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cottonwood: oasis in peril

a green oasis

a green oasis

Sometimes a bad idea just won’t go away. Though Vancouver’s future has been looking a lot greener lately, with the expansion of bike lanes and improved municipal composting, I was dismayed to learn that a city-proposed road expansion is threatening to wipe out Cottonwood Community Gardens, one of the Vancouver’s best-known examples of citizen-initiated urban greening. As a founder of Cottonwood, twenty-one years ago, I have fought this fight before.

Back in 1991, I started a campaign with a rag-tag group of East Vancouver residents to take over a three acre strip of city land on the southern perimeter of Strathcona Park, which had become a study in urban blight. The city had stopped enforcing anti-dumping bylaws in this industrial neighbourhood and mountains of jettisoned construction debris, landscaping waste, rotten furniture and junked cars were continuing to accumulate on the property with no end in sight, accompanied, unsurprisingly, by an increase in the rat population and the incidence of petty crime.

Tired of this officially sanctioned neglect, our little group of volunteers rolled up its collective sleeves, borrowed some wheelbarrows and shovels and got busy. With an enormous amount of hard work and a sense of community pride, we gradually transformed this unprepossessing piece of urban wasteland into an award-winning public garden and arboretum. It is without doubt one of the things in my life I am most proud of having done.

We called the place ‘Cottonwood Community Gardens’ as a nod to the giant cottonwood trees that tower over its northern edge, their rustling foliage a reminder of the area’s rich ecological past, when it was the marshy edge of False Creek, which once extended as far east as Clark Drive.

When word of our initiative got up to City Hall, we were informed that City Engineering had made plans to turn the dusty lot into a heavy equipment training area, despite being right beside a major park with heavily used playing fields, to which the dust churned up by the machinery would surely have drifted.

But those were the days of ‘recreational apartheid’ in East Vancouver, when the right-wing, Non-Partisan Alliance dominated city council and played favourites with the prosperous areas of the city that voted for them while turning their backs on neighbourhoods (like ours) that didn’t. The NPA dominated Parks Board was at that time busy assembling million dollar beachfront properties for parks in Point Grey and Kitsilano, while neighbourhoods on the East Side had to grovel to get broken teeter-totters replaced in their over-used inner-city playgrounds.

What we started out with

What we started out with

cleaning up

cleaning up

And if that wasn’t enough reason to continue with our intervention, a friendly Vancouver Sun reporter had tipped us off that City Engineering was quietly hatching a plan to build a major new truck route through the nearby Grandview Cut and run it right through this ignominious little property, funneling yet more smoke-belching transport trucks into our already polluted and congested environs.

Clearly City Hall was making some terrible decisions at the expense of the neighbourhood, so we needed to act fast. Whatever automatic legitimacy they may once have had was eroded by the pernicious neglect with which they treated the area, offering it up as a kind of sacrifice zone for their 1950′s vision of a vehicle-dominated city.
The ensuing work was very hard. We pulled out dumpster loads of every kind of disgusting trash imaginable – piles of moldy drywall, engine blocks, bloody syringes, used condoms – even a dead cat in a plastic bag – before we could do much actual gardening. And once we had dealt with all that insalubrious garbage, we hauled in wheelbarrow loads of rotten vegetables, gleaned from the produce warehouses on nearby Malkin Avenue, to make compost to enliven the impoverished soil. To water our initially meager crops, we had to haul buckets from the public washrooms in the park or wait for the rain to eventually fill them.

 

building the garden

building the garden

composting with salvaged tofu

composting with salvaged tofu

Yet we persisted, and despite some initial push-back from a few NPA councilors and some grumbling from City Engineering, we managed to prevail and marshaled the considerable public support we had been generating into a long-term lease. This gave us the security and the legitimacy we needed to get some small grants, with which we bought a few tools, installed an irrigation system, a greenhouse and a garden shed. The Environmental Youth Alliance joined our effort and soon started transforming the eastern flank of the property that had been covered in dense, trash-filled thickets, into what would become a thriving centre for youth-focused environmental education.

