2020 so far has been pretty tough for many of us, requiring all kinds of adjustment to ever-changing conditions.
Our local corvids sympathize. While free of covid worries (as far as we can tell) — they too have faced a lot of challenges in 2020.
The trees that had provided them with shade, shelter, nesting sites and a navigational landmark for the last 60 years suddenly disappeared in mid-nesting season. The bit of grassy wasteland they used as a refuge and a food source was dug up. The ear splitting racket going on 6 days a week makes it hard for them to hear each others’ calls.
Heartbroken and worried for the local environment as I am, I can’t help smiling when I see the local crow and raven reaction to the situation. I shouldn’t be surprised, as corvids have a long and illustrious history of making silk purses out of the sow’s ears that humans have left them over the centuries.
With no leafy branches to perch on, they sit instead on the construction fence and watch the crazy human shenanigans during the noisy construction hours.
Marvin and Mavis settling in for a new shift.
When, at last, the machines stop beeping, roaring and pounding for the day, the site then becomes a corvid beach resort of sorts.
Yes, that is rather a lot of water. To be expected, as the area once was marshland and has streams running through it, including Hastings Creek.
Some corvid commentary …
One Sunday a couple of ravens even stopped by to check out the “beach” scene.
While it was fun to see the ravens exploring the weird new landscape and drinking at the new “lake,” I can’t help worrying about the safety of the water as a thirst quencher. Part of the area’s history before the school was built was as an unofficial dump site. I see that tanks are now on site to remediate the water, so I’m hoping the crows and ravens haven’t been harmed by drinking and playing in it.
Marvin and Mavis are keeping a very close eye on proceedings — on wet days …
… and hot dry ones …
For now they’re keeping their opinions close to their feathered chests.
Although I rather think they might be muttering amongst themselves …
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Male Mountain Bluebird on the chainlink fence at Notre Dame School.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.