From Railway to Greenway: How Vancouver is transforming a rail line into a destination park
April 5, 2021
This contribution from Jillian Glover is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.
As a child growing up on the westside of Vancouver, the railroad track along the Arbutus Corridor ran behind the tall hedges of our backyard. My sister and I would play along the tracks with neighbourhood kids, often leaving pennies behind to discover them flattened by passing trains the next day.
Children have a way of turning any space, even an industrial rail line, into a place for social gathering and play. Almost 40 years later, many cities around the world have adopted out-of-the-box thinking, converting underused industrial land into public spaces. This innovative approach to park design includes the Arbutus Corridor, which the City of Vancouver purchased in 2016 and is working to transform into the Arbutus Greenway, a ribbon of pathways and parks through the heart of Vancouver’s westside.
“The Arbutus Corridor has a history and it runs through parts of the city that in everyone’s minds are already developed,” says Antonio Gómez-Palacio, a partner at DIALOG, the urban planning firm that led the design and engagement process for the project. “Converting it to a greenway was an act of tenacity and creativity, working with the community to see the world in a different way, and to see a park there waiting to be discovered.”
The Greenway’s history spans over 100 years – from its beginnings as a railway for passengers and local industry, to contentious negotiations between the City of Vancouver and CP rail for its purchase. Today, it is an active transportation pathway that runs from the tourist destination of Granville Island to Vancouver’s southern edge, overlooking the Fraser River. In the future, it will become a multimodal corridor linking a series of destination parks and public spaces, and in the meantime, the local community has found creative ways to bring people together along its path.
From railway to greenway
The Arbutus Corridor, originally called the Vancouver & Lulu Island Railway, was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1902 to connect Vancouver to the Richmond community of Steveston, home to a bustling fishing and canning industry.
In 1905, the BC Electric Company leased the line from the CPR, electrified it, and began running a passenger rail service called the Interurban. It departed from the north end of the Granville Bridge, travelled through the westside neighbourhoods of Vancouver, and ended in Richmond. Interurban trains ceased operation in 1952, but short freight trains continued to use the Arbutus Corridor until 2001 (one of its last customers was the Molson Brewery). After that, the tracks remained dormant for 15 years.
Throughout that time, the idea of developing a greenway along the corridor was part of Vancouver’s future plans. Council passed the Arbutus Corridor Official Development Plan in 2000, which proposed turning it into a multi-use transportation greenway. In 2014, the City of Vancouver was finally in negotiations with Canadian Pacific (CP) to purchase the land, which runs through some of the most valuable property in North America; however, they couldn’t agree on a price. As a result, Canadian Pacific threatened to run trains along the line and started tearing out adjacent community gardens in preparation.
This action hastened negotiations and an agreement was reached in March 2016, with the City buying the Arbutus Corridor for $55 million. At the time, then-mayor Gregor Robertson said the 42 acres would be used as a greenway with the possibility of light passenger rail in the future.
The City didn’t wait for those plans to be finalized before making the corridor available to the public. Within a year, Vancouver built a temporary 9.5 km asphalt path along the rail line that connected six communities on the city’s westside.
The interim design for the Arbutus Greenway has been in place for over four years and is widely used and embraced by the local community. It now attracts thousands of people every day, providing an opportunity to walk, bike, and roll from False Creek to the Fraser River. According to a health study of the Greenway conducted by INTERACT from 2016-2019, the usage grows exponentially every year and, overall, it is seen by the community as a safe natural oasis in the city where you can go for an uninterrupted, smooth stroll and have informal social interactions.
“It has opened up a new avenue of meeting and greeting people and getting to know neighbours,” said one study participant from the Marpole neighbourhood.
“It just feels spacious and open. I feel like I’m suddenly in the midst of nature in the middle of a very busy city, and it’s just peaceful,” said another study participant from Kerrisdale.
