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Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History

By Sean Kheraj

Review By Philip Van Huizen

March 6, 2014

BC Studies no. 184 Winter 2014-2015  | p. 171-73

Vancouver’s famous park has received a lot of attention, including from notable historians like Jean Barman and Robert A. J. McDonald, prominent artists like Emily Carr, and a continuous collection of journalists and tourism writers who have written about Stanley Park since its creation in 1886. It would seem an impossible task, then, to find something substantial in the park’s history that has not already been written about, but Sean Kheraj’s Inventing Stanley Park reveals that there is still much to say. As celebrated as this park has been for preserving wilderness within the confines of one of Canada’s largest cities, the history of the very nature for which it is so famous has been curiously absent in any meaningful way.

Kheraj argues that putting nature at the centre of Stanley’s Park’s history shows just how unnatural the park actually is, belying the popular belief that it preserves an ancient and untouched forest. Kheraj pokes holes in this myth in three different ways. First, he argues that human-caused change in Stanley Park actually increased after the park was created, rather than the opposite, ranging from the construction of things like roads, trails, restaurants, a seawall, a zoo, and an aquarium, to the wholesale change of forest types, aquatic zones, and animal species. Second, Kheraj points out that much of this landscape creation and ecological change was in reaction to the unpredictable nature of nature, particularly things like storms, insects, unwanted vegetation, and destructive ocean tides. Lastly, Kheraj shows that, alongside this history of constant change and interference within the confines of Stanley Park, notions of public memory, conceptions of wilderness, and directives of bureaucratic management through the Vancouver Park Board worked to mask the impact of humans in the park, thereby creating the myth of Stanley Park’s pristine forest in the process.

Kheraj makes these arguments in five thematic and chronologically organized chapters. The first two seem quite familiar, focusing on the history of the peninsula before it became Stanley Park and the political and social ramifications of park creation. This is ground that has been well covered by Barman in Stanley Park’s Secret (2005) and McDonald in “‘Holy Retreat’ or ‘Practical Breathing Spot’?” (Canadian Historical Review 45: 2 [1984]), although Kheraj incorporates ecological change to a much greater degree.

Kheraj’s arguments really shine, however, in the final three chapters, which collectively set his study apart from previous takes on Stanley Park. In Chapter 3, Kheraj shows how progressive era experts, particularly engineers and foresters, grappled with making the park seem “naturalistic,” both in the ways they constructed roads and buildings and how they tried to manage the forests against hazards like fires and bugs. In Chapter 4, Kheraj outlines how Stanley Park became integral to the urban fabric of Vancouver over the course of the early twentieth century as water mains and highway connectors were constructed through the park, and he compares the varying levels of controversy that such construction projects caused when Vancouverites weighed preserving the forest of Stanley Park against the perceived material needs of their city. In the fifth and final chapter Kheraj focuses on the ravages of fall and winter wind storms, particularly the extreme ones in 1934, 1962, and 2006/07 that each blew thousands of trees down, showing how public memory and Park Board policies together worked to erase the normality of such storms and to maintain the mystique of an untouched forest, despite the fact that the Park Board actively worked to restore nature following each one.

As he does with his popular podcast for the Network in Canadian History and the Environment, “Nature’s Past,” Kheraj displays a commanding grasp of both environmental history and the scientific literatures of fields like ecology, forestry, and entomology. He also further strengthens influential arguments made by William Cronon in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” Uncommon Ground (1995), about the social construction of wilderness areas, and by Galen Cranz in The Politics of Park Design (1982) about the evolution of urban parks, although Kheraj could have better outlined how his study of Stanley Park pushes such conversations in new directions. This is a minor criticism, however. Overall, Inventing Stanley Park is an original, engaging, and beautifully crafted history that should be indispensible for those who study parks, not to mention a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the “jewel” of Vancouver.

Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History
Sean Kheraj
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. 304 pp. $29.95 paper