British Columbia·Opinion

Should we tear down the Vancouver seawall?

I hate to break it to you but Vancouver’s seawall is not all that great. In fact, it’s kind of terrible.

The city’s seawall draws millions of tourists, but comes with a high cost to the environment and taxpayers

Uytae Lee, a columnist with CBC's The Early Edition, argues that Vancouverites need to rethink how the seawall is built. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

I hate to break it to you but Vancouver's seawall is not all that great. In fact, it's kind of terrible.

Yes, it draws millions of visitors each year and it has a nearly perfect rating on TripAdvisor. Yes, it's part of a national historic site and epitomizes Stanley Park. Yes, Vancouverites love it.

But we need to think a bit more critically about how the seawall is designed and built.

Vancouver's seawall, built in 1917, is the world's longest uninterrupted waterfront path. (Uytae Lee/About Here)

Walls are great at protecting the things behind them — which is why it was originally built in 1917, to protect Stanley Park's delicate sandstone from water erosion — but not so good at protecting what is in front of them.

From an environmental perspective, this is bad news.

The sandy area around Stanley Park has been eroding since the sea wall was built. (Uytae Lee/About Here )

Picture waves gently washing onto a beach. Now, picture waves hitting a wall.

The seawall actually makes the waves worse because they are crashing onto a hard surface.

Those waves are washing away the sand outside the wall around Stanley Park faster than it otherwise would and, because of the wall, the sand is not being replaced from the shore.

This sandy area, called the intertidal zone, is home to starfish, crabs and other marine life. They can't survive if their environment is washed away, which is why seawalls tend to damage the land and marine life in front of them over time.

An illustration showing how the intertidal zone is washed away by waves and, with a wall protecting the sandstone rock behind it, it's being replaced from shore. (Uytae Lee/About Here )

That being said, we do live in a city and not a national park. We can't expect to have pristine wilderness next to high rises.

But it turns out the seawall also comes at a cost to us — and I mean serious money for repairs.  

The seawall is not invincible to the waves and needs frequent, costly repairs. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The city is planning to repair parts of the Stanley Park section this summer, which is expected to cost $1.9 million.

That's without considering the effects of climate change.

With rising sea levels and more powerful storms, it's not enough to just keep fixing the walls: it needs to be rebuilt higher. 

A report to the city in 2013 recommended that the existing wall be "demolished and removed." And the estimated cost for that? $130 million, just for the Stanley Park section.  

Raising the seawall in False Creek by an average of 2.3 metres would cost between $500 million to $850 million.

The city is planning to repair a section of the sea wall in Stanley Park this summer - which comes with an estimated cost of $1.9 million. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

So, getting rid of the wall all together might seem like the easiest solution — but I'm not convinced.

The seawall has shaped how we think about Vancouver's waterfront and made it accessible to everyone.

It's not just a path, it's part of the city's values and identity.

The sea wall has become an integral part of the city. But the waterfront path doesn't have to be a wall. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

That doesn't mean it has to be a wall, though.

I came across a thesis by University of British Columbia student Ali Canning that proposes a new design with a network of trails and boardwalks, which would be less intrusive and limit erosion.

Reading it gave me hope that maybe we can strike a balance between nature and human activity, after all. 

To learn more about the cost of the seawall and whether it's worth it, watch the video below:

Is the seawall as great as it seems? Uytae Lee talks about the troubled future of the world's longest uninterrupted waterfront path. 6:43

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Uytae Lee uses his background in urban design to rethink the city in a column with CBC's The Early Edition.  He graduated with a degree in Community Design from Dalhousie University and produced videos on city issues in Halifax for three years before moving to Vancouver in 2018. He hosts a YouTube channel, 'About Here' where he makes videos about urban planning issues in Vancouver.   

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