Gradually but steadily, the sun-baked and squalid expanse of dust and garbage we started out with gave way to groves of exotic trees and carefully tended allotments. The sounds of unfamiliar birds started to fill the morning air and there were cool pockets of shade with benches, where weary passers-by could sit and enjoy the slow resurgence of nature.

Two decades later, Cottonwood Gardens stands out from its surroundings as an oasis of biodiversity, a verdant interruption to an otherwise dreary vista of sterile playing fields and low-rise industrial buildings. A few years into our project, a pair red-tailed hawks built a nest in one of the large cottonwoods only to get evicted, a few seasons later, by a pair of bald eagles that still are there today, their sprawling twig nest and squeaking eaglets adding to the Edenic vibe of the place. I’ve often caught sight of visitors to the garden stopping and staring, incredulously, as these majestic raptors soar over the heat haze that simmers up from the factory roofs and then alight high on one of the cottonwoods to feed their young. It’s just not what you’d expect to see in what was long one of the city’s most deprived and green-space deficient districts, and yet even this is still relatively early in the long process of ecological recovery and one can only wonder what might eventually be possible – if, that is, we are allowed to continue with our long-running experiment in community ecological repair.

eagle's nest

eagle’s nest


 
The seedlings and saplings we fussed over and watered all those years are now mature trees – a rich variety of them such as the blue-flowered Empress trees I grew from minuscule, milkweed pod-like seeds I picked up from under a gnarled, old specimen that still survives in Thornton Park. There are multiple kinds of mulberries, edible chestnuts, persimmons, Asian pears and groves of rare bamboo, along with extensive plantings of native species; all of them chosen for their ethno-botanical significance to the diverse heritage of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

In their well-tended garden plots, people from all walks of life coax forth a bounty of blooms, fruits and vegetables from what was once sterile rubble, sharing the food and recipes with their friends and neighbours in a living paradigm of what a green, inclusive city is supposed to be. This is an ‘open-source landscape’ that continuously evolves as a function of those who participate in it, with no real need for the top-down ministrations of bureaucrats, engineers and other members of the professional class. Cottonwood has always just run itself, a self-declared ‘autonomous zone,’ which is its true beauty but also makes it a threat to those who have a vested interest in maintaining the traditional power relationships that have controlled the evolution of the city.

Despite some headwinds at the start, Cottonwood has mostly had a cordial relations with civic politicians of all political stripes, and it didn’t take too long for even our foes to realize that the garden, which is essentially self-maintaining,  creates environmental benefits and opportunities for community-building far beyond what is possible within the traditional parks system – at almost no cost. Cottonwood has been a very good deal for the city. With the rise of Vision Vancouver and their explicit advocacy of urban agriculture, I thought we were home free. During the last civic election, they even featured Cottonwood on their party web site as a prime example of a successful policy.

Imagine my shock then, when I found out last month that Cottonwood – despite all the accolades, the myriad hours of embodied volunteer energy and the many politicians who have schmoozed with us there, getting their pictures taken with babies and flowers – is once again on the chopping block, threatened by the same road, (though it’s now called a ‘super road’) we fought off all those many years ago. I was doubly surprised to learn that Vision Vancouver was behind the new spin on this same bad, old idea.

So how did we get into this ‘déja vu all over again’ situation?

Over the past year, Mayor Robertson and the rest of the Vision organization have been publicly promoting the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts, a pair of concrete flyovers that are architectural relics of a proposed downtown freeway that got quashed by public outcry during the 1970’s. Though ridding the city of these monuments to twentieth century car culture might seem like a swell idea, (I got so excited about it, I even proposed to re-purpose them into a Highline style elevated garden), their removal will initiate a cascade of outcomes, not the least of which is that a substantial acreage of valuable real estate, now languishing as parking lots beneath the viaducts’ perpetual shadow, will get ‘day-lighted’ and hence available for development.

