A Walk in Stanley Park

How does it measure up?

Urbanist Article November 1, 2003

Vancouver's Stanley Park is remarkably like San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in a number of ways. At about 1,000 acres each, they are the same size. They are each the largest, most visited park in their far-flung city park and recreation systems. They were each established as Victorian pleasure grounds (Golden Gate Park, in 1870; Stanley Park, in 1886), to bring the country to urban residents and workers who did not have access to the countryside. Today, their purpose is quite different--they each function as green oases filled with myriad cultural attractions--developed tennis courts, formal gardens, and buildings such as restaurants and theaters (Vancouver), museums (San Francisco) and aquariums (both).

SPUR's June 2003 Newsletter (Golden Gate Park) analyzed the evolution of Golden Gate Park as a 21st century cultural amenity. Thus, one month later, I was anxious to spend a day strolling through Stanley Park to see what I could learn. Glancing at the diagrams of both cities (page 5), the first thing one notes that the location of Stanley Park in relation to the city is in some ways more like the Presidio National Park than Golden Gate Park. The Lions Gate Bridge, carrying Highway 99, crosses Burrard Inlet, and passes through the park under a park road--successfully grade-separating through-traffic from park users, a major success in Vancouver and a major failing in San Francisco. Today construction is underway in Stanley Park to further grade-separate through traffic from park traffic.

One clear difference between the parks is their location relative to downtown and the population center--Stanley Park immediately adjoins the West End, which has been a relatively dense population center since Victorian times. Golden Gate Park, of course, was carved out of uninhabited sand dunes and today remains surrounded largely by short buildings.

This means several things. First, there are many more people able to conveniently walk to Stanley Park than to Golden Gate Park. Figure A shows a view from Stanley Park back over Lost Lagoon to the West End with its residential towers. While insertion of these towers into an existing residential neighborhood led to a citizens revolt and subsequent downzoning of the West End, their construction has kept this urban neighborhood at about the same density it had originally. In San Francisco, where our older neighborhoods are becoming less and less dense as homes and flats built for families of four, five, six or more are becoming home to singles and childless couples, it becomes ever harder to support the corner stores, bus lines, and parks that once served so many. Vancouver, subject to the same demographic forces resulting in smaller family sizes, has unwittingly addressed this problem in the West End by replacing large older homes with new apartment buildings containing many more smaller units, largely intended for singles and couples. Because of this, neighborhood commercial strips have remained vital without the need for parking, local neighborhood-serving businesses can thrive, and there is very little traffic in this dense, heavily populated neighborhood. There is so little traffic, in fact, that one can stroll down the middle of most streets in the West End throughout the day.

The second thing this redensification has meant is that park institutions are better patronized by surrounding residents, who don't need to drive to get there. Perhaps this is why it was easier in Vancouver to do the completely logical thing--institute paid parking in Stanley Park. A recent battle in San Francisco resulted in the Board of Supervisors essentially endorsing using Golden Gate Park as a commuter parking lot, by declining the Recreation and Park Commission's plan to charge for long-term parking. Not only were these fees intended to discourage commuters from using Golden Gate Park as a park-and-ride terminal, but they would have added some $500,000 to the hard-pressed Recreation and Park Department annual budget. Parking in Stanley Park, whether in designated curb spaces or in lots at the various attractions, costs $1 Canadian (about $.75 US) for one hour or $4 Canadian all day. Six-month season passes are $150 Canadian. As was proposed in Golden Gate Park, there are frequently located self-service pay stations that have minimal negative visual impacts on the park atmosphere. Also like Golden Gate Park, there are frequent free shuttle busses between park attractions.

Recreation facilities are also realistically priced to provide money to actually maintain them in first-class shape. Use of the popular outdoor swimming pool costs between $2.25 and $4.25 Canadian depending on age. This contrasts with as little as $.50 for San Francisco pools, which have ever-shortened hours and physical deterioration due to underfunding.

