The Arbutus Line: Railway barons, green cities, and urban nature

Vancouver’s has a tempest in a teapot brewing on the West Side, in a neighbourhood better known for garden parties. In short, CP Rail today started tearing up community gardens to somehow up the ante against the city in what has to be the worst bit of corporate PR I have seen in a very long while. CP wants to sell the Arbutus rail line for housing, and the city wants to buy the line for future transit use and greenway space, at a much lower price. Now let us be clear, CP does currently have the right to clear the land, but let’s also be clear they were given the land for free back in the day when railway barons were lined up for corporate welfare from government, and let’s also be clear that the land is unceded Musqueam territory. So one could argue the city is squatting, the railway is squatting, and the gardeners are squatting.It is likely this fight will drag on for a while yet, with more gardens falling to the ax, and we might, before this plays out, see a train or two trundle down the rotting tracks to turn around and trundle back again. Motorists will be briefly outraged.

The rail line is to the left

The rail line is to the left

But what is being lost in this is the railway itself. As much as I hate to see mature fruit trees getting knocked down, I think the real danger is that we will forget how priceless a wide right of way going from False Creek to the Fraser River really is. It is priceless for transit, connecting 4th Avenue, Broadway, the rapidly developing Arbutus Corridor, Kerresdale, and on to Marpole. It could even wrap from Olympic Village Station right to Marine Drive Station. The city simply can’t afford to lose the track. However it is also priceless as a greenway. A clear path from water, over the crest, and to water again. That sort of thing just doesn’t exist in most cities. With a little work a streetcar could share the right-of-way with a green path connecting all of these neighbourhood hubs. And like it or not, unless CP can find some customers lurking along the line, the railway is going to look like the bully.

The Arbutus line is also drenched in history. The Sockeye Limited ran from downtown Vancouver to Steveston along the right of way, bringing workers from Japantown and Chinatown to the fish canneries, and then returning with fresh milk and produce from Richmond farms. The Limited ran at least every half hour, a service level one has to envy today. It was a critical link in a transit system torn up in the early 1950’s, a transit system superior in some ways to what we have today. In my perfect world, a lovely transit line would run up the corridor, and the rest of the space could be used for gardens and recreation. We could even cut and cover a streetcar system, and build a broad linear park above.

It is also interesting that very little is being said about the loss of greenery and habitat along the line. CP of course has zero need to clear as wide a right-of-way as they are clearing, but urban nature just doesn’t command much respect. This is a great shame, though nature will, ultimately, be found to be the owner of the right-of-way, though it might have to wait a few millenia for final judgement.

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One response to “The Arbutus Line: Railway barons, green cities, and urban nature

  1. And a good take it is.

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