In 2018, Vancouver City Council endorsed enhancing the path to give people more places to gather, rest, and enjoy the surrounding landscape. This decision kicked off the planning process to create the Arbutus Greenway. The Greenway’s ambitious plans are not expected to be completed until 2034, but in the meantime, many local organizations have worked to activate the existing space with grassroots projects that demonstrate its potential.
The Arbutus Greenway Neighbour Hub dubbed a local “lending library of things,” was created by Neighbour Lab, a design and urban planning cooperative, in collaboration with the Thingery. A seating area and a bulletin board were set up to enable the community to share information. The showpiece installation was a hand crank that passersby could use to produce kinetic energy to charge cell phones.
“We launched the Neighbour Hub to create a community hub and gathering spot along the Arbutus Greenway,” says Stephanie Koenig, Content Developer for Neighbour Lab. “We designed and built the project together with a neighbourhood stewardship team. We also had a neighbour passing by as we were installing who ended up helping build a free library on the side!”
Finding public space in the built-up city
The next step in the Greenway’s evolution will be to implement the permanent transformation of this space, so that it becomes not just a pathway but a multifaceted destination both for the many neighbourhoods along the route and for people across Vancouver.
In the words of the City of Vancouver, “The Arbutus Greenway is a defining element of Vancouver’s urban landscape. It is envisioned to be a destination inspired by nature and stories of the places it connects.”
Greenways are linear parks for pedestrians and cyclists that connect nature reserves, cultural features, historic sites, neighbourhoods, and retail areas. Vancouver’s most popular greenways have typically been purpose-built and along the waterfront, like the Stanley Park and False Creek seawalls. The Arbutus Greenway is the first greenway connecting the north and south side of Vancouver through an existing built-up area, using repurposed industrial land.
The plan for the Arbutus corridor is part of a growing urbanism trend toward transforming obsolete infrastructure into public space. One of the most famous examples is the High Line in New York City, a 2.33 km-long elevated linear park created on a former New York Central Railroad spur. Since opening in June 2009, the High Line has become a tourist attraction that, by 2019, had eight million visitors per year.
Projects like the High Line and Vancouver’s Arbutus Greenway exemplify the challenge of finding park space in the built-up city. When there isn’t a parking lot to convert into a park, cities get creative to find other underused pockets of land. In Canada, Toronto’s Meadoway is turning a hydro corridor in Scarborough into a 16-kilometre stretch of urban greenspace and meadowlands. The city also launched the Bentway to turn previously unused space under the Gardiner Expressway near the lakefront into a linear park.
In 2020, the need for more urban parks like these reached a fever pitch as cities struggled with citizens in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic demanding more access to nature. It became clear that parks aren’t just “a nice to have,” they are necessary to our wellbeing.
According to a Park People survey in June 2020, 80% of Canadians said parks had become more important to their mental health during the pandemic. As one respondent wrote, “Living alone has meant that walks and outside visits are the only social contact I have had for 4 months. I would have been a mess without access to parks, ravines, trails, and the waterfront.”
A journey, and a destination
The Arbutus Greenway will be a journey, and also a destination. – City of Vancouver
In 2017, the City of Vancouver worked with DIALOG, a Canadian urban planning and design firm, to kick off a large public engagement campaign on the future design for the Arbutus Greenway
Before the City launched the official public engagement process, there was already buzz and excitement at the community level. City staff initially put out markers along the Arbutus Corridor to start the conversation on its future and received a large volume of responses from local residents. Overall, people wanted the Greenway to be a safe, accessible transportation route with opportunities to socialize and connect with nature:
“It should be a car-free corridor with plenty of opportunities for people to slowly travel its length, stop and enjoy nature, have a bite to eat at nearby restaurants. Parks and open spaces to relax.”
“I would like to see re-introduction of local wildlife if it all possible, more birds,
more pollinators. I want to feel like I’m out in nature while in the middle of the city.”
“That is why making the Greenway a people place, instead of just a multimodal corridor, became such a priority,” says Mr. Gómez-Palacio. “There was already so much grassroots involvement and it kept that spirit of park and placemaking front and centre throughout the design process.”