Speaking of paying, all of Stanley Park is an on-leash--only area for dogs, which must be cleaned up after, with fines for violation up to $2,000 Canadian ($1,500 US) for the wholly discretionary violation of this law.

But what perhaps impressed me most about Stanley Park was that it has successfully developed from a Victorian pleasure ground intended to bring nature to overworked factory workers who had no other opportunity to visit the country to a modern cultural amenity enriching the lives of local residents, all of whom have other options for recreation and self-development. In addition to "nature," Stanley Park has all the usual things one expects in a big urban central park today, much like Golden Gate Parks--tennis courts, formal decorative gardens, playgrounds, monuments, picnic shelters, and so on. And like Golden Gate Park, it has an aquarium.

But wait, there's more. First of all, Stanley Park has a proper, staffed visitor center, welcoming first-time visitors with maps and helpful information, a gift shop, clean washrooms, and an adjoining parking lot for those who come by car. What a shame that our beautiful McLaren Lodge at the eastern entrance to Golden Gate Park serves as offices of the Recreation and Park Department and not the general public.

Stanley Park also has an amphitheater for large outdoor performances, a nature center, a miniature railway, a pitch and putt golf course, and four high-quality, beautiful restaurants and a banquet facility, in addition to four snack-bar concessions. Stanley Park is a popular destination for the most democratic of all activities, eating, for locals and tourists alike. Until the reopening of the Beach Chalet a few years ago, it was not possible for the park visitor to find anything beyond a hot dog or a pretzel in Golden Gate Park. Sadly, it remains one of the few great central parks in the world that does not lure visitors to scenic spots throughout the park with the joy of fine dining in a natural setting.

The other part of recognizing the changing function of the successful city park today and abandoning the fantasy that it is "wilderness" is the provision for a variety of transportation modes--pedestrian, bike, transit vehicle, and private automobile (Figures C, D, and E). While we learned these decisions did not come easily to Vancouverites, in recent years independent asphalt bicycle paths and roller blade paths were constructed, separating these uses from both pedestrians and automobiles. Instead of the dysfunctional fight that keeps occurring in Golden Gate Park between advocates of different transportation modes, Vancouverites discovered that in 1,000 acres it is possible for each mode to have its own right-of-way. Stanley Park follows the dictates of the great 19th century park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, with a winding vehicular "carriage road" around the entire park, intended for vehicular sightseeing. Then there are half a dozen other vehicular cross roads accessing the principal attractions in the park. Around the periphery is the sea wall, whose surface is divided into separate paths for pedestrian, bikes, and roller bladers. The internal areas of the park, away from the attractions, are generally wilder than Golden Gate Park and accessed only by trails.

Separation of transportation modes could be done in Golden Gate Park even more easily than in Stanley Park, since here most roadways are overly wide, and could be narrowed, transferring that square footage of asphalt to separate bike or rollerblade use in a different location. Bicyclists could have their own exclusive bike trails throughout the park with a net decrease in the amount of paving in the park (also in the June 2003 SPUR newsletter is a discussion of other transportation issues in Golden Gate Park and what needs to be done to solve them).

Vancouver manages to accommodate visitors in its park better than we do because residents are willing to pay what it takes to maintain a first class park--both through taxes and user fees. They are spending the money necessary to fully separate park traffic from through-traffic, and they understand a park is not a commuter parking lot and therefore charge to discourage commuter parking. Similarly, they understand that in a city where one expects to pay to park everywhere, park users as well as commuters are charged for parking.

They also recognize that cultural uses (the amphitheater, the aquarium, restaurants, the nature center) are very desirable park amenities, not facilities to be opposed as has sometimes been done with the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. They understand that all park users and all transportation modes can and should be accommodated in a 1,000 acre park, and it works if they are separated each on their own right-of-way. We aren't far from making Golden Gate Park as accessible as it is beautiful, but we have to make it a priority.Spur logo

About the Authors: 

Jim Chappell, in addition to being SPUR president, teaches the course Gardens, Parks and Urban Open Spaces in the landscape architecture certificate program at the University of California Extension and has worked on park design worldwide.

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