- Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History by Sean Kheraj
On 28 September 2003, Hurricane Juan made landfall just south of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Nowhere was the impact, arboreal and emotional, greater than on the tip of the city’s peninsula, at Point Pleasant Park. The park, seventy-seven hectares granted from Queen Victoria in 1868, lost tens of thousands of trees, a loss that led to an out-pouring of public emotion, years of comprehensive planning, and a new discussion about urban forests. Sean Kheraj’s Inventing Stanley Park opens with a nearly identical story at almost the same time at the other end of the country. A 2006 storm uprooted the famous trees of Stanley Park, prompting public mourning for “the jewel of Vancouver” – mourning that demonstrated an almost complete forgetting of earlier storms and a long history of both natural and human disturbance.
Kheraj wants to us to remember such disturbance: the degree of human intervention in the park, even as ecological forces resisted such efforts, resulting in a place fundamentally embedded in the urban fabric of Vancouver and yet “never entirely under human control or entirely divorced from the surrounding environment” (135). This history, though chronological, gives each chapter a particular thematic emphasis, creating both distinct periods in the park’s history and focused scholarly arguments. It begins with the wry acknowledgement that Stanley Park owes more to “millions of years of geomorphic processes . . . than to a small group of aldermen and Canadian Pacific Railway officials” (17). The area’s riches invited diverse occupants, including Coastal Salish villages, coal and timber interests, and a mixed population of settlers. But the peninsula managed to remain a “lone forested island” adjacent to the burgeoning city, an (Anglo-Saxon) ideal park space (55). The “island” here is primarily metaphorical; I was struck by how much the focus has been on the park’s [End Page 138] forested interior rather than its shoreline. Given the ubiquity of industry on nineteenth-century urban waterfronts, the anomaly of a thousand-acre reserve in a quintessential railway boomtown is even more striking.
Making a park required imposing on the space a single, non-consumptive use, a decision leveraged by the political clout of the prestigious West End. As an alderman for the working-class Eastside put it, “A man [n]ever got a square meal off of scenery” (69). Enforcing this class mapping was a new legal regime that, despite dominion, provincial, and private claims, redefined the park as public property, albeit with restricted aesthetic and recreational uses, a shift away from the “vast urban commons” (79) it had been. Here is a rare moment when Kheraj and Stanley Park challenge prevailing historiography, suggesting it was this legal definition of public, not an aesthetic preference for a visual wild, that ruled the day.
The park’s function and title secured, the new Park Board and its allies from scientific foresters set out to “enhance nature’s advantages . . . while simultaneously concealing their efforts, producing the illusion that the park was untouched” (92–4). As one superintendent said in 1952, “It takes a considerable amount of work to keep a forest area looking as though it were just as nature intended” (180). Even while applying pesticides of whale oil soap and kerosene or introducing “attractive species of gentle demeanor” (122, 129), the aim was to maintain a fiction of a “virginal” forest. The resulting facade was maintained even as the park became profoundly a part of Vancouver, both in infrastructure and in sentiment. Developments in and through the park, most famously Lions Gate Bridge, served the city even as its identity as a historical forest, recalling the time of George Vancouver, was cemented in public imagination.
As a symbol of the city’s past, then, the park was treated more as an artifact than a living ecosystem. This analysis is beautifully done, showing the power of popular will and cultural preference, and the importance of environmental history in reminding us of our deep footprint in any given place, no matter how...