A Letter to City Hall

Golden Poplars

Since September, I’ve done a lot of writing. Probably more writing than I’ve done since my long ago thesis on Anglo-Saxon poetry.

I’ve been writing letters … so many letters … to Vancouver City Council and staff.

They’ve been rather boring letters, full of carefully researched references to building permits, footnotes and traffic management plans. Petition wording, schematic views and the endless argument for community consultation.

Notre Dame stadium ariel

Google map view of Notre Dame School. and surrounding area. Green = proposed artificial turf stadium: Red = new parking lot


In summary, the issue is this: In 2004-5 Notre Dame School (located at the end of our street) revealed plans for a new campus, including a sports stadium and the removal of perimeter trees. Local residents were relatively happy about the new buildings, but very much opposed to the sports stadium and tree removal. We rallied to state our opposition and in 2006 a compromise was reached when the school agreed to build a grass practice field instead of the stadium, and to keep the trees. In 2008 they received a building permit for this. The buildings were finished a few years ago, but the sports field construction did not start. In September we found out, purely by accident, that, in January of this year,  the school had submitted a request for a minor amendment to the 2008 building permit to the City of Vancouver. The amendment would allow a sunken, full-sized artificial turf games field with stadium seating, and necessitate the removal of the trees on the west side of the site. Neither the school nor the City informed the local community of this change. We have been writing letters asking that this change not be allowed as a minor amendment, but require a new building permit, which would then create the opportunity for community input. Two months in, and we haven’t received any meaningful response from the City, the school, or the Archdiocese which overlooks the school.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the issue, visit our group web site at www.notredameneighbours.wordpress.com


Most of my official stadium-related correspondence with City Hall has centred on classic topics like street safety, traffic, parking and noise. All valid and very real concerns for our neighbourhood.

But now I’m taking some time to write an open letter straight from the heart on an even bigger subject — the one that really keeps me awake at night.

Dear City of Vancouver,

Welcome new mayor and council members. You are a politically diverse group and I hope you’ll be creative and collaborative in your decision making, and will do the City of Vancouver proud over the next few years.

This morning I was listening to the radio and heard an interview with someone from the University of BC Forestry Department talking about a project called Citizen Cool Kits — an initiative encouraging neighbourhoods to come together and hatch ideas to lower their carbon footprint — all in a community-based effort to combat climate change. An important aspect of this is the maintenance and enhancement of the “urban forest”.

You can find the Citizen Cool Kit here.

It’s a great idea, right? A positive approach to climate change challenges, very suited to a city that prides itself on being green and progressive.

But then I think about the school’s stadium plan, which the City seems poised to endorse. It could hardly be any more contrary to the idea of being collaborative, or climate and environment friendly.

What we have currently at Notre Dame School, from a neighbourhood point of view, are some quite spiffy looking new buildings, a rutted parking lot, a pile of rubble that has waist high grass has grown over it, and rows of tall Lombardy poplar trees on the north, east and west sides of the campus. It’s not exactly a beautiful site (or sight) but the trees do form a visual curtain and create a towering habitat for many bird species, from ravens to bushtits.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In an area woefully under-served by parks or green space of any kind, those trees have been, for as long as I’ve lived here (27 years)  served as a low footprint vertical park space. Green poster-children for densification. When there aren’t many leaves, the stand of poplars is like a giant shadow puppet theatre, starring a huge and varied cast of birds and animals.

Crow Family

 

And this year, in April, Mountain Bluebirds – yes, Mountain Bluebirds! – spent a weekend at the school feasting on the smorgasbord of bugs living in the overgrown grass on the rubble pile before continuing on their journey north.

Mountain Bluebird on Chainlink

Male Mountain Bluebird on the chainlink fence at Notre Dame School.

Bluebird on my Shoulder

Literally, a bluebird of happiness on a shoulder

A raven often visits the dilapidated parts of the school campus, resting on the parking lot fence or perching in the poplar branches, peacefully ignoring the inevitable crow harassment. His call cuts through the urban sounds of traffic and construction noise like a clear bell reminding us of the mountains and forests just a few miles away.

Environmentally, it’s alive. The trees and the grassy wasteland are doing their bit to capture carbon and host living things.

Raven Toilette

True, it’s not particularly attractive at the moment, and it’s certainly not doing the students at the school much good as they run around the school on the sidewalk or up to the local park for exercise and sports practice.

It would be wonderful to see them have an attractive sports field, as laid out in the 2008 permit.

Sports are an important part of the school curriculum, but surely there are other things that children need to experience and learn in school. Environmental studies? Ethics? Poetry? At my high school I  loved the treed area by the grass hockey field and my best friend and I would read aloud to each other there at lunch breaks. Once a nerd, always a nerd.

Two male Mountain Bluebirds

If the school built a grass practice field as they agreed, it would save them millions of dollars over the cost of a fancy stadium. The trees could be saved and some of the savings could go into creating a border of native shrubs and grasses, encouraging the Mountain Bluebirds to visit every year. More fabulous educational possibilities – tracking the migratory path of the bluebird, exploring the challenges that climate change and human activity are posing for them on their journey, researching what could be added to the school grounds to make it an even more inviting stop over spot for them.

Crow in the poplars

UBC’s Citizen Cool Kit also offers a great potential project for students to explore how the school could make their grounds as green as possible. They could map where Hastings Creek runs under the school and imagine the land they’re standing on as it was a hundred years ago. Who lived there? What did it look like? Ecology class could lead field trips on their very own campus!

hastings creek map

If they go ahead with the sunken, artificial turf stadium, none of this will be possible.

