One of North America’s greatest urban parks

But many of us take Pippy Park in St. John’s for granted

“We love Stanley Park because it is us.”
Vancouver Sun Editorial, August 30th, 2013

This year is the 125th anniversary of Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC. I would wager that many of you have heard of this famous and beautiful protected area. How many have seen pictures of the giant Western Red Cedar tree called the Hollow Tree? It’s so large you can park a car in it. There has been a genuine outpouring of love for Stanley Park on its special anniversary. As one writer put it, the park has become “…a fetish of untouchability”.

At 400 hectares, or 984 acres, Stanley Park is one of the largest urban parks in North America. It boasts many attractions. There are no less than four stunning gardens in the park. You can relax and swim in heated outdoor pools, water parks and sandy beaches. You can play golf in an 18-hole golf course, ride a miniature train, enjoy many playgrounds and picnic areas, eat in one of four restaurants, view the many sculptures and totem poles, or take a guided tour. And, of course, there are more than 27 kilometres of trails. To put the size of the park in perspective, it’s large enough for about 4,000 quarter acre housing lots or about the size of a large town in Newfoundland. But, in terms of size, Stanley Park is dwarfed by our own Pippy Park.

The “Grand Park” that Joey envisioned

More than three times the size of Stanley Park, Pippy Park was established in 1968, 80 years after Stanley Park. It also has an impressive list of attractions, including the largest serviced campground in the province, an 18-hole golf course and clubhouse, the Fluvarium (a must see), picnic areas and many wonderful walking trails. Despite the age difference, both parks share a similar history.

Pippy Park. Photo by Douglas Ballam.
Photo by Douglas Ballam.

For example, both parks have suffered from road construction. In the mid-1920s, a proposal was put forward to construct a highway and bridge through Stanley Park. Since the park is on a peninsula, the bridge would connect districts of the sprawling Vancouver City. The proposal was met with vigorous opposition and it was subsequently dropped. But only for a while. In the difficult 1930s, the abysmal economic situation resulted in a vote to construct the highway and bridge. Today, the Lions Gate Bridge and associated highway are part of the park, although the loss of natural land was minimized by building the road along the edge of the park.

Similarly, Pippy Park had its own “Lions Gate” moment in the late 1980s. The debate at that time was regarding the extension of the Trans Canada Highway (the Outer Ring Road) that would pretty well divide the park in half. As we all know, the highway was eventually constructed, to the dismay of opponents. I was a university student at the time and I remember the debate well. I can’t say that there was a large opposition, but I certainly remember vocal opponents of the development. One writer, resigned to the inevitability of the highway, said, “Putting a road through what is the only relatively unaltered area of forest in St. John’s is hardly a means of ensuring its survival.” Although his concerns over new housing developments in the park (due to the presence of the highway) have, thankfully, not happened, many other developments have eaten away at the park since then. Some of you may be surprised to know that the Health Sciences Complex, the Marine Institute, the new YMCA and many other buildings fall within the park. Vancouverites would be horrified at the loss of park lands for these and other buildings but, in true Newfoundland style, one of the objectives of the park is actually to serve as a land bank for expansion of these and other institutions.

A home divided

Photo by Douglas Ballam.
Photo by Douglas Ballam.

The problem is with Pippy Park’s conflicted mandate. On one hand, the park mandate is “… to protect and conserve natural habitats and features,” yet the park is also supposed to “…maintain a land bank for the development of institutions in a connected parkland setting”. Rarely has such a dual mandate existed, setting the stage for inevitable conflict. It’s like tearing a ten dollar bill in half so you can spend some of it while saving the other half for later.

To the park’s credit, they have tried to address this conflict through zoning. Some of the park is protected under a “Natural Parkland” zone. This is a great idea. But, as we’ve seen with other protected areas, the strength of this protection is directly related to the ease with which the zone can be altered, reduced or even eliminated. Pippy Park is governed by its own legislation (as opposed to, say, the Provincial Parks Act). The legislation created the Pippy Park Commission, an eight member board that has responsibility for the park’s Master Plan, as well as the regulation of land use within the park. I do not envy them – I imagine they debate the dual nature of the park often. However, they are permitted to make changes to the park largely on their own (although they have sometimes vetted proposed changes through public meetings).

I do not believe the dual mandate of the park can continue indefinitely. At some point in the future, there must be a debate as to whether the park can sustain any future development. No park can survive the death of a thousand cuts for ever. I hope I am still on this side of the sod for that debate. I know where I will throw my hat. I certainly know what our brothers and sisters in Vancouver would say. I’m sure they’d even suggest that we get this debate over with today. Let’s hope that, on the event of Pippy Park’s 125th anniversary, this question is no longer a question and Pippy Park holds the love and respect that Stanley Park receives today.

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