Arbutus corridor: the destruction of a greenway

August 8, 2016

This Vancouver rail corridor used to be double tracked, and saw passenger service from 1902 to 1954. The last commercial train has been seen in 2001. The asset has been considered very early for a North South rail transit line: A more direct alignment via Cambie, has been preferred for the Canada line circa 2006. That was closing a chapter…However the track was still there, and the hope of a local tram has always stay alive in some circles: the 2010 Olympic line demonstration was giving reason for hope…and CP rail was wanting to bank on its precious real estate. After a bit of bullying by CP rail, in order to get a fair price, the city agreed to purchase the corridor for $55M in March 2016, openinga ew chapter:

The Arbutus corridor was a defacto Greenway:

The Arbutus corridor circa 2014  (credit photo CityHallWatch)

Like many disused railway corridors, a greenway was a logical option for a corridor presenting some natural qualities. However where usually the authorities capitalize on the specificity of such assets, the city of Vancouver has decided to destroy it: A destruction in 2 steps [3]:

Destroying the memory of the place

The Arbutus corridor circa 2009 (credit photo Stephen Waddell)

It has been vague promises of reusing the corridor for a rail transit by the City, but this quickly vansihed, and instead to see a  preservation of what make this corridor apart and a reminder of its potential alternative uses, it quickly appeared that the city had negociated the removal of  all things related to the railway. That is certainly one of the safest mean to kill any prospect of reactivation of this  corridor as a future rail transit corridor (1), it is also a a first blunt to the soul of the place.

Destroying the feel of the place

Many disused urban railway corridors exhale a specific  atmosphere found nowhere else in a city, which people growth to appreciate and like it. It was also the case  for the Arbutus corridor, something Patrick Condon has worded as “People have gotten quite used to the Arbutus Corridor as kind of a romantic landscape — the kind of unkempt quality of it. it’s level of decay has become something that people kind of like…” [4], what reflects pretty much the position of the current Paris city council, especially as expressed   by Christophe Najdovski, the councilor in charge of transportation and public space of Paris, who want to preserve “the mystery and magic” of  the Petite ceinture, a disused railway in Paris [6].

Beyond Paris, many other cities capitalize on the experiental side of their assets, that is the case for the Shell road trail in Richmond as stated by the city website:

“The Shell Road Trail is long interior trail that runs north/south along the Shell Road corridor from Alderbridge Way to Williams Road. This interior trail has a distinctly rural feel to it with tall trees and shrubs lining both sides of it, making it a unique trail experience in an urban City Centre.”

The Richmond Shell road trail, and the Colombes “voie verte” (greenway) illustrated below:

The Vancouver official development plan for Arbutus was also not far of this vision, since it was designating it as a greenways, including without limitation [2]:


  • (i) pedestrian paths, including without limitation urban walks, environmental demonstration
    trails, heritage walks and nature trails; and
  • (ii) cyclist paths.



The challenge for the designer of such  places is to preserve their specificities and feels, while making them accessible to people of all ages and abilities… In the name of the later, Vancouver has simply destroyed the former:

A 4 meter wide bike path under construction? – credit photo [5]

Under public outrage, the city has potentially recognized the insentivity of its position and halted work…temporarily…

Does other solutions were possible?

Yes and it is not even too late to apply them, but what is almost sure is that the corridor has already lost its cachet: whatever final design will be – and it could be a nice one – it is poised to be more bland and artificial since it will be build of a blank state. The soul of the place is lost and, and it is not something designers are armed to restore. The end result is that the whole city will be poorer in diveristy of experience

The main issue now is the treatment of the surface path: it is the object of another post

[1] It is one of the reason why Paris took the complete opposite step for the Petite Ceinture, as we have seen in a previous post

[2] Arbutus Corridor Official Development Plan (Adopted by By-law No. 8249, July 25, 2000), city of Vancouver

[3] The destruction of the greenway is documented on the Stephen Rees blog, here and there

[4] Arbutus’ asphalt greenway not paved with good intentions, critics say, Matt Robinson, VancouverSUn, August 3 2016, Vancouver

[5] City paves way for Arbutus Greenway, Naoibh O’Connor, Vancourier, August 2, 2016, Vancouver

[6] Petite ceinture : faire le tour de Paris à vélo et autres fantasmes, rue89, September 25th, 2013


10 Responses to “Arbutus corridor: the destruction of a greenway”

  1. nannygrannie Says:

    Too bad- very sad.