First, the poplar trees will be doomed because the sunken field will run right up to the property line, and the root damage caused by such close proximity to a steep drop would make them unstable. City bylaws require that other trees replace those removed, but what tree of any size could grow atop an 8 foot retaining wall?

And don’t get me started on artificial turf! The City of Vancouver seems to love the stuff at the moment, especially as an “easy” answer for low maintenance sports facilities.

I covered a lot of my concerns about artificial turf in my early blog post, the cheerily titled Environmental Dead Zone — so I’ll just refer you to that. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the post for even more reading.

Robin on School Fence

Urban nature is pretty tough, but it’s far from invincible. It needs some help in the form of creative thinking by planners, developers and politicians to thrive.

If the stadium plan goes ahead, I fear that there will far less birdsong in the neighbourhood. An absence of ravens, certainly no mountain bluebirds.

I imagine the crows will find reasons to stick around, if only to steal fast food wrappers dropped by stadium attendees and to laugh at our human folly.

Sincerely, June Hunter

Crow Judgement

A final note: if anyone reading this feels inspired to contact Vancouver’s Mayor, Council or or staff, on this issue (or any other) all of their email addresses are at this handy link: https://notredameneighbours.wordpress.com/contact-mayor-and-council/

Delicate Balance

This last image is one of my favourites of many photographs taken of the poplars over the years. It is somewhat appropriately titled Delicate Balance.

 

Environmental Dead Zone

My previous post was more of a sentimental ode to the patch of scrappy urban nature that may soon be gone.

This one is bit more pragmatic — and a plea to any readers who know of research or information that would support the preservation of a few more fragments of wildlife habitat and green space.

Mavis and Marvin

As a young couple, struggling to make it the Vancouver housing market, Marvin and Mavis worry that their nesting site is going to be gentrified into oblivion.

The school that plans to fell the trees and install the artificial turf stadium is a private one and they own the land. They are quite entitled to have a sports facility for their students, of course, and we would love to see a field installed for the kids. We wish, though, that they could be content with a natural grass field. One that would allow a bit of nature, including the poplars, to co-exist with their sports needs.

In fact, this is a conversation that local residents had with the school over ten years ago, and was something we’d thought settled to everyone’s satisfaction when they submitted plans for a grass field in back in 2008.

Now we’ve learned that an amendment to the permit was submitted at the beginning of this year, with no notice to local residents. It’s come as bit of a shock.

The crows have held some ad hoc protest groups already …

 

If we want to keep a tenuous (and precious) thread to the natural world intact in our cities, we need to make a few compromises.

One of my favourite resources on this topic is John Marzluff’s book, Subirdia.

Marzluff offers ten commandments for small compromises we city dwellers can make in order eke out just enough habitat for our wild neighbours to survive, and maybe even thrive.

Needless to say, cutting down stands of trees and laying down artificial turf are not on his list of suggestions.

Marzluff writes eloquently about why the effort to make space for nature in our urban lives is worthwhile and vital:

“Experience shapes our ethics and actions. If experience no longer includes nature, then our ethics cannot reflect the full needs of our natural world. Our interaction with nature is reciprocal — as we affect it, it affects us. Strengthening our place in the city’s ecological web builds resilience to change and allows us to co-exist with a wonderful diversity of life. Cutting our ties to the web is like cutting the belay line climbers rely upon as they stretch for a distant handhold. As we stretch to live within a rapidly changing world, are we ready to gamble on an unprotected, solo climb?”

While high school students need sports and exercise as part of a well-rounded education, surely ecology and ethics should also be on the curriculum.

I am hoping that the school will be convinced to let the trees remain because of their importance to the shelter, breeding, and feeding for local birds, as well as for their simple beauty.

Mavis Sept 22-18

Mavis ponders life without the Notre Dame poplars

I never thought I’d find myself writing in favour of grass fields, but I also hope that the school and the City will give the artificial turf choice a hard second look. While large grass areas do have many environmental problems — their water water and pesticide consumption being the most obvious — I’m not sure we should replacing grass sports fields with artificial turf without some serious consideration.

The artificial turf “solution” may turn out to be one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” sort of things. Some of the articles I’ve read on the pros and cons of artificial turf are listed below.*

This battle is going on in almost every city around the globe. It’s a rather unequal contest between urban development, and quieter voices trying to save some little bits of nature within the sprawl.

To return to Joni Mitchell’s words, “you don’t know what  you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Even if you don’t fully realize that your day is made a little more sane by the distant sound of birdsong, or the antics of a crow on the power lines, I’m pretty sure you would notice a silence and an absence.

Eric in Poplars

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

See my previous post: Urban Nature is Fragile

Follow for news of community actionNotre Dame Neighbours

*SOME ARTICLES ABOUT PROS AND CONS OF ARTIFICIAL TURF

Government of Western Australia: Broader Environmental Considerations: Chapter 7 of the Natural Grass vs Synthetic Turf Surfaces Study Final Report.

The Conversation: Why artificial turf may truly be bad for kids

Mom’s Team, The Trusted Source for Sports Parents — Turf Wars: the Pros and Cons of Artificial Turf

Mike Ozanian, How Taxpayers Get Fooled On The Cost Of An Artificial Turf Field

Huffington Post:  Artificial Grass May Save Water, But Does It Endanger People?

The Guardian:  Growth in artificial lawns poses threat to British wildlife, conservationists warn