Review: Inventing Stanley Park

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inventingstanleyparkcoverReview by Susan Nance (University of Guelph)

Published on The Otter-NiCHE (June, 2014)

Sean Kheraj, Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013. 304 pp. $29.95 (paperback) ISBN: 9780774824255, $95.00 (hardcover) ISBN: 9780774824248

Inventing Stanley Park charts the contentious process by which Vancouver’s famous peninsular city park became the carefully crafted destination it is today–despite natural processes, plants, animals and human residents who confounded dominant imaginings of the space as a public and pristine portal to ancient nature.     

Sean Kheraj’s new book, Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History, tells the story of Vancouver’s famous peninsular city park between the mid-nineteenth century and the 1970s. Kheraj draws upon government and court documents, memoirs, news accounts, photographs, maps and other sources to document the often contentious and complicated process by which the space became the carefully crafted destination it is today. Placing his study in the historiographies of park design and urban planning, human constructions of “nature,” tourism and environmental history, Kheraj synthesizes and adds substantially to previous studies of the Park. He persuasively demonstrates how Stanley Park sat at the intersection of natural processes and human efforts to shape its space, flora and fauna to suit human activity, politics, aesthetics, and economics. He discovers that Vancouverites, by and large, were fiercely protective toward the peninsula but also suffered from profound denial about how what they imagined to be natural for the park was in fact imagined. Hence much of his analysis centres on how people enacted that ideal only by constantly working against ecological forces that promised to shape the park in ostensibly-undesirable ways.

Kheraj makes several specific historical arguments to explain how this contradiction played out, noting firstly that the peninsula has been an “anthropogenic landscape” for centuries, but that human alteration of it accelerated after officials acted to “preserve” it by designating it as park space in 1880 (p. 4). Secondly, Kheraj demonstrates that the park was a site of struggle between natural forces and park managers or visitors who frequently found their plans for the land foiled. Hence, Kheraj takes the literature on park design and conservation in Canada a step forward by using his case study to show that parklands more broadly do not simply show us human control of nature, but also “the limits of human agency” in the face of environmentall processes (p. 5). Lastly, he argues that by the mid-twentieth century Stanley Park was the combined product of its own ecosystem and a network of people who imagined it as an “idealized wilderness” (p. 6) that should be free of the private homes, rough coastlines, mud flats, large wild animals and untidy, unregulated forests that had characterized the peninsula in the nineteenth century. Diligently groomed and polished, Stanley Park served to erase from Vancouverites and tourists’ consciousness any conception of it as a historically contingent, evolving entity since, Kheraj shows, crafted environments deemed “natural” had “the capacity to influence public memory and make the park seem like a timeless place” (p. 6).

The book offers five chronological chapters that are brilliantly illustrated and chart the peninsula’s transformation from utilitarian common property to regulated city park for leisure use. Major characters at play include Coast Salish peoples living in the peninsular settlement of Whoi Whoi and probably wiped out by smallpox in the 1790s, whose absence contributed to colonial-era Anglo-Canadian myth that the Park was no longer part of aboriginal life, but “terra nullius” just waiting for exploitation (p. 32). In the mid-19th century, new Coast Salish families, loggers, hunters, fishermen and other subsistence-focused visitors took up residence there. Kheraj weighs in on the troubling history of legislated evictions of those people arguing that by the 1870s already private use for subsistence or residence challenged city and provincial authority over the peninsula as a communal park designed for public leisure only.

Later, the Vancouver Park Board would loom large as gatekeeper to the park. Variously aligning with or clashing with prominent citizens, changing public opinion, lingering Chinese, Anglo-Canadian and First Nations residents of the park, the Province, Federal Department of Militia and Defense (that controlled parts of the peninsula), and the park designers, arborists, and engineers they hired, Kheraj explains how the Board balanced competing “moral ecologies” proposing who would use the parkland, how and in whose interest (p. 78, 80).

In time, tourism industry boosters and insiders became equally important in popularizing representations of Stanley Park as unique to Vancouver, pristine and wild—a portal to prehistoric nature even—yet somehow also safe, convenient and pleasing to the eye. Road building, water management and early forest ecology revitalization schemes balanced ambivalent public demands that might oppose road and streetcar plans one year, but endorse tree topping and animal removal the next. Kheraj shows that Vancouverites openly discussed the degree to which Park should contrast with or accommodate city infrastructure like roads, pipelines and bridges in order to be useful to Vancouverite leisure seekers as well as the larger regional economy of tourism and trade. Symbolic of public fickleness in that debate was the “moment of weakness” in the 1930s when the Park Board and cash strapped city, with considerable public support, allowed a private company to build a highway through the park linked to the Lions Gate Bridge and the city’s north shore suburbs. Kheraj insightfully explains that that road exists today as an uneasy reminder of the compromise between “nature” and progress with which citizens have long grappled.

Representative of the century-long transition of the peninsula into a built environment was the transformation of trees in the 1880s from lumber commodity and “an obstacle to settlement” (p. 43) into symbol of ancient wilderness more valuable alive than dead to city property values and culture. Similarly, Kheraj charts the way the Park Board shaped public perception of animals by favouring those that offered a “sanitized and tamed wilderness” (p. 128-29). By the early twentieth century, deer, bears, cougars and aphids were unwelcome—outside the Stanley Park Zoo, that is, which contained deer, bears and wolves – and found themselves killed or chased off. In their place, people introduced squirrels, ducks, and swans to the park, hapless inhabitants who often found themselves harassed and/or consumed by crows, owls, raccoons and visitor’s dogs. Indeed, Kheraj’s account of the plants and animals of the peninsula as intrinsically valuable and self-directed is one of the study’s strengths, grounded in his methodological approach problematizing human agency.

For this reader, perhaps the biggest puzzle Kheraj solves with his study is why the public persisted in harbouring that sense of denial about how much work it actually took to create a space that seemed natural and self-sustaining. To a large degree it was Park Board officials and park managers who facilitated this dream since, as Kheraj explains, “whenever the board sought to improve nature, it hid its tracks, employing landscaping techniques designed to conceal the human footprint” (p. 12). Equally, whenever wild animals, shoreline erosion, tree-toppling windstorms and other processes disturbed valued elements of Stanley Park’s supposed wilderness, park managers strove to rebuild and replant as quickly as possible.

Inventing Stanley Park is a fine edition to the literature on parks, nature and environmental history in Canada and a case study that sums up Vancouverite’s long-held self-conception as a people at once defined by modernity and a perceived-ancient relationship to the natural world.

Susan Nance is Associate Professor of US history at the University of Guelph. She is currently writing a book on rodeo animals and the myths of the North American West. Contact:

Citation: Susan Nance. “Review of Sean Kheraj’s Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History.” The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. (June, 2014].


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