June 14, 2021

Three Vancouver Legends: Glen Patterson, Cornelia Oberlander & The Coal Harbour Rooftop Garden

Noted journalist Christopher Cheung who writes brilliantly for The Tyee has just received the Dalton Award for a critical piece he wrote on journalism, democracy, and relevancy in relation to his personal experience and writing life. You can read his thoughtful article here published in the Toronto Star.

Christopher  was also reviewing Matthew Soules’ new book “Icebergs, Zombies and the Ultra-Thin: Architecture and  Capitalism in the 21st Century”in the Tyee last week.  In that review Christopher  mentioned that one of the things Mr. Soules had posited was that luxury owner units were “separated from the messiness of public space” and often had rooftop gardens. But there was one rooftop garden that was actually on the top of townhouses in Coal Harbour on Cordova Street that could have been classified as a “luxury” garden.

But it was not. It was a transplanted garden from the ground level and it was an early example of how a Vancouver rooftop garden can  mitigate heat sinks, increase biodiversity, sequester rainwater, provide bird habitat,and increase proximity to trees and plants in the city. It was a successful experiment on how to use flat roofed surfaces better, and its owner welcomed the public to come through his apartment to see it.

Patterson Garden


It was the transplanted  product of a half century of garden stewardship on the north shore, and represented a widower’s recognition of his past life, and it looked to the future. The owner of this remarkable rooftop garden opened up his condominium unit to garden clubs and gardeners, who would walk through his living and dining room to the remarkable Japanese garden he had created on the third floor rooftop of the adjacent townhouses in the complex.

Patterson Garden 2


Glen Patterson was a thoughtful soft spoken kind man. He was also a lifetime gardening enthusiast, who had an extraordinary garden in West Vancouver that he opened up to gardening groups and anyone that asked to see it. He learned how to garden with the rocks and cliffs that abounded on the north shore and at eighty years of age decided to downsize his house and buy a condominium on Coal Harbour. The challenge was to find a condo unit that would have a roof top surface where he could garden.



He finally found that in a small third floor unit of the  Carina on Cordova Street. Armed with drawings and an engineer he convinced the builder to reinforce the flat roofs of the adjacent townhouses, and allow him to build a garden on top of it, with a proper membrane. The developer agreed, and Mr. Patterson carefully removed the best parts of his garden on the north shore, and traversed it all across the Lions Gate Bridge at night on  flatbed trucks. He had already surveyed  where the hydro wires were, and pulled off the endeavour of moving his garden and craning up the plantings over several days  with relatively little issues. He moved 35 tons of plants and rocks, and mastered a structural  soil made of pumice and coconut fiber to keep his plants and trees  healthy. He installed a watering system, had no weeds, and created a truly sustainable garden.

Besides moving a curated collection of alpine plants, the garden was built on Japanese garden principles of  shakkei, which uses the far mountain and ocean views to be part of the view and experience.The garden was laid out over 2,000 square feet and overlooks Coal Harbour and Stanley Park. There are many bends and twists in the pathways that were meticulously maintained, and a waterfall with a koi pond was in the centre. The koi had been with Mr. Patterson for nearly half a century, and followed him as he walked around the pond.

Mr. Patterson welcomed everyone to see his garden.  You can read more about the plants and trees in this garden here and more of the technical aspects to garden on this three storey rooftop here.

I first met Mr. Patterson as a visitor to his garden, which overwhelmed me with its fine alpine and arctic plants,and over time I became a friend. One of Mr. Patterson’s sons was the first Premier of Nunavut, and Mr. Patterson had a deep and abiding respect for the people and landscape of the north. He also knew of the first lady of Canadian Landscape Architecture, Cornelia Oberlander’s work in Inuvik and wanted to meet her.

When I asked Cornelia Oberlander whether she wanted to come over to see Mr. Patterson’s garden, she was very curious to see the rooftop garden, but of course wanted to know why she had not been asked to design the garden with her extensive rooftop garden work and experience   She did not know that  landscape designer Jim Nakano of Seattle had designed  Mr. Patterson’s north shore garden 40 years previously  and  they had carried on that successful partnering with the plans for a similar design on the rooftop. All was forgiven.

Cornelia and Mr. Patterson  were in their 90’s when they met at the rooftop garden and became instant friends. Cornelia was the only person I knew that recognized all the unique species of plants, and it was a privilege to hear their discussions about rooftops, the future of balcony and roof gardening, and landscape design.

They both said to me that they did not expect the other person to be as interesting and as fun, and we followed up several times, most notably  with a trip to Cornelia’s designed spaces at Jim Everett Park and the Museum of Anthropology. That’s a photo of Cornelia Oberlander with Glen Patterson below on the shell beach and pond Cornelia created at the museum.


While rooftop gardens such as the one created by Mr. Patterson may be seen as elite, its purpose was  to showcase what could be done on the townhouse rooftops of Vancouver’s point towers. His garden had hundreds if not thousands of visitors that traipsed through his condo unit to experience it. With ingenuity and a determination to create a sustainable continuation of his much loved “ground” garden landscape, he showed how the three storey high podium rooftop could be transformed into a green oasis for downtown apartment dwellers.

Mr. Patterson’s garden is featured in the books “Green Roofs: Ecological Design and Construction”,and “Beauty By Design.”

Mr. Patterson passed away in 2018 and his garden area is now maintained  by one of the  townhouse owners below the rooftop garden. Cornelia Oberlander passed away in May this year. But the legacy of these two forward thinking rooftop gardening imagineers carries on.



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