As part of the planning and design process, the Arbutus Greenway project team had 7,000 touchpoints with members of the public at over 50 events, including a multi-day design workshop, numerous stakeholder workshops, open houses, and online surveys.
Community organizations such as the Vancouver Public Space Network were involved in the public engagement process from the start, to ensure that the Greenway would include vibrant public spaces and meet the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.
“We advocated for a design that had a strong pedestrian-primary focus, consistently separated ‘all ages and abilities’ bike routing, clear routing for the future streetcar – and, yes, lots of greenery for the greenway,” says Naomi Wittes Reichstein, Arbutus Greenway project lead for the Vancouver Public Space Network.
Reichstein’s mention of a streetcar references a major factor in the design for The Arbutus Greenway: future plans for a light rail transit (LRT) line. Although plans for an LRT remain part of the overall vision for the Greenway, the project’s focus has always been people.
“We have been involved in many designs like this and the biggest vehicle always wins. The Arbutus Greenway project was flipped, the first priority was making it a people place, not the streetcar. I have not seen this before or since,” says Gómez-Palacio. “We’ve made sure that any community programs are not lost when the streetcar is eventually built.”
The City of Vancouver summarized the consultation process in this way:
The Arbutus Greenway connects several Vancouver neighbourhoods including Kitsilano, Arbutus Ridge, Shaughnessy, Kerrisdale, and Marpole. Reflecting this diversity, the long-term vision for the greenway is divided into eight distinct character zones that offer respite and reflect the look and feel of these surrounding neighbourhoods. This vision includes activated spaces that create a place for movement and a place to linger.
One zone in a retail section of Arbutus Ridge will become an “Electric Alley,” referring to the presence of utility poles and its adjacency to Broadway, a busy retail and movement corridor. This zone will provide an urban backdrop with two plaza areas that eventually connect to SkyTrain’s underground Broadway extension, as well as large overhead frames for public art, lighting, and weather protection.
“We wanted to build on the existing character of these communities,” says Lindsey Fryett-Jerke, urban designer at DIALOG. “At the future Electric Alley, we observed kids selling lemonade and people selling clothing, so a theme of informal commerce emerged and we designed long, wide benches where people could display things.”
“At the Greenway’s southernmost point,” says Fryett-Jerke, “people watch planes landing at the airport, so we created a lookout tower.” That final zone, dubbed “The Lookout,” will boast a multi-storey viewing platform that provides views of the Fraser River Delta, Vancouver International Airport, and the San Juan Islands.
The other 6 zones will feature spaces to socialize and commune with nature. The “Harvest Table,” themed around food, will feature edible landscaping, long community tables for dining al fresco with neighbours, and a flexible space for pop-up activities. “The Ridge” and “Woodland Bend” will create nature sanctuaries, while the “Garden Path” will provide a wetland, boardwalk, and community kiosk. Gathering and activation areas will be created through large plaza spaces at “Kerrydale Pass,” the largest retail and civic hub on the greenway, and at the “Marpole Meander,” with a large community garden, ping pong and game board tables, a giant chessboard, hammocks, a bike skills course, a community “sharing” shed, and overhead frames for lights and public art.
It is anticipated that Greenway construction will occur across four successive capital plans (developing two-character zones with each plan).
“The Arbutus Corridor was always considered the backside of the neighbourhoods it ran through,” says Gómez-Palacio. “With this new design, we are flipping it to the front and converting it 180 degrees to make it safe, welcome, and open for everyone.”
Over thirty years later, this hidden play space from my childhood will be transformed into a destination that spans the entire city for people of all ages and abilities to enjoy.
About Jillian Glover
Jillian is an accredited communications professional specializing in transportation and urban issues. She is a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner and holds a Master of Urban Studies degree from Simon Fraser University. She was born and raised in Vancouver and writes about urban issues at This City Life —named one of the best city blogs by The Guardian.
This contribution from Jillian Glover is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.Choose Another Park Story