Facing The Flats

The False Creek Flats, one of central Vancouver’s last undeveloped areas, is extremely vulnerable to a flood or an earthquake. Will the city’s plan for development protect its future residents?

Last October four metres of water spilled over the Hudson and East Rivers, submerging large areas of New York City and flooding its subway. Suddenly, Superstorm Sandy transformed the Big Apple into a modern-day Atlantis. Seeing another of the world’s cities fall to its knees in the face of an environmental catastrophe prompted me to consider our city. Vancouver, planted precariously next to the Pacific Ocean and beside a soft and ever-changing river delta, is also situated on the world’s most active tectonic region: the Pacific Rim.

Developing The False Creek Flats

For the past six years, Vancouver’s Planning Department has discussed what could be done with the 128 hectares of derelict industrial land known as the False Creek Flats. The city’s research, along with a number of submissions from urban designers, became known as the Eastern Core Strategy. In it, planners communicated their goal to create a vibrant district: one that would connect fragmented communities, link parks, and reintroduce natural waterways. It sounds attractive—a progressive vision for a blighted urban area—but the strategy brings its own share of challenges. The False Creek Flats exist as the city’s only central industrial region. What’s more, beneath the tracks and warehouses lay tidal mud flats: soft, vulnerable wetlands filled with mud and sediment by the tides. These areas are at high-risk in the event of an earthquake or flood. Nowhere in the Eastern Core Strategy were such concerns addressed.

Redeveloping Christchurch After Their 2010 Earthquake

Across the Pacific, the 7.1 magnitude earthquake of 2010 that flattened the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, and displaced its residents, proves how ill-prepared urban areas fare when faced with calamity. In the earthquake’s aftermath, the city and its residents began a year-long process of engagement with urban experts to draft a complete recovery plan for the city’s centre. The resulting blueprint was released in July 2011 and outlines the specifics for a safe and modern city. According to the blueprint, Christchurch will be compact, green, sustainable, and considerate of the region’s sensitive seismology. The blueprint mandates new height restrictions for the central business district and both the residential and commercial zones that will surround the new core. The Christchurch authority responsible for the rebuild offers clear guidelines for deeper and stronger foundations braced to withstand tremors and create stable building platforms.

What The Eastern Core Strategy Lacks

The Eastern Core Strategy mirrors many aspects of the Christchurch blueprint, including an emphasis on connecting neighbourhoods and working with local geography to create green public spaces. However, it lacks an effective analysis of the risk posed by a flood or earthquake. A four-metre sea level increase—as New York received in October with Superstorm Sandy—would see Delta, Richmond, and the False Creek Flats under water.

How To Participate

Vancouverites need to recognize that we could all be affected by the choices made in the Eastern Core Strategy. We need to demand of our city planners and engineers a clear communication of the building strategies for such sensitive areas of our city.  Our first step should be to direct the conversation with City Hall away from questions of density and sustainability and toward considerations of the additional measures required for building on a mud flat in False Creek. To conceive an innovative new neighbourhood reborn from an industrial park is exciting, but we should not undervalue the importance of being prepared for the blows our changing world can deal. As a community, our input is fundamental to creating positive change for our city’s urban future. Green, modern, and sustainable, yes, but also safe and protected—that’s a home.

For more information on the Eastern Core Strategy visit the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts  Study.

For more information on the Christchurch Blueprint visit the Christchurch Central Development Unit.

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