UBC Library and Vancouver Aquarium Team up to Unlock the Secret Past of Vancouver’s Waterways

A new project lets you discover the city's oldest waterways.

Credit: Flickr / griffhome

Gone but not forgotten: old streams and rivers that once ran through our urban jungle are made visible online by UBC and the Vancouver Aquarium

UBC Library and Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre have revealed the secrets of Vancouver’s oldest waterways through a joint project that involved digitizing maps from the ’70s and making them available to the public online.

The project came about because the maps, used most often by UBC students and researchers, were getting old and tattered.

“There is a geography course at UBC that studies Vancouver’s old streams every year. All students have to use the same map from the 1970s; it’s falling apart, it’s brittle and it’s on old paper, plus there’s always the risk of it getting stolen,” says Paul Lesack, of UBC Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Division.


Vancouver’s old waterways rediscovered

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when downtown Vancouver was covered in creeks. (Image: Flickr / Foxtongue)


Lesack knew the maps were in serious need of a facelift and contacted the Vancouver Aquarium, who worked with him to turn the old maps into brightly coloured, interactive online maps that are compatible with Google Maps and accessible via smartphones.

The maps are fascinating, showing a time (before settlers arrived) when much of downtown Vancouver was either underwater or criss-crossed by creeks and streams.

With a 2010 city outline showing building footprints, the maps show the exact places that fish and frogs once called home in what is now the concrete jungle we call Vancouver.

The information is also important for research into the city’s history and planning for its future, as Dr. Nightingale, CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium Science Division, points out.


“This valuable data on the city’s natural history will be useful to current and future scientists as they investigate the city’s natural evolution for planning purposes.”


Research resource to literary inspiration: vanished streams spark the interest and imagination of Vancouverites

The red lines show the original shoreline while the blue lines indicate creeks and rivers. (Image: UBC Library)


“The project began, primarily to help our students,” Lesack explains, “and to preserve the information.”

However, since its inception, the reach of the project has grown significantly. The map has had over 900 downloads and while they can’t tell who is looking at the maps, they know that it’s not just UBC geography students, who already had access to the file before it was made public.

“We don’t know who is using it or all the possible uses, but that’s part of what makes the project exciting,” says Lesack. Already the maps are being used in creative and imaginative ways—UBC recently received word that someone is using the maps for a children’s story about Vancouver.