  2. susan smith Says:

    Concrete is the new “green” in Vision’s understanding of “greenway”: pave over gardens, land-scaping, safety buffer foliage — all to create bike paths for the lycra crowd Vision supporters regardless of the cost, need, safety or appearance of the result. When will Vision stop paying back Chip? Vancouver is disappearing fast.

  3. Bryn Says:

    Good lord people. This is a mixed use trail – meant to be accessible for cyclists, wheelchairs and more. It isn’t meant to be a walking trail with cute little wooden bridges like the example shown above. It isn’t meant to be a recreational-only trail which is what you get when you go for gravel-type surfaces. This is a transportation corridor through the city and needs to be treated as such.

    A temporary asphalt path replacing rail lines is a completely reasonable approach. Nothing has been “destroyed”. There’s plenty of opportunities to landscape, to install benches, to create a lovely pathway through the city. Trust me, the blackberries that were growing over the rail lines will be back in a year without a great deal of effort to stop them.

    • Voony Says:

      you mention arbutus as a transportation corridor, but lately all the city communication has been on a greenway

      and the city website doesn’t help either

      Then all boil down to what people understand as a greenway.
      According to the city, a greenway is a road which has horticultural components as stated by Jerry Dobrovolny …by the city standards Cambie qualifies also as a greenway, and it is possible some could be happy enough with that, and yes this boulevard is nice…but as stated by Susan Herrington, a professor and the chair of UBC’s landscape architecture program, that could be an outdated look.

      Nowadays, and especially in the case of disused railway installations, people expect a much more natural and environment sensitive design. I can only refer you to a Tom Turner paper, where he found that the most supported definition of a greenway in UK was

      “A linear space containing elements planned, designed and managed for multiple purposes including ecological, recreational, cultural, aesthetic and other purposes compatible with the concept of sustainable land use”

      clearly the city didn’t show this understanding, but it could be the one of its citizens

  4. MB Says:

    Am I the only commenter who shared a boundary with the corridor for 10 years? Who built one of the first gardens right next to the tracks? Who could reach out from my third floor walkway and almost be able shake hands with the CPR engineer delivering the daily load of grain to Molsons? Who has 30 years experience on the ground building stuff like this? And who happens to support the paved Arbutus multi-use trail?

    Judging by their comments, prof’s Condon and Herrington are academics who really don’t grasp long-term maintenance of public amenities for all ages and abilities, and the concept of universal accessibility, like this trail and others like it. My mother would have cursed the people who protested this wonderful, smooth and perfectly accessible amenity from her wheelchair.

    Don’t believe this? Then get in a wheelchair and try rolling a few metres after the November deluge, or even in hot dusty weather on loose gravel.

    • Voony Says:

      MB, you boast 30 years of experience in the field, and still it seems that for you there is only type of gravel path, and it looks like it if not worse:

      it can be like it too:

      and the hardest part of the trip is eventually the below:

      trail head accessibility is also something I have touched in the following post

      Beside it I have already answered to your objections, but if you still believe what you say, why not lobbying the VPB to pave Stanley park to make it accessible?

  5. Jeff Leigh Says:

    Voony, why do you label the photo as a bike path when it is a multiuse path?

    • Voony Says:

      I have put a question mark on the label…

      “multiuse path” could be the city terminology, but the path look and feels as a bike path.

      A french working document calls this “very bike oriented”, and from my understanding it seems french could spend energy at designing a greenway in a way that the cyclists feel “invited” into a pedestrian realm rather than the reverse.

  6. IK Says:

    I just wanted to rectify the photo credit for the green haired girl walking along the rail track. This is a photograph taken by Stephen Waddell in 2009. See here
    – scroll down and click on the Arbutus Corridor thumbnail for larger view and details.

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