Restoring nature to modern cities

A new exhibit explores how bears, elk and wolverines once ruled Vancouver, and asks the question – can we rebuild relationships with creatures that have left?

When European settlers arrived in the densely forested western Canada region that eventually became Vancouver, they were continually glancing over their shoulders for the hungry bears and wolves that already called the area home.

But as the city grew into British Columbia’s largest metropolis, these once-dominant local critters took a back seat to human development.

Now, a new Museum of Vancouver exhibition is re-examining this rich ecological past – and pushing for a better relationship between humans and nature. Opened 27 February, Rewilding Vancouver runs until 1 September.

“This is the first exhibition in Canada to look at the history of a city through the other species living there,” said guest curator JB MacKinnon, whose 2013 book The Once and Future World inspired the exhibition. “When I finished the book, I wanted to apply the ideas to the place I live and show what would still be living here – bears, elk, wolverines – if we hadn’t arrived.”

Visitors enter the exhibition beneath a large model of a Steller’s sea cow – regional waters once bristled with these hulking, now extinct mammals – before facing a tooth-and-claw menagerie of taxidermy animals, multimedia exhibits and flora and fauna tableaux.

The displays illuminate several surprising stories, including how, in the 1880s, a wolf was shot a few streets away from where the museum now stands and how a 109m tree – the tallest ever felled in Canada – was axed here around the same time. Huge California condors were once recorded in the area by early naturalists, but they have not been seen here since.

There is much more to the exhibition, however, than documenting loss.

MacKinnon pointed out that while many species have retreated from the growing city, others have moved in. Vancouver’s raccoon population has increased 20-fold since the 1940s and coyotes – formerly absent here – began appearing during the 1980s. “People didn’t like them at first, but many are now happy sharing the city with them. There are now around 400, he said.

Equally encouraging is the story of local salmon. “There used to be 120km of fish streams here, but most are now underground,” MacKinnon said. “There’s been a lot of talk in recent years of ‘daylighting’ [uncovering] these – especially after salmon spawned in Vancouver for the first time in decades in 2012.”

But while many Vancouverites would welcome fish with open arms, some animals are harder to reintegrate, MacKinnon said.

“In recent years, grizzly bears have moved to within 50km of Vancouver. We need to ask ourselves if we’re willing to live alongside them and how can we do that,” he said. “If we do make space for them on the edge of our city limits, we’d be the only big city in the world to achieve that.”

It’s this wider debate about how to best restore nature to modern cities that MacKinnon aims to spark.

“I’m hoping Vancouver can have a vigorous conversation over rewilding. We’ve been building things for ourselves for all these years, but we could instead design the city for others as well,” he said. “We need to look at how we can rebuild relationships with those creatures we are comfortable living with.”

John Lee is the Vancouver Localite for BBC Travel