On Monday this week, I participated in an event called State of the Waterfront, led by the Georgia Strait Alliance at Simon Fraser University, Harbour Centre, as part of the GSA’s ongoing Waterfront Initiative.

The GSA is a marine conservation organization that, in the words of its website, works “to protect and enhance Vancouver’s waterfront through cross sector collaboration, integrated planning, and targeted action.” Launched in 2013, the Waterfront Initiative represents the GSA’s effort to bring together a wide selection of disparate parties from the region that have a part to play in the stewardship of the extensive and precious shoreline that we’re so lucky to have.

The purpose of this week’s forum was to present and discuss the preliminary results of the GSA’s work in assessing the waterfront’s condition. The GSA is working to produce a comprehensive State of the Waterfront Report this spring, with a view toward planning action on the waterfront in the fall.

As explained in the opening presentation, the Waterfront Initiative started up when the GSA observed the success of the Waterfront Alliance of New York and New Jersey in guiding collaboration among many different agencies and other parties in that vastly complex metropolis. Restoring and protecting a city’s waterfront can be particularly challenging given that it requires involvement by organizational players that often default to functioning in a fairly siloed fashion.

This history really resonated with me because I grew up in Manhattan back when the waterways were so filthy that many of us wouldn’t even have put so much as a finger in the rivers, let alone swim races in the Hudson, as people are doing now. Reports of large marine mammals returning to the New York area have also been immensely exciting to residents there.

Vancouver variations

Here in our city, we have every interest in acting now to protect a waterfront with complex ecosystems inhabited by a wide range of native species and to preserve and enhance public access for our human communities to as many stretches as possible.

Curiously, when we think of our waterfront, we often picture it in reference to the downtown core around the old Canadian Pacific terminal, Canada Place and SFU Harbour Centre itself. Of course, that nexus of human activity is an important partial component of our experienced reality, but when considered holistically, as the GSA’s event made clear, our waterfront encompasses most of the city’s perimeter and, very arguably, the North Shore and Fraser River coastlines as well.

Human and natural communities meeting on the Vancouver shoreline/Naomi Reichstein photo
Human communities intersecting with ecosystems on the shoreline/Naomi Reichstein photo

The Waterfront Initiative has identified five themes for focusing collaboration where it comes to sustainability for the waterfront’s natural and human communities:

  • living: residential use
  • working: industry, commerce
  • moving: transportation, shipping
  • playing: recreation
  • environment: healthy ecosystems, climate change

At this week’s forum, we heard a variety of presentations exploring specific aspects of the shoreline’s state. We heard from the GSA on its mapping efforts; from Metro Vancouver on coastal habitat; from Ebbwater Consulting on climate change and flood management; from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation on the traditional indigenous relationship to the waterfront and the nation’s present-day Burrard Inlet Action Plan; and from Bird Studies Canada on its B.C. Coastal Waterbird Survey, consisting of over 20,000 surveys conducted by more than 620 volunteers from 1999 to now.

The GSA presented a number of maps with data on various dimensions such as population densities, land use and amenities as they related to the waterfront, as well as transportation access. We broke out into table discussions focused on the Waterfront Initiative’s themes, to comment on the data included in these maps and point out any information that wasn’t included but that we thought should be.

Next landings

I’m looking forward to seeing the GSA’s published State of the Waterfront Report and staying tuned as waterfront planning proceeds. Hope to keep you posted.