In the town of Grand Forks, famous for sunshine and borscht and home to a little over 4,000 people, the GEM Theatre (one of the oldest theatres in Western Canada) is, in fact, a gem.
In the 1910s — when it was still named the Empress Theatre — live performances put on by locals gave people relief during World War I. Small-town bands often jammed there on Sundays when it was the Granada Theatre. And from the 1950s onwards, it became the GEM, screening movies, and hosting musicians, live shows, and fundraisers.
In May 2018, the town experienced the worst flood in its history — reports called it a “one in 200 year” flood. Multiple neighbourhoods had to be evacuated, businesses and buildings — including the GEM — were damaged, and homes were lost. Later that year, their City Council voted for a managed retreat.
A managed retreat, Kees Lokman, a professor and director of the Coastal Adaptation Lab at the University of British Columbia, says, is moving people, properties, and infrastructures out of a vulnerable area. It can be proactive (developing relocation plans for areas where disaster could happen) or reactive (relocating in response to a disaster that has already happened).
In Grand Forks, people, property, and infrastructures had to be moved away from the town’s flood zones, and a “property buyout” program was implemented. As Angela Danyluk, a Senior Environmental Specialist at the City of Vancouver, explains, this means that the city would purchase properties near flood zones from their owners and transform those areas for “low risk use.”
Examples of low risk use, Angela says, are parks and wetlands. They make flood prone areas “publicly accessible for other benefits like recreation” while ensuring that those areas remain a place where excess water can go “during a high flood event” and “won't cause any damage to people's homes or lives.”
Grand Forks was the first BC town to use the managed retreat strategy (cities like Surrey and Abbotsford have considered it, and in Vancouver there are no plans for it at the moment, Angela shares), but regardless of where it happens, it is not without its challenges, both Angela and Professor Lokman say.
They’re expensive, emotionally and mentally taxing, and can make life more difficult for those already facing systemic disadvantages Systemic disadvantages In British Columbia, historical colonialism, enduring discriminatory policies, and systemic discrimination contribute to ongoing social inequities. These disparities are further exacerbated by climate change, requiring a nuanced and intersectional approach to climate resilience.Learn More .
When disaster strikes, marginalized populations are often hit the worst — a study found that Indigenous peoples, women, seniors, low-income earners, and unhoused populations were among the groups most impacted by the 2018 flood in Grand Forks.
And in the case of a reactive managed retreat, “you have to act quickly” under already strenuous circumstances, Professor Lokman points out. “People are without homes, power is not working — you have much less time to engage communities.”
In BC, many people and communities are located close to water or near flood zones. And as our climate continues to change, frequent flooding events are expected. If a managed retreat is to occur, Professor Lokman and Angela say that it needs to be done equitably and with significant input from the impacted community, and adequate resources and support need to be invested into helping them get established in new locations.
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This area is the False Creek floodplain. Dark blue shows flood events we experience today and light blue shows anticipated flooding in 2100 with one metre of sea level rise.
Located in the light blue area is BC Place, Pacific Central Station, Olympic Village, Science World, and the future St. Paul's Hospital site.
Due to sea level rise, the future St. Paul's Hospital is currently being built to "a 2050 standard and a 2100 standard." This includes placing mechanical equipment above ground level, ensuring optimal drainage, and using flood-resistant building materials.
Port of Vancouver
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Areas shaded in light blue include the Port of Vancouver (Canada's largest port), Canada Place, Waterfront Station, and parts of Gastown.
The City of Vancouver notes that many museums, cultural destinations, and historic sites in Gastown and Chinatown are at risk.
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Vancouver's River District is a growing, 130-acre community along the Fraser River. This area is currently susceptible to flooding today, and more severe flooding in 2100.
Potential flooding scenarios range from water in basements and underground parking areas to water reaching first floor and roof levels, causing residential evacuation.
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According to the City of Vancouver, flooding in the Marine Drive area is caused by rising ocean levels. By 2100, flooding in this area would reach the ground floor level in homes and cause resident evacuation.
xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) First Nation and Southlands
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Flooding in this area would affect residences, parks, and golf courses. Before colonization, this area was home to the Musqueam people's main winter village for over 3,500 years. "The perfect storm" of rising sea levels and increasing winter storms is worrying for the Musqueam First Nation.
Jericho and Locarno Beach
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As the ocean creeps up due to sea level rise, the beach area exposed during low tides will shrink. This is called a "coastal squeeze" and will result in habitat loss for birds, forage fish, mussels, and clams in Vancouver’s shoreline ecosystem.
Kitsilano and Granville Island
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Granville Island is considered one of the most flood-vulnerable areas in False Creek. It houses over 300 businesses and its arts, culture, and culinary scene make it one of Vancouver's most popular destinations.
Flooding in this area would also affect Kitsilano Beach, Vanier Park, and homes within Kits Point.
“Recovery (after a climate disaster) is costly, it takes a long time, and it's not a quick win,” Angela says. So, “understanding what matters most and what we care about” and listening to the voices of all affected populations, is what will make a difference as we plan for future climate hazards, Professor Lokman adds.
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