Lost Lagoon, Stanley ParkLayer upon layer of stories still to be told…

As an interpretive planner, I work with parks, museums and similar organizations to help bring their stories to life for their visitors. And I’m always looking for tools to help my clients visualize new possibilities. It’s sometimes hard to make abstract ideas concrete; that’s true for all interpreters, of course, but it’s particularly true in interpretive planning. More than once I’ve seen my clients’ eyes gloss over as I start talking about goals, resources, audiences, themes, and how to weave them all together into a beautiful, effortless, seamless set of potential visitor experiences.

An interpretive planner’s greatest nightmare is spending months on a plan only to see it tossed on the shelf, taking its place among the dusty strata of previous years’ interpretive plans. You’d be surprised how common a scenario that is; these forgotten tomes often go back decades. Everybody feels they should have an interpretive plan; for some reason fewer people feel they should turn it into reality.

Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park

So it was with interest that I read my colleague Jon Kohl’s article on the interpretive atlas, a visual, simple, interactive planning tool that seems to originate with one of the gurus of environmental education, Steven van Matre.

It’s a simple concept, made even simpler in this age of nearly-ubitiquous GPS hardware in everyone’s mobile phones. You create a digital map, and you start layering your planning resources in a neat, visual, orderly way across it. I’m pretty excited at having started this one; it’s the beginnings of an interpretive atlas for Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Ferns in Stanley Park

I’ve started with an inventory of the existing interpretive panels in the park, dating back to at least two major installations over the years. Next I’m going to lay down the interpretive programming hot spots that Stanley Park Ecology Society has been using most frequently.

After that will come some of the park’s lesser-known natural resources: heritage trees, wetlands, birding hot spots, and ecologically sensitive areas. These have already been mapped by SPES, and if I’m lucky I’ll be able to get access to a few different .kmz files or .kml files and simply import them onto a new visual layer of the atlas.

Autumn in Stanley Park

Lastly, I’m hoping to get some data on visitor use: where are the people congregating? Can we visualize patters of use by demographic? This might require some new surveying. For one of Canada’s most-visited (and most beloved) parks, it’s a bit surprising how little social science we actually have.

Further down the line will come archaeological resources and heritage sites. For the moment, this is outside our mandate. But a full archaeological survey of the park has never been completed, believe it or not, and as our local First Nations become more involved (at last) in the future of the park, we may see some exciting partnerships develop. Ideally, these will allow First Nations and their partners to interpret the park’s history according to current practices in indigenous tourism and interpretation.

The end result of all this mapping? We should be able to see some new opportunities. There are stories we’re still not telling—even on the purely natural history side—and resources we’re not interpreting. There are corners of the park that still, after 125 years, have secrets to reveal. And there is a whole new generation of Canadians who have yet to be connected with this remarkable coastal rainforest in the heart of Canada’s third biggest city.


  1. Very cool idea. I do something similar in terms of process, but I haven’t made the leap in software. Can you tell us a little bit more about what tools you use?

    • Hi Joan- I’m still new at this too. For gathering waypoints I use MotionX GPS on my iPhone, with the following process: “Menu-my position-mark waypoint-add photo-share.” It works well, if the skies are good and you give the phone time to get a good satellite signal. From there I ‘share’ the .kmz file via email to my computer desktop. (You can use .gpx files too, but they don’t carry a photo with them.) Then I import them to a Google My Maps map, and arrange them on the appropriate layer. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll use Google; I may try Open Maps before too long.
      Anyway, it’s very easy once you get the hang of it. If you don’t want to go gathering waypoints, you can just draw approximate points (and lines and polygons) on the map, eyeballing where they should go against the landmarks you see on the map.
      Thanks for reading my blog. -don

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