Vancouver’s Secret Waterways

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While researching water in Vancouver, I came across a project called “Vancouver’s Secret Waterways.” The project is a digital map of Vancouver’s hidden waterways. It was created by Paul Lesack, a Data Analyst for Koerner Library at the University of British Columbia. He explained that the map is popular because it is one of the only examples of waterways in the city, so it is used in many geography courses at the university. The original map was created by Sharon Proctor for the Vancouver Aquarium in 1978. It was folded into an accompanying booklet, Vancouver’s Old Streams, which shows pictures of the city and the effect of urbanization on Vancouver’s natural environment.

The university has limited copies of Proctor’s map. It was last printed by the aquarium in 1989. The map was regularly being loaned out of the library and at risk of becoming lost or damaged. Paul decided to digitize the map to preserve the information and make it accessible to geography students and the wider public.

He contacted the Vancouver Aquarium and with their agreement he used Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to digitally recreate the map. In the process, he divorced the waterways datasets from the 1989 map into a separate layer and put it onto a current map of Vancouver.

A KMZ version of the map is also available to open in Google Earth. Google Earth is a fantastic tool for viewing and saving data about different locations. When you open the “Vancouver’s Old Streams” map in Google Earth it paints a new picture of the city. The KMZ file places Sharon Proctor’s data directly into Google Earth. Blue lines represent hidden streams in the city and cut across urban developments. Red lines represent the original coast and diverge into the city’s waterfront properties that were reclaimed over time. One can zoom in on the map and follow the hidden lines from street view or zoom out and view the changes from afar.

Lesack made a “concerted effort to conserve this data” to prevent these histories from being lost. Since the map has become publicly accessible it is not only being used by geography students, but has become a useful resource for developers and locals who are finally discovering why, for instance, they have perpetually flooding basements. On Google Earth, the map remains relevant and the history of the city’s waterways is protected and available to those who want to see it.

The digital Vancouver’s Old Streams’ map can spark an interest in a wide range of people. I became engrossed in Google Earth and followed each stream to see what has been built over these waterways. I followed a stream that used to run all the way from waterfront to the Vancouver Art Gallery. The stream crossed over Burrard street and the HSBC tower was built right on top of where it used to be. It is incredible how much the landscape has been altered by city development. Proctor’s booklet shows her clear disapproval of urbanization and the destruction of Vancouver’s natural streams and creeks. Lesack agreed that there are many potential consequences of covering up waterways. “These streams don’t just disappear and the water doesn’t stop running. It’s a bad idea for city development, not to mention the ecosystem.”

Personally, I was struck by the number of streams and how large False Creek used to be. The map helped me see how far the water once extended before the city reclaimed the land around Vancouver’s Chinatown. It gave me a better understanding of what the city looked like in the 1956 CBC film “Summer Afternoon” which was the inspiration for Laiwan’s Fountain project.

All of the maps are currently available to download at koerner.library.ubc.ca/services/gis-services/secret-waterways/

February 13, 2015

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