The Ghosts of Islands Past

March 31, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

Several times a month I cycle by a small island located close to the south shore of Vancouver’s False Creek, a narrow inlet that separates the downtown peninsula from the city. South East False Creek (SEFC), where the island is situated, was the site of the Olympic and Paralympic Athletes’ Village for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. The island’s profile is quintessentially Canadian – rocky shore, brush, tall spikey trees, it is 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, 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 shore. Once when I passed by there was a bald eagle settled on the top of one of its trees.

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 enquire into 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 marine estuarine wetlands. Historic descriptions of the area describe tidal grasses and swamps at low levels, while higher upland there were dense bushes of Pacific crab apple. Early First Nations people – Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh – came to these shores to fish, hunt and harvest the local plants. The land was then settled by primarily European populations (although no treaties ceding this land to the incoming settlers were signed by the First Nations). Serious ecological changes began to occur through the late 1880s and the early decades of the 20th century with the rise in immigrants, increased economic growth, and the arrival of the railroad. The wetlands were dredged into a 150 metre wide, 7 metre deep canal used for local and regional trade. The increase and importance of lumber in BC also created a need for the waterways to become a zone for lumber storage. Industrial and residential developments in the 1950s through the 1970s resulted in the extensive fill of the area, leaving it without a natural shoreline. As a result of development and ensuing destruction of habitat, species were pushed out and False Creek was turned into an industrial brown field: an area degraded from decades of industrial pollution.

In recent years False Creek light industry has been moved out and the lands have been slowly remediated and developed for housing and entertainment venues (BC Place Stadium, Edgewater Casino and Science World). The 32 hectare South East False Creek Neighbourhood is one of the last areas of False Creek to be 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.’(i)

Condos at the site were initially used to house the athletes during the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. While the original plan was for the post-Games development to include two-thirds affordable social housing, it ultimately became almost exclusively market driven, with condo prices now in the range of $1,000,000.

It was as part of the landscape design for SEFC that a 0.6 hectare island was created. Sixty thousand cubic meters 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. The island was originally designed to be completely inaccessible during high tide, but public safety concerns and fears that people would get stranded on the island at high tide resulted in the creation of a rocky pathway to the island making it, technically, a peninsula. The island’s street address is 1616 Columbia Street, and its official name is Habitat Island.

It seems that the main reason Habitat Island was built has to do with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Prior to SEFC being developed in 2007 the shoreline on the south side of False Creek was about three blocks back from where it is now. In order to make new land for construction, developers had to fill in that portion of the creek. At the time, the DFO had a process wherein if a project near water was anticipated to cause damage to fish habitat then a compensation agreement had to be reached. In the case of False Creek compensation for habitat loss was arrived at by having developers increase the shoreline by a margin of two to one. Given the space restraints at SE False Creek, the solution was to build an island.

Habitat Island was soon identified by the Vancouver Parks 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.

Since Vancouver was incorporated in 1886, observe the authors of the plan, ‘We have buried nearly all of our former salmon streams; driven species like the yellow-billed cuckoo, western bumble bee and spotted skunk to local extinction; and cut down forests that were taller than any still standing in Canada today.’(ii) But while nature has been diminished, Vancouverites, argue the authors, maintain an enduring attachment to the natural world.

‘Vancouverites deeply value their mountains, ocean and the Fraser River. Within city limits it is possible to see sights – immense flocks of snow geese, prowling coyotes, pods of porpoises – that are the equal of the wildest parts of many nations. We live in perhaps the only big city on earth in which a wild-living creature – salmon – is a part of our identity, as it has been since the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations first cared for these lands and waters.’(iii)

The hope is that by pursing a policy of rewilding, citizens will have more access to the natural world and nature will have more access to the city. ‘It is possible to imagine a city where everyone can have rich and meaningful experiences in nature as a part of their everyday lives.’(iv)

One of the objectives of this policy is to create Special Wild Places in the City. This includes the identification of 28 biodiversity ‘hot spots’. Sites are located on public and private lands across the city and include forest, shoreline, stream, wetland, and marine environments. Habitat Island (coupled with Hinge Park) is included on this list of hot spots:

’27. Hinge Park + South East False Creek Habitat Island. Hinge Park is a small stormwater-fed wetland that is rich in bird life. It connects to the restored shoreline of south east False Creek including a constructed island and intertidal zone. The cobble intertidal zone around the island has been used for herring spawning which has contributed to the return of sea birds and other species. Together these natural areas showcase the City’s recent efforts to restore natural areas within urban neighbourhoods.’(v)

Proponents of the plan note that the island’s vertical snags, native vegetation, and a natural shoreline have already attracted a range of wildlife, including bald eagles and a variety of waterfowl. Fish are also returning. Pacific herring (one of the key indicator species for the health of inter-tidal habitats and a vital food source for Pacific salmon, sea lions, seals, porpoises, eagles, gulls, cormorants and other diving birds) have returned to spawn for the first time in many years. Possibly as a result of the herring spawn, orcas have recently been seen chasing dolphins into False Creek, and a grey whale swam into English Bay for the first time in decades.

