May 31, 2012 · 12:52 PM

Learn more about Riverview Hospital's history and its arboretum at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society this Sunday in Coquitlam. / FILE PHOTO

Those beautiful trees you can see on the Riverview Hospital grounds from Lougheed Highway are not just cleaning the air you breathe and providing a restful respite from the relentless pavement and big box retailers of south Coquitlam. They are also a heritage resource worth preserving for generations to come.

That's the opinion of a dedicated group of residents who have formed the backbone of community advocacy for Riverview Hospital lands for more than two decades. Their relentless efforts to lobby the provincial government to keep Riverview Hospital lands in public hands have yet to materialize into any certainty for the 244 acres.

But the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society is celebrating anyway.

Sunday, June 3, a special event will be held in the Henry Esson Young building on the Riverview Hospital grounds from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to mark the society's 20th anniversary. The day will begin with a question-and-answer session on the Heritage Conservation Plan, currently under study, and visitors to the property will be able to enjoy tea and other refreshments as well as tree tours and a heritage walk with local experts.

The early days of the organization have faded into the mists of time, jokes Norma Gillespie, a member of the society from the beginning, but she says members still have the same sense of urgency they had in 1992 when the organization was formed.


"The bottom line is trumping heritage," she said. "We're going through the same thing today.

"We absolutely feel there is a push towards development," Gillespie said, referring to ongoing concerns that once Riverview closes this summer, the land will be re-developed for market housing or other purposes.

The provincial government has made no such announcements and, in fact, has hired a consultant to create a Heritage Conservation Plan to establish community and heritage values for the property.

But the group has good reason to be suspicious. It was founded to raise awareness of the ecological bounty on the property at about the same time as 141 acres were being hived off to create the subdivision now known as Riverview Heights in the mid-1980s.

"We became aware when we saw the real estate cars driving through the property," recalled Gillespie of those early days.

Around that same time, Bill Brown, a retired city of Vancouver gardener, wandered through the property and noticed some spectacular trees.

"'What have we got here?" Brown is recalled to have asked the head gardener at Riverview. "And a few heads were put together and they realized they should have a walk to let the community know," said Gillespie, herself a graduate of the nursing school at Riverview and a former employee in the transport division.

The trees date back to 1911, when they were planted by John Davidson, B.C.'s first provincial botanist, who arrived at what was then called Hospital for the Mind at Mount Coquitlam to develop a collection of plants for future study. Most of the botanical garden's collection was moved to UBC in 1916 but the larger trees remained, forming one of the largest collections of trees in the province — 160 species from most continents and 1,800 in all valued at more than $50 million.


Riverview's first building was opened for male patients in 1913 and many of them cared for the plants.

Val Adolph, who was one of the first to organize tree walks, says the trees were planted for their therapeutic value and anyone who drives or walks through the properly quickly realizes their calming effect.

"Some of those buildings were quite big and quite gloomy," she said. "Patients were on a ward with many other people.

"I don't know how I would have survived had that been me, I don't know how much the grounds would have affected me had I been in such a gloomy place," Adolph said, but she suspects the patients enjoyed the pleasant vistas and drew relief from the greenery as she did when she worked at Riverview for four years in the early 1990s.

"When you arrived in Riverview and drove in under those trees, and all that hectic rush-hour fell off your shoulders," Adolph recalled.

Today, the lands are under scrutiny as part of a heritage value study conducted by the province and public consultation meetings are ongoing. Some early comments on the project's website and at suggests Riverview holds significant value, beyond its real estate worth in the public conscience.

In short, it could be said the Riverview Horticultural Society has succeeded in its job of raising public awareness

But Gillespie says more work needs to be done with social media and and traditional media to get the public onside for the preservation of the Riverview lands. "We need to do everything we can to convince (the) Christy Clark government."

And this Sunday's 20th anniversary event? It will certainly be a celebration but, with so much work to do, it won't exactly be a party.


Number of trees: 1,800

Number of species: 160

Number of names on a petition to preserve Riverview lands in May 2000: 20,000

First Treefest hosted by the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society: 1994

Year first building on Riverview lands opened: 1913

Year botanical gardens first developed: 1911


• The next public drop-in workshops on Riverview's Heritage Conservation Plan will be held June 11 at the Port Coquitlam rec centre and June 12 at the Centennial Pavilion in Coquitlam.