The viaducts, though not a freeway as such, do convey a substantial amount of traffic via Prior Street, a busy arterial that runs through the rapidly gentrifying Strathcona neighbourhood. Against the background of the viaducts’ proposed removal, the Strathcona Residents Association initiated a vociferous media campaign to get traffic calmed on Prior, to which the mayor responded with a proposal to build a so-called ‘super street’ that would divert much of Prior’s volume onto a newly widened Malkin Ave, whose right-of-way happens to pass right through the middle of Cottonwood Gardens. So we’re right back where we started from 21 years ago, only this time with a lot more to lose.

map showing road allowance

map showing road allowance

 

It has to be said though, the SRA has some valid arguments about the perils of Prior. It is a fast moving, high volume street with all the attendant traffic casualties, pollution and noise one might expect; hazards it shares with other high volume arterials in the area, where commuter and commercial traffic is routed through residential zones, as is the case with 1st Ave., 12th Ave., and a large section of Knight Street. To add to the complexity, the Province newspaper reported that traffic calming on Prior could add an average of $100,000 to the property values there, a not inconsequential outcome in a neighbourhood where real-estate prices have already skyrocketed.

Though this muddies the waters somewhat, it doesn’t negate the SRA’s safety concerns, but further underscores the need for Vision to step up with a much more innovative solution than the robbing Peter to pay Paul approach they have thus far hinted at, sacrificing Cottonwood, by now one of the city’s best-known ecological landmarks, for the uncertain outcome of traffic re-routing. Even without the Malkin ‘super street,’ the city itself anticipates the removal of the viaducts alone could actually contribute to a moderate decline in vehicles on Prior St.

as today (they) act as a magnet for commuter traffic with some commuters going ‘out of their way’ to access the viaducts via Prior St. With (their) removal, a significant proportion of commuters will naturally redistribute to other routes.

So the entire Prior issue may in fact be a red herring, with no real connection to what happens along Malkin except to add an unwarranted hysteria to the decision making process that plays nicely into the hands of the pro-development lobby.

a recent upgrade to enhance accessibility

a recent upgrade to enhance accessibility


 

Along with the local concern about the viaduct removal and its effect on Prior, there is massive pressure being exerted by the federal and provincial governments, who are pushing a multi-billion dollar ‘Pacific Gateway’ program to expedite truck and rail traffic into and out of Vancouver’s port, with the aim of facilitating Canada’s growing trade with the Pacific Rim. The widening of Malkin has already been floated by City Engineering as a desirable way to meet these goals along with an overpass to ease the indignity of traffic jams at the at level crossing on Prior.

While Vision has not yet announced a decision on what they have already christened the ‘Malkin Connector,’ there is a creeping air of inevitability to their public communication on the subject. Mayor Robertson has made it clear he wants to expedite the matter and on a recent CBC ‘Early Edition’ interview, Vision councilor Geoff Meggs showed an alarmingly wishy-washy attitude toward Cottonwood and its future, telling his audience that Malkin has ‘always been seen as a future major arterial’ for ‘improving goods movement, (and that) ‘there will be impacts’ so that ‘the area can be set up properly (emphasis mine) to support jobs and development opportunities.’ These are the chosen words of an individual who has already made up his mind, though Meggs did add, rather noncommittally, the garden will be given ‘serious consideration,’ which is not, on its own, hugely encouraging.

In the end though, what we have here is not so much of a political issue, but a problem of urban design, which therefore should be solvable, if enough creativity and resources are directed at it. A ‘win-win’ outcome here would be a huge boost to Vision’s green credibility and give a clear signal they were serious about moving away from the traffic-centric, development driven, business-as-usual approach to running the city that has been so prevalent in the past.

Conversely, it would be wrong-headed in the extreme for Vision to sacrifice Cottonwood for the sake of a ‘super roadway,’ no matter how highly the engineering department recommended it. Given the by now iconic nature of this garden, I can pretty much guarantee there would be massive protest should it come down to the bulldozers moving in, and the spectre of photogenic young environmentalists and outraged senior citizens chaining themselves to the garden’s greenery to ward off city road-building crews would be death to Vision’s green brand and a gift to the right-wing forces so eager to unseat them.

