Vancouver’s historic creeks are resurfacing, with the city championing ‘rainways’ to combat urban flooding and prioritize ecological well-being over urbanization.
In Vancouver, a once-thriving network of creeks and streams spanned the city, serving as water conduits and spawning grounds for salmon. However, over time, urbanization has led to most of these waterways being buried, making room for roads, buildings, and houses.
In a recent resurgence, residents like Rita Wong have been rallying to bring attention to the importance of these hidden waterways. For nearly two decades, Wong, along with her neighbors and local streamkeepers, have campaigned to resurrect the lost creek under St. George Street. Their advocacy efforts, which include art installations and educational presentations, have finally caught the attention of city officials.
A turning point for the project came in 2013 when the City of Vancouver expressed interest in exploring the daylighting of creeks in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Further, in 2016, the city adopted the Rain City Strategy, an innovative plan that aims to treat rainwater as a valuable resource in the notoriously rainy city. By 2019, the city had allocated funding for the St. George project, which is expected to cost between $5 and $6 million.
Yet, obstacles emerged as sewers and gas lines obstructed the creek's path. Consequently, city officials proposed a compromise: creating a "rainway", a designated path for rainwater that traces the historic creek's course.
The importance of such initiatives is paramount, especially for urban centers like Vancouver. The city's dominant hard surfaces are prone to urban flooding during heavy rainfalls, creating hazardous "heat islands" during extreme weather events. Additionally, these hard surfaces make rainwater collection and purification challenging. Julie McManus, who is associated with Vancouver's green infrastructure branch, emphasizes that untreated rainwater runoff, laden with pollutants, often gets dumped directly into larger water bodies.
To counter these challenges, Vancouver is experimenting with green infrastructure solutions similar to initiatives in Seattle and Portland. The St. George rainway is heralded as a groundbreaking effort in this direction. By introducing plants, such as the indigenous juncus effusus, and bioengineered soils, the city aims to filter pollutants and manage rainwater effectively.
The larger community is also on board with these plans. During public engagements, residents have expressed desires for reducing vehicle traffic in favor of the rainway. As Wong puts it, many are beginning to prioritize ecological well-being over traditional conveniences.
According to The Tyee, the construction of the rainway began recently and is set to conclude by the end of 2024. The city hopes that it serves as a tangible reminder of the significance of hydrology in Vancouver and prompts other neighborhoods to champion similar initiatives.
Having spent years advocating for the waterways, Wong, a poet, activist, and professor, believes the project holds great pedagogical value. By reintroducing and revitalizing these forgotten streams, Vancouver is not only addressing its own ecological challenges but also imparting crucial lessons about the importance of sustainable urban development.
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