I have lived in the Kerrisdale area since 1975. I remember that when we purchased our first home we would have preferred the vibe of Kitsilano where we had rented for a few years. We knew that ‘hood and everyone seemed to be of a similar age. (Do your grown children tell you now that they’d never live west of Cambie?) When it came time to actually buy, what we all called then, a “fixer upper.” the market was virtually devoid of listings. In the end, the property we chose, and could afford, was a rundown 1915 house with a dirt basement. It lacked any sign of a “well bred” patrician Kerrisdale house but what it did possess was a magnificent tumbled-down and expansive garden.
I remember being in love with the space instantly and promising the very ground I trod upon that its new saviour had arrived. As I made my way past a virtual jungle of blackberry canes and runaway mock orange bushes, I found the decrepit back gate and emerged into the hardpan laneway. It took my breath away. All along its one block stretch, limbs laden with scented blossoms of flowering trees and shrubs cascaded over neighbouring fences. There in that quaint space unfurled a borrowed, secret garden whose owners kept the front sidewalk hedges clipped and tidy while allowing their semi-woody backyard plants the luxury of letting their “hair” down in wild abandon.
What a marvel it all was and as I developed my own garden through the decades, combining elbow grease and the gladly rendered wisdom of my more senior neighbours, I became vividly aware of the lane’s importance. Its tangle of bushes provided essential cover for small birds and mammals. The errant canes of roses and greenery were snipped for flower arrangements without reprisal, and the ground served as an essential “sponge” for Vancouver’s incessant spring and winter rains.
It was in the early 1980s that suddenly the quaint gravel and dirt laneway became something to be reckoned with by the city engineering division and developers. When new houses were built, inevitably the contractors would ask the city to canvas the block for “paved lanes.” I’m sure some folks who had no opinion on the subject either way were shocked when they found that the new lane tarmac went up and over the gutter to their back fences leaving a runway of concrete like an open culvert. Now when the rains came, a torrent of water cascaded down the lanes causing substantially more runoff to city sewers rather than quenching the soil as it had done before.
This manicured approach swept the city for a decade but wiser minds prevailed in the mid-’90s when a more holistic approach by engineering suggested the retention of unpaved laneways thereby recognizing their intrinsic connection to nature. At the same time, tree planting and removal policies were enacted, all a part of a new way of thinking.
But things have changed over the past five years as far as enforcing the above city policies. Committed city staff have retired or been sidelined while a supposedly “greener” approach takes over. In its wake, laneways have been denuded a hundred-fold of nature’s healing, living nuances. The back gardens accompanying new housing, where once stately trees, shrubs and perennials flourished for decades (many native to B.C.) are cookie-cutter examples of providing the bare minimum; uninspired and mediocre.
It seems to me that developers today are able to destroy without remonstration any and all plant material when building houses in neighbourhoods. Surely other residents see this as a monumental affront to all things natural. When is enough, enough?
All I know is that it makes me want to weep as I look down the breadth of a newly paved laneway whose back yards are shadows of their former selves.
The good earth deserves more from us, don’t you think?
Terri Clark is a Kerrisdale resident and former communications staffer with the Vancouver park board.