So Vision had better come up with a solution that lives up to its party name – an imaginative solution that doesn’t pit neighbour against neighbour or trash this beloved oasis of urban nature – for the sake of vehicles. A world-class, ‘green’ city deserves world-class design that is both environmentally and socially at the cutting edge – a standard that may be beyond the tired, old orthodoxies the traffic engineers have had to offer. We can’t let Vision cut corners here, despite mounting pressures on them to do so from some very powerful players. But will they have the foresight and creativity to get this right? There is a lot riding on the outcome. Vision got a substantial mandate on their pledge to make Vancouver ‘the greenest city in the world.’ How they deal with Cottonwood will show us all how committed to their values they truly are. I for one will be watching very closely.

what we stand to lose

what we stand to lose

If you’d like to weigh in on this issue and help prevent Vision from making a terrible mistake, here are some links:

‘Save Cottonwood’ Facebook group:
http://www.facebook.com/SaveCottonwoodCommunityGarden

‘Save Cottonwood’ Twitter feed:
https://twitter.com/SaveCottonwood

Geoff Meggs e-mail:
clrmeggs@vancouver.ca

Gregor Robertson e-mail:
gregor.robertson@vancouver.ca

Mayor and Council e-mail:
mayorandcouncil@vancouver.ca
(this isn’t the greatest way to get attention. It’s much more useful to e-mail individual councillors directly)

Here is a link to all the individual City Council contacts:
http://vancouver.ca/your-government/city-councillors.aspx

Also here is a link to my own history of Cottonwood:
http://www.oliverk.org/page/cottonwood-community-gardens

still here…

wolf investigating my neighbor's garbage

wolf investigating my neighbor's garbage

Another spring is upon us here on Canada’s West Coast, replete with its promise of respite from the brooding winter sky and the months of cold, slimy rain. The occasional few hours of sunshine, the unfurling of tender buds and in the hollows – the din of tree frogs in their tremulous nuptial chirping; it all reminds me that this is the season of new life and new beginnings.

Though Timothy Morton describes the current ecological moment as a kind of planetary ‘charnel ground’, i.e. we have basically already died and just haven’t realized it yet, I am perhaps stubbornly holding out for some hope. Despite the epic damage our species has wrought on its fellow organisms and on the very climatological systems that keep everything in its finely tuned balance, I am seeing signs here and there that the processes of planetary repair are kicking in, and that one day, the worst of what we have done will be obscured beneath layers of unquenchable biomass.

Which is not to say I am in denial about the severity of our present situation. Accelerated extinction and human-induced climate change are all too real and many of earth’s more fragile ecosystems have been badly diminished or at reduced to ‘museum’ status, surviving as relics only within the confines of national parks, constantly under threat from illegal logging, poaching and the abrasions of excessive tourism. Though I think it premature to declare the ‘end of nature,’ it is safe to say we are at the end of wilderness.

But what does this mean exactly? To be sure the figure/ground relationship between man and nature has changed fundamentally, perhaps irrevocably, as Bill McKibben pointed out in his prescient book, way back in 1989. A single species, ours, is now the greatest driving force behind species biodiversity, climate change and even geomorphology, via the amount of the earth’s crust we move and the structures we build, activities that geologists calculate now use up more energy annually than is expended by the natural growth of mountains and the deposition of sediments. Yet there are also signs that species are responding to us by evolving at an unprecedented rate. The New Scientist describes a type of ‘fast-track’ evolution, in which significant morphological traits of animals can evolve in mere decades to help them adapt to changing environmental conditions, provided there is enough genetic diversity in the original population to allow the expression of ‘back-up’ genes. Several of Darwin’s iconic Galapagos finches are already changing their beak sizes as they literally evolve into new species as the conditions of their Galapagos habitat are altered by changing climate and by the selective pressure of being fed leftover rice by the throngs of eco-tourists who have come to see them. The article also cites the now classic case of ‘industrial melanization’ in peppered moths, which rapidly evolved darker pigmentation in response to the contamination of the English Midlands by coal soot during the Industrial Revolution. Blackness too confers a survival advantage to organisms, especially birds, living in the ‘zone of alienation’ around the Chernobyl reactor site. It turns out that darker pigmentation frees up a molecule called glutathione (GSH), an antioxidant which protects tissues from radiation damage. So darker birds succeed, while their lighter cousins don’t, which has already skewed the way birds in the area look in the past twenty-five years since the explosion. Amazingly, a conspicuously black, radiotrophic fungus now thrives in one of the most radioactive places in the whole disaster area – the inside surfaces of the concrete sarcophagus that was hastily constructed to contain the radiation spewing from the stricken reactor as they continued to melt down.

