Recreation, Popular Resistance, and the Environment at the City’s Edge

Robertson Landmarks 1908 map of soundings in bay and around island also wharfs, page 53.

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Editor’s note: The Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting will be held this year in Calgary from May 30-June 1. Over the next few weeks, The Otter~La Loutre will preview several panels with significant environmental historical content.

The three presentations in our CHA panel – Recreation, Popular Resistance, and the Environment at the City’s Edge – will address the broad themes of leisure and recreation, resistance to urban expansion, and the environment. We each focus on the preservation and manipulation of open green spaces within – or on the periphery of – a major city: Toronto (Dale Barbour), Calgary (Jessica DeWitt), and Vancouver (Jack Little). City parks are where most Canadians come into regular contact with ‘Nature,’ at least beyond their own backyards. Yet, with the quite recent exceptions of Vancouver’s Stanley Park and Toronto’s Don Valley Park, urban green spaces have been largely neglected by Canada’s environmental and urban historians. Adopting mutually distinct methodologies, and examining quite different types of protected sites, this panel will explore the dynamic between urban growth and the demand for ready access to outdoor recreation as well as public breathing spaces.

Robertson Landmarks 1908 map of soundings in bay and around island also wharfs, page 53.
Robertson Landmarks 1908 map of soundings in bay and around island, also wharfs, page 53.

Dale Barbour, “Fencing in an island: How Toronto Island formed at the nexus of nature, play and capital: 1870 to 1920”

Little more than a sandbar, Toronto Island was at the behest of environmental forces that kept it in constant motion in the nineteenth century. That fluidity vexed the City of Toronto as it called upon the island to act as the outer wall of its bay – first to protect the trade in the harbour and later to protect the aesthetic value of the bay. That fluidity also vexed a growing community of recreational users who set up their summer homes on the island only to find that the land was shifting around them. But the sandbar of gentle dunes and shallow lagoons was ideal for bathers who could disperse to their distinct spaces and depths. Efforts to fortify the island with breakwaters and efforts to create a park by building up the dunes and filling in or deepening the lagoons satisfied the protective role of the island and developed its aesthetic value, but at the price of creating a more dangerous physical environment with currents eddying around breakwaters and hidden depths lurking within dredged channels. Security in this reshaped environment would rely on regulation dictating where people could swim and where they could not, and would require surveillance to guard them as they did.

Fish Creek Park: The pathway between Bow Valley Ranch and Glennfield Picnic Area. The homes at the top of the hill are in the Midnapore neighbourhood. Photo by Jessica DeWitt, October 2015.
Fish Creek Park: The pathway between Bow Valley Ranch and Glennfield Picnic Area. The homes at the top of the hill are in the Midnapore neighbourhood. Photo by Jessica DeWitt, October 2015.

Jessica DeWitt, “Tales of a Park Not Yet Created: The Fish Creek Provincial Park Questionnaire, 1974”

In the spring of 1974, Calgarians and other southern Albertans noticed a flashy and colourful inset in their local newspaper inviting them to provide their input on the future of a proposed urban provincial park in Calgary. The questionnaire, which consisted of many multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions, was the brainchild of the Fish Creek Provincial Park Planning Committee. Fish Creek Provincial Park became the largest urban park in Canada upon its creation in 1975. Fish Creek was part of a greater movement in provincial governments during the early 1970s to create ‘near-urban’ parks, the first of which was Ontario’s Bronte Creek Provincial Park. The objectives of this near-urban park movement can be broken down into two main categories: environmental considerations and the further democratization of recreation. Near-urban parks like Fish Creek were meant to make outdoor recreation more accessible to urban populations. Because of this goal to further democratize recreation, provincial governments turned to the public for their opinions on park creation at a much broader level than in prior decades. The Planning Committee’s questionnaire is an example of this new kind of outreach. Over 25,000 people filled out the survey. The results are more than statistical: the numbers tell a story about the social and economic atmosphere of Alberta at the time, and the fill-in answers tell a story about a park not yet created, a piece of land onto which Albertans could transpose their hopes and fears for their city. My paper looks closely at the results of this survey on two levels: it zooms in to appreciate the individual stories hidden within and zooms out to look at the responses in relation to the greater conservation atmosphere of the time.

Vancouver Alderman Rankin addressing protestors, 1971. Source: The Vancouver Province.
Left-wing Vancouver councillor Harry Rankin addressing occupiers and other protesters at ‘All Seasons’ Park. Source: The Vancouver Province, 23 Aug. 1971.

Jack Little, “‘One of the finest pieces of empty real estate in Canada’: The Creation of Vancouver’s Devonian Harbour Park, 1963-82″

Few of today’s Vancouverites have heard of Devonian Harbour Park, even though thousands of vehicles crossing the Lions Gate Bridge pass by it daily between Stanley Park and the city centre. The reason for the park’s anonymity is that it is effectively an eastward extension of Stanley Park, and that it has no outstanding features aside from a pond and the view it affords to Brockton Point and the North Shore mountains. During the 1970s, however, that small piece of ground was the focus of protests by citizens’ groups (including a number of women’s organizations) opposing a series of influential developers who planned to make it the site of a high-density hotel / apartment building complex. Like the other largely middle-class movements organized to protect open green spaces in the greater Vancouver region during the 1970s and early 1980s, the one culminating in the creation of Devonian Harbour Park in 1982 represented a challenge to the high modernist ethos that had long characterized British Columbia politics. These protesters did not self-identify as environmentalists, but this paper suggests that historians should look beyond high-profile groups such as Greenpeace – formed the same year as the Harbour Park protests began – to understand the rise and expansion of environmental consciousness in Vancouver and other cities.

CHA delegates can hear the full papers in this panel on Tuesday, May 31 at 8:30-10:00 am in Science A-17.

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Jack Little

Jack Little is a Professor Emeritus in the Simon Fraser University History Department. He currently lives on Salt Spring Island, and his two most recent books are At the Wilderness Edge: The Rise of the Antidevelopment Movement on Canada’s West Coast (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), and Fashioning the Canadian Landscape: Essays on Travel Writing, Tourism and National Identity in the Pre-Automobile Era (University of Toronto Press, 2018).


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