Every city should have a “must see / must do” experience. Vancouver’s “must do” experience is to visit the city’s signature park - Stanley Park. Indeed, it is a unique urban experience to be in the middle of an old growth forest on the edge of a downtown. It is a walk back in time, when trees dominated the skyline, before Europeans arrived to create a city of tall glass towers that now dominates Vancouver’s peninsula skyline.
For many, a walk in Stanley Park is the quintessential Vancouver experience.
Walk In The Park
While recently spending a month exploring Vancouver, we took two leisurely walks in Stanley Park - one through the more natural interior and the other along the man-made sea wall that looks out into the vast space where sea meets sky.
Soon after arriving back home to Calgary, friends suggested we get together and go for a walk, so I suggested Nose Hill Park.
Partly because I had never walked the park - shame on me. Partly because I wanted to compare the experience with Stanley Park knowing the two parks were polar opposites. And partly to help answer my ongoing question, “What role do parks play in defining a city?”
Stanley Park, unlike most urban parks, is not the creation of a landscape architect’s masterplan but has evolved organically with most of the structures built between 1911 and 1937 under the supervision of Park Superintendent, W.S. Rawlings. Much of the park remains heavily forested with an estimated half a million trees. But it also includes several man-made attractions including Vancouver Aquarium, a huge outdoor swimming pool, numerous playgrounds, two restaurants in historical buildings, a pitch and putt golf course and a large tennis facility. It also home to one of the largest urban blue heron colonies in North America.
Opened in 1888, the park is named after Lord Stanley, Canada’s sixth Governor General (yes, the same guy the Stanley Cup is named after) and it was designated a National Historic Site in 1988.
It is a 4 square kilometer park at the end of a peninsula that juts out into the Burrard Inlet, a busy cargo and cruise ship passageway, as well as a recreational boating playground. I had forgotten there is busy and noisy road through the middle of the park that links the City Centre to Vancouver’s north shore communities.
Nose Hill Park
Calgary’s Nose Hill Park, which covers 11 square kilometers (almost 3 times the size of Stanley Park) of rolling hills and native grasslands, is the antithesis of Stanley Park. In many ways, it is more natural than Stanley Park, as there are no attractions, not even a children’s playground. It is a place to walk and ponder man’s place in nature.
Historically, Nose Hill was an important site for Blackfoot Confederacy for not only was it was a place to hunt buffalo, but also a sacred place for ceremonies, and a lookout for weather and other dangers. A recent marker representing a Siksikaitsitapi Circle signifies the world of the four nations who visited the hill - Akainai, Siksika, Piikani and Amskapipikuni.
Peter Fidler, a Hudson Bay Company trader was the first European to visit Nose Hill in 1779 and traders continued to visit the site for the next 100 years. It was a popular place for early explorers and pioneers to experience Calgary’s Chinook winds that can raise the temperature in winter by 20 degrees Celsius in a matter of hours. The buffalo herds that visited Nose Hill were decimated by 1879. During Calgary’s construction boom in early 20thcentury brothels thrived on the hill. By the 1970s the city’s had grown to the point where the site was ripe for residential development.
Yes, Nose Hill Park almost didn’t happen! In 1971, Hartel Holdings who owned the land, planned to create a new residential community with outstanding views of the City and mountains. However, a grassroots group of locals, consisting mostly of residents from the neighbouring North Haven community and individuals from the Calgary Field Naturalists’ Society lobbied to protect the land from development. It wasn’t until 1984 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the City had the right to purchase the land, that Nose Hill Park was realized.
Wandering the park today, you can still find evidence of the early residential development and even some of the old vehicle trails (there were no roads) as it was a popular place for Calgarians to drive to for picnics and views of the mountains in the middle of the 20thcentury.
Nose Hill is a place to see the big picture - to ponder how man and nature have worked together over the past 100 years and wonder about the future co-existence of city’s and nature.
I am not sure anyone would think of Nose Hill as a “must see / must do experience” but I am thinking perhaps it should be. As one of my fellow walkers said “what I think is unique about Nose Hill Park is that it visually and spiritually brings you into contact with the essence of Alberta - grasslands, foothills, vast open space, big blue sky and grandeur of the mountains – at a glance.
While wandering both Stanley Park and Nose Hill Park, I could help but wonder - Is a city’s collective psyche partly shaped by its geography and climate?
What does the lush forest of Stanley Park (and most of Vancouver for that matter) say about Vancouver’s sense of place vs the barren beauty of Nose Hill say about Calgary’s?
Vancouver is known for its liberal attitudes, it is the birthplace of Greenpeace and home to many environmentalists. It is an international urban playground for tourists, millennials and empty nesters.
Calgary, on the other hand, is seen as a pragmatic, provincial, conservative corporate city full of engineers. It is a place where young people and families come to work hard and get ahead. Calgary is home to warm Chinooks winds one day and cold blizzards winds the next, echoing the city’s boom and bust economy.
Then again, as one of my fellow Nose Hill walkers said, “A better geographical comparison would have been Stanley Park and Calgary’s Fish Creek Park.” Guess where I will be walking soon?