As well as appearance, animal behavior is rapidly changing as the evolutionary pressure to adapt to the ubiquitous humans presence steadily mounts. These ‘cultural’ shifts are cropping up all over the place as in the case I wrote about previously concerning the extirpation and subsequent recolonization of wolves on Cortes Island, BC (where I live part time.) What is amazing about this situation was not that the wolves came back; they weren’t after all extinct on the nearby mainland; but that they adapted their behavior in response to the denser human settlement they encountered on their return. They now unabashedly lope through populated areas even during daylight hours to feast on a bounty of domestic animals, yard-fattened deer and household trash. Though normally a shy, secretive species, wolves on Cortes are now pushing the envelope in their interactions with the people, maintaining very little distance between themselves and us, their primary predator, and acting nonchalant. I’ve encountered them several times now and I have to say it is quite something to be given the once-over by one of these iconic predators, as is saunters nonchalantly down the same dirt road I frequent on my morning jog. The wolves’ adaptive strategy is clearly working on Cortes as the numbers of wolves remain more or less stable, despite occasional shootings by locals and Provincial Conservation officers, who get called in to cull overly habituated ‘problem’ animals. On the whole, the benefits of associating with humans must outweigh the risks them. The population of their main prey items, raccoons and black-tailed deer, explode in the disturbed, edge habitats humans create such as residential gardens and former clear-cuts that come up in lush alder groves after the conifers get logged out. Though not nearly as successful in our presence as their smaller cousin, the coyote, it’s only natural, I suppose, that some wolves; which are after all a highly intelligent species; have learned to live in our midst. Yet it is an open question as to whether this has a genetic basis. They sure are acting differently though. During the past week, I have heard two reliable reports of wolves, individually and in packs, chasing cars along the roads of Cortes. Clearly their behavior hasn’t stopped evolving yet.

A similar situation has arisen in upstate New York, where fishers, previously trapped out from much of their North American range due to the demand for their valuable furs, are returning in droves – not to the remote wildernesses we thought they preferred, and where they continue to decline, but to the fragmented suburban forests and the margins of golf courses of cities like Albany. Like the Cortes Island wolves, these over-sized weasels are learning to exploit the rich food resources available in the interstices of human settlement, hunting down house cats and dodging highway traffic, in marked contrast to their secretive wilderness cousins who abandon habitats frequented by people. These are decidedly cultural shifts from a species we thought categorically could not co-exist with us. Something has definitely shifted within this eastern population of fishers. Human induced hyper-evolution seems a likely explanation.

Perhaps most lovely of all is the oft-blogged spectacle of the thousands of Vaux’s swifts that have colonized the disused smoke stack of a school in Portland Oregon. Swifts, small, swallow-like birds, traditionally need the large hollow trees, once characteristic of the region’s now largely extirpated old-growth forests, in which to communally nest and roost. Yet the Portland population has somehow transposed this crucial requirement onto what seems a very different set of circumstances.

It makes me wonder how many other species are rapidly adapting to our built environment to use as their primary habitat, in the face of the massive evolutionary pressure to do so. Hawks certainly seem to be making this adjustment. During my last few winters in New York City, I was delighted to observe red-tailed hawks roosting in the stately American Elms of Tompkins Square Park, disemboweling the rats they’d snatched right in front of squealing crowds of spectators. These magnificent birds have spawned a new class of paparazzi, who blog their behavior in minute detail and lobby for their protection. A similar situation arose after a group of fellow squatters and I started Cottonwood Gardens in Vancouver. For a short while we were plagued by rats, attracted by the sudden availability of compost piles and the produce we were trying to cultivate. Just as we were about to despair, a pair of red-tailed hawks established a nest on a nearby cottonwood tree and they soon made short work of the rodents. They resided there every nesting season for several years until they were themselves supplanted by a pair of bald eagles who increased the size of the already enormous nest. Twenty years later there are now two bald eagle nests at the Cottonwood Gardens site, in close proximity to each other and one can regularly thrill to the site these apex predators soaring over the factories, warehouses and trash-littered terraine vague of what at first glance seems a most unprepossessing habitat from a wildlife point of view.

