stripes are painted on the pilings of the Cambie Bridge. These stripes mark the midpoint of the anticipated rise in sea levels that will occur with the melting of the earth’s major ice sheets (5 metres).

And the most recent piece of public art in the False Creek area, 2015’s “Trans Am Totem” by Marcus Bowcott, depicts five Trans Am cars stacked on a cedar tree. They make a statement on consumerism and environmental destruction.

With these local artworks in mind, I’m curious about Habitat Island’s potential to be viewed as a work of art that isnot so much designed to fuse natural and human elements as to critique our manipulation and destruction of nature.

It seems to me that the island may speak to us about how nature has been manipulated and diminished by colonization, bureaucracy, and capitalism; and how rewilding is an inadequate and possibly self-deceiving response to the fate towards which our natural world is rapidly hurtling.

I now think that what I have been seeing as I ride past Habitat Island on my bicycle is a phantasm, a ghost island, a glimmer from the past of a world soon to be gone forever.

Judging by the height of the painted blue stripes on the bridge, the waters will soon cover the island and surrounding land, at which point the traces of this memory will finally slip deep beneath the surface.


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