Unfortunately, Habitat Island’s visual similarity to a Canadian wilderness island seems to have made it irresistible to visitors yearning for a bush party experience in an urban setting. As a result, by the summer of 2014 Habitat Island was being called by another name: Beer Island.

When recommending the site for locals and tourists, the Bored In Vancouver website says:

‘”Why Beer Island?” You may be asking… Well, for one reason, it’s a heck-of-a-lot better name than ‘habitat island’. Also, this little island (more of a peninsula type thing) is a great location to crack a beer with friends and enjoy a front row view of False Creek, BC Place, Yaletown, and Science World.

A beautiful location, a nature-friendly habitat, and an island that only has one entrance and exit, which makes it much easier to hide tasty bottles of the island’s new namesake if a disciplinary force so happens to come by.

Beer Island can be found in the Olympic Village area. You’ll know it when you see it, it’s in the water. And, it looks like an island.’(vi)

During the pleasant summer weather of 2014 the evidence of partying – empty beer cans, bottle caps, cigarette butts, and beer cases – could be seen littering the island. Parks board commissioner Constance Barnes told the press, ‘What we don’t want to do is discourage people from having a nice beautiful space to go and enjoy. If you’re going down and have a beer and you’re having a picnic or you’re playing your guitar, I don’t see that the park board would really come down on you for that.’ But the parks board asked visitors not to litter or damage the island’s vegetation or be disrespectful of other people using the island.(vii)

The Vancouver Police Department has taken steps to patrol the island more regularly so as to kerb the rowdier antics. The last time I visited the island my friend and I observed a couple enjoying a toke while looking out over the city skyline. Two VPD officers passing by on bicycle patrol saw them and escorted them off the island.

This vigilance has had at least some effect and this winter there is less evidence of serious partygoers on the island (although it seems unlikely that they won’t return with the warmer weather).

Habitat Island is clearly many things to many people. Initially created to fulfill a bureaucratic requirement in the development of an affluent new neighbourhood, it became an element of a rewilding policy and a destination for urban partyers. Might it also be a work of contemporary ecological art? The island is in close proximity to several pieces of public art, including three major ecological pieces. And it has parallels with the work of ecological artists who fuse natural and human elements in an urban setting. In the case of Habitat Island these natural elements include habitat for birds and fish (bird feeders, nesting opportunities, spawning habitat) which, an artist may argue, allow for damaged nature to be repaired in a beautiful and meaningful way. Human elements include its educational value – enlivening the curiosity of people passing by and visitors, Habitat Island stirs interest in the birds, fish that now live there, and raises questions about the loss of nature in the city. As well, people may stop and ‘look’ at it like an art piece, appreciating its whimsy and sense of fun.

Viewed from this perspective, the island is in the company of Cascadian artworks that revere the natural world:

‘Certainly one of the most distinctive cultural values to emerge from Cascadia is an informal, non-sectarian, virtually universal reverence for nature. In the Pacific Northwest, where traditional religion does not pervade the cultural landscape, nature religion … And the visual art we most treasure in Cascadia’s galleries and the stories we read by its most cherished writers are invariably suffused with nature reverence. The popular visual artists, such as B.C. painters Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt and Washington’s glass-blowing Dale Chihuly, continually employ images of nature to symbolize transformation, power and mythology.’(viii)

But the ecological works that are in close proximity to the island are critiques – they hold up a mirror to society and ourselves:

The Games Are Open by Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser (2010-2013): Construction on this larger-than-life bulldozer, located almost directly across from Habitat Island, began three months after the Athletes’ Village was vacated. During the Olympics great effort had been taken to protect the as-yet-unsold luxury condos from the foibles of their temporary residents – this included sheathing kitchen appliances in the ‘environmentally friendly’, biodegradable wheat board that was used to build the bulldozer. The artists understood that because the artwork was on City-owned land its fate would inevitably be determined by capital and municipal neoliberal strategies. They chose as a symbol a bulldozer, a destructive engine which would later morph into earth with the help of the community, who at the opening were invited to implant seeds into the structure. In the spring of 2013 the City added a thick layer of soil to the artwork to further its greening and within a week a local rogue gardener planted a vegetable garden on the site. That fall the City expedited the process by burying the sculpture and garden in another load of soil, and ultimately the bulldozer returned back into earth. Its remains sit in land slated for development, surrounded by a chain link fence.