Tompkins Square hawk with rat

Tompkins Square hawk with rat

A recent report in the Guardian described a heavily contaminated refinery site, near Rochester in the UK, as a ‘Lost World,’ of critically endangered insects, which have been all but wiped out in so called ‘natural areas’ elsewhere. There is something about this ruin ecology’s unique interplay of disturbance and neglect that makes it an ideal habitat for these rare creatures. Yet perhaps it is the creatures themselves that have also changed, slowly adapting to live among us in the wastelands and ruins we have worked so hard to create. Our abandoned industrial sites and DMZs have become ‘disaster edens’ – a new frontier in ecological study. My first inkling of this happened during a visit to Berlin in the early 1980’s. I was astonished to observe a thriving diversity of wildlife in the land mine studded strip of no-man’s land between the two sections of the Berlin Wall. Clearly visible were scores of European hares grazing freely on a verdant meadow, too light to trip the lethal devices hidden mere centimeters beneath their twitching noses. They did not however escape the notice of the squadrons of kites, falcons and honey buzzards who regularly patrolled the air above them to pick off any stragglers. Though the Wall has long since been down, Berlin has lately been overrun with native wild boars who swarm in from the countryside to avail themselves of the city’s leafy boulevards, parks and gardens. Their population has grown so precipitously that urban hunters have been contracted to keep the numbers down.

In cities we get a preview of the larger trend toward ragamuffin ecologies or what has been called ‘Nature 2.0.’ Here native and exotic organisms co-mingle in hitherto unheard of combinations resulting in meta-ecologies that are adaptive and emergent. These are ecologies of disturbance, often first colonized by fast growing, cosmopolitan so called ‘invasive’ species such as Ailanthus (a.k.a. ‘Ghetto Palm’), Scotch Broom and Buddleja. These are blamed for wreaking all kinds of havoc, though I am increasingly convinced they often stabilize damaged landscapes long enough until native organisms can regain a foothold. I’ve seen this happen in the urban steppes of East Vancouver; abandoned car parks and railway sidings, which are first colonized by the nitrogen fixing Scotch Broom that move in quickly to cover exposed ground until the native Cottonwoods eventually dominate. Though they look different from the cathedral like groves of ancient conifers that are associated with the BC ecological brand, these emergent, pavement loving forests soon attract native birds such as the northern flicker and white-crowned sparrows as well as other creatures such as the coyote, only recently native to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland where it migrated from the province’s interior. Exotic species will forever be part of the mix though, despite the efforts of botanical nativists to ethnically cleanse the landscape of them.

a well developed emergent forest of both native and exotic species - East Vancouver (1994)

Well developed emergent forest of both native and exotic species (Himalayan Blackberry, English Walnut, Big-leafed Maple, Castanea, Corylus, hops etc.) - East Vancouver (1994)

Such processes of colonization and re-adaptation are important to track as they fall outside canonical notions of ecological restoration, which generally presuppose a return to a ‘native,’ prelapsarian kind of species composition, which is becoming increasingly meaningless in the now overarching context of the Anthropocene. I find these new hybrid realities fascinating and hopeful. It means we can do more than just wring our hands at the decline of nature as we thought we knew it. We might as well face it. There is no going back. Now is a good time to intelligently assess our limits and ask ourselves the Zen question: “What can I not do?” Nature might already be several steps ahead of us.

BTW: If any of you are in Vancouver from June 20th- 24th of this year, I am teaching a little Continuing Ed Course at Emily Carr University entitled: Open Source City: Field Studies. We’ll travel around town on the Skytrain, examining various emergent landscapes and also examples of temporary autonomous zones – places that people have created as urban commons, which exist outside the mainstream models of planning. I promise it will be a lot of fun, so please sign up if you can!

 

emergent cottonwood and birch grove

emergent cottonwood and birch grove in East Vancouver industrial zone

northern flicker in an abandoned industrial zone

northern flicker using the emergent forest habitat