Vancouver’s Evolving Shoreline

July 16, 2009

[caption id="attachment_4934" align="alignleft" width="290" caption="SEFC - riprap "amphitheatre" offers direct access to the water of False Creek."]sefc_amphitheatre[/caption] By Erick Villagomez, re:place magazine All photos courtesy of PWL Partnership As you ride leisurely along the newly constructed south-east shoreline of False Creek - sun beaming and salty air licking your face - it is easy to take the significance of this newest addition to Vancouver's public realm for granted.  Although visions for the 80 hectares of SouthEast False Creek (SEFC) have ebbed and flowed for well over a decade, it was with the awarding of Vancouver's 2010 Olympic bid in 2003 that pressure to move forward to transform this derelict industrial area truly took hold. As the site for Athletes Village, SEFC is to be at the cutting edge of sustainable neighbourhoods - demonstrating state-of-the-art practices in energy and water conservation, innovative infrastructure and transit-oriented development. Phase 1 will house 15,000 residents in a series of interesting mid-rise courtyard building.  Within this ambitious framework, the design of the public realm is to take front-and- center because the plans included reconstructing the site's 650m industrial edge.  Not only was this to be heavily showcased during the Olympics, but more importantly it was the final piece in making a continuous 28km public shoreline that stretched across the city. Given the significance of the undertaking, local landscape architecture firm PWL Partnership was asked to join the City of Vancouver and its large team of consultants to design the public realm.  With a wealth of experience designing several of the most successful pieces of Vancouver's waterfront, they were perfectly suited to take the lessons learned from past projects and create the newest iteration of our evolving waterfront visions. The differences between our newest addition to Vancouver's public sphere and the rest of the seawall are subtle but tangible.  Whereas other portions of the public corridor are treated as a series of open spaces connected by a bike-pedestrian throughway, PWL recreated the SEFC shoreline as a linear park that integrates bike and pedestrian traffic with a variety of adjacent outdoor rooms. Also, unlike other locations around the seawall where the interface with the water is markedly more urban, every chance was taken to allow people to engage the fluid edge of False Creek.  Whether through wonderfully structured rip rap or the stepped slipway of the "water amphitheater", people are finally allowed to get into close contact with the once polluted waters of the inlet. Embedded in this gesture are visions and untapped potential of how the water and city can coexist and open up exciting new possibilities beyond simply swimming.  Imagine kayaking from the North Shore into SEFC with friends to enjoy a coffee along its waterfront? In a city surrounded by water, why shouldn't water travel be given as must attention as any other form of pedestrian transportation? [caption id="attachment_4937" align="alignright" width="234" caption="SEFC - a constructed island restores a natural shoreline within False Creek and offers much needed habitat for wildlife.   "]sefc_island_pano[/caption] In addition, the design for the SEFC shoreline also ambitiously set forth to introduce a strong natural edge that would co-exist with its urban surroundings.  The most visible example is the inclusion of an island constructed from layers of pebbles, rocks, boulders, beach logs and white-flowered yarrow.  As a creative method of fulfilling governmental habitat compensation requirements, this design feature - accessible only at low tide - effectively reclaims shoreline lost to industrial uses a century ago and adds a complex ecological edge for restoring fish and bird habitat. The positive results are already being seen, with schools of herring having been spotted along the island's rock edges for the first time in over 80 years, as well as the occasional visit from bald eagles.  All this right beside one of the densest downtown centers in all of Canada and just a few feet from swarms of whizzing cyclists and blissful walkers. Just inland from the island is a wetland park that will gather and filter stormwater flowing from the surrounding SEFC streets through a series of reed beds before flowing over a lowhead dam into False Creek after it rains.  Children will also be able to get their hands dirty with natural materials - such as sand and mud - before washing them with the potable water pumps they'll be able to use in their play area. The linear park is subtly subdivided into 3 areas corresponding to the historic industrial divisions of the original SEFC area - the rail yard to the east, the central ship yard and western works yard.  Each of these is reflected in the materials as one travels across its animated water front edges.  For example, lumber marks and brass plaques are seen along promenade's eastern side, while the slipway and oversized cleats are reminiscent of the ship yard.  Similar to Granville Island, the references to the site's industrial past maintain themselves as part of a contemporary urban space - living alongside distinctive white oversized lounge chairs, sleek metal swivel chairs, light pollution reducing lights, and solar-powered compacting garbage cans. As one uses the space, however, all the details and specifics described above fall by the wayside and you take stock of the rich and energetic cumulative whole.  Quite simply, the SEFC seawall park is a wonderful contribution to the spaces of the city and truly a step forward in the ongoing evolution of our waterfront. *** Erick Villagomez is one of the founding editors at re:place. He is also an educator, independent researcher and designer with academic and professional interests in the human settlements at all scales. His private practice - Metis Design|Build - is an innovative practice dedicated to a collaborative and ecologically responsible approach to the design and construction of places.