Image Removed

The Birds by Myfanwy MacLeod (2010): Since being introduced to North America by English settlers in the 1800s (as pest control and out of feelings of nostalgia), sparrows have become so commonplace that they have driven out many other native species and wreaked havoc upon ecosystems. Parallel to this is the impact of white colonialists on the lives of indigenous peoples. The large size of the sparrows (5.5 metres high) makes a visual statement about this impact, while locating this artwork in an urban plaza highlights what has become the ‘natural’ environment of indigenous wildlife.

Image Removed

A False Creek by Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky (2012): Painted chromatic blue stripes on the pilings of the Cambie Bridge, which is visible from the island, 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). The decorative effect of the stripes is ambiguous when considered in relation to the design’s purpose as a marker and a tool for visualization. Seen in relation to the scale of the engineering of False Creek and the Cambie Bridge, the scale of looming environmental change is visually and physically palpable.

Image Removed

So what happens if the island is viewed as a work of art that is not so much here to ‘repair and educate,’ but to critique? Given the history of False Creek over the past 150 years, it seems fairly straightforward to view the island in these terms. The island speaks to us about how nature has been manipulated and diminished by demands of colonization, capitalism, and bureaucracy; how rewilding is a limited, probably self-deceiving response to the fate that awaits us; and how imagination has failed us in our relationship with nature (Nature = Habitat).

But since first seeing the island I have felt there is something else. Probably because I was initially jarred by its appearance, a sense of familiarity while not having seen it before, it seems to me that the island may have something to say about forgetfulness. Sallie McFague, ecotheologian and Vancouver resident says: ‘Cities are made from nature; one could say they are “second nature”, made of transformations of energy from “first nature”. All human building and transformations are but changes within nature, for there is nothing “outside nature”. This deeper meaning of nature – nature as the source of energy that sustains all life and all change – is the nature we city dwellers tend to forget. We slip into simplistic, dualistic thinking when we think that nature in our cities involves only the trees, gardens and beaches – and that we create the rest….

‘Our gradual transformation of first nature, from when we lived as hunter-gatherers, into second nature – the twenty-first century city – now faces us with the deterioration and destruction of everything we hold dear. The human ability to distance ourselves from first nature, both by changing it and by objectifying it, is causing a deep forgetfulness to overtake us.’(ix)

Natural science and First Nations’ oral traditions tell us that False Creek was once a wetland rich in bird, fish, and animal life. But it has been so transformed that we have forgotten what it was and what we had, as everywhere we have forgotten our deep embeddedness in the source of life. Our efforts at remembrance result in the creation of pale imitations of the ‘natural world,’ a series of Habitat Islands. Ironically, as Beer Island the island has become a place we can go to lose ourselves even more deeply in this oblivion. I now think that what I have been seeing as I ride by 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 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.

(i) PWL Partnership, ‘Southeast False Creek Partnership’ [accessed September 29, 2014].
(ii) J.B. Mackinnon, ‘Foreword’, in Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, Rewilding Vancouver: From Sustaining to Flourishing. An Environmental Education Stewardship & Action Plan for the Vancouver Park Board, July 2014, vi. [accessed October 21, 2014].
(iii) Mackinnon, ibid.
(iv) Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, Rewilding Vancouver: From Sustaining to Flourishing. An Environmental Education Stewardship & Action Plan for the Vancouver Park Board, July 2014, 5. [accessed October 21, 2014].
(v) Rewilding Vancouver, 52.
(vi) Bored in Vancouver, ‘Enjoy a Cold One on Beer Island’ [accessed October 25, 2014].
(vii) Ian Holliday, ‘Vancouver officials crack down on “Beer Island,”‘ July 10, 2014 [accessed October 25, 2014].
viii Douglas Todd, ‘Introduction’, in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia. Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest, ed. Douglas Todd (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008), 19-20.
(ix) Sallie McFague, ‘Toward a New Cascadian Civil Religion of Nature’, in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia. Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest, ed. Douglas Todd (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008), 158-159.

Margaret Miller

Margaret Miller is a teaching assistant and editor living in Vancouver, Canada. She enjoys cycling around the city, looking at things. Sometimes she writes about what she sees.

Tags: Placemaking, the natural world