City fumbles park community, cultural potential during pandemic

We have in Vancouver 230 ways to deal with the languid, incessant pandemic.

They are called parks.

They, and we, are waiting and waiting and waiting for civic leaders to recognize and invest in their potential. As the pandemic persisted and we learned about relative outdoor safety, a rapid policy response ought to have been measures to spend more time enjoyably in our parks.

Didn’t happen. For the second straight damnable summer of COVID, there is no strategy to make them meccas of community, culture and commiseration. In their stasis, about all we can bank on is cut grass on occasion and, if we are lucky, the trash regularly taken away.

The leadership vacuum at this critical time, and the lack of initiative and innovation, is one of our lost opportunities.

Unlike most elsewhere, our parks generally do not shape our city. They are, with a small clutch of exceptions, fallow fields. Rather than attract us, our parks are largely left idle until people bring their chairs, their chatter, their frisbees, their balls and gloves and, yes, their beer and wine and martinis and edibles and everything short of smoke into the mix.

It’s not that it’s all bad to delegate the job of their enlivening to the ingenuity of neighbouring residents; it’s just that the good could be great.

It has been of great economic value that Vancouver allotted outdoor space to create curbside patios to keep some restaurants afloat and their walking-distance, socially distanced diners appreciative. The morale boost is palpable.

It took creativity to envision a different picture of our street life. Now we should apply the same lens and recognize the socio-economic value parks can contribute to the public experience and the fabric of urban life.

Yet our leaders fret more about which parks to sanction as legal drinking spots (by the way, people, too late) than about staging performances, furnishing tables and seating to support socially safe conversation, stocking portable libraries for outdoor reading, according space for people to build skills and share their hobbies, arranging recreation for all ages and abilities all day long, displaying public art, fostering gardening and cooking, even hosting and celebrating animal-friendly areas.

Ask yourself: Does your nearby park provide any of these things? I thought not. In other cities, they do.

The deficient cultivation is an indictment of the creativity of city political and staff management. Our Parks Board can cite budgetary restrictions – purse strings are held by council – but the activation of these spaces at a crucial time for our mental and physical well-being is hardly big-ticket. The conscientious among them will rue the day.

In our many post-mortems on the pandemic, the failure to reimagine our community will stand as one of our errors. We somehow spent more attention on the imperatives of long-term climate change than those of short-term community change.

While we vow to build back better, under our noses are simple steps to make what we have much more powerful and rewarding.

Just as we are failing to seize the moment to make our quieter streets pedestrian malls, we are missing the chance to turn our parks into the hubs of a revitalized outdoor experience – centrepieces, not adjunct spaces.

In ideal circumstances, they would advance our appreciation of the environment and of the purpose of our cities. They could also serve importantly in neighbourhoods under greater stress in a time of growing economic imbalance, in that they can advance equity goals and attract commerce and even jobs, ideally for youth most affected by the pandemic.

Parks would need some design to make this happen. This would be a good time to call on the architects, pro bono, to provide pizzazz. It would be a good time, too, to apply and enlarge the funds the city and province are providing the hard-hit arts to spur performances and pop-up lessons and sessions in music and theatre.

Parks need to be thought of, and spent on, as our outdoor community centres.

But to do that, it takes resolve and resources to make them our go-to places, not merely places to go. It is an abdication of responsibility to passively forgo their best functions, rather like building a school and not offering a curriculum.

A parks policy with targeted programming and scheduled activities would jolt this connection with culture, nature and each other. And yes, if the city won’t do it, if it won’t see the wisdom in our money spent this way, then let the private sector dig into its pockets to do so – just don’t let public-private partnership commercially subsume the philanthropy. It makes sense for our health providers and business improvement associations to participate; their investments would yield social and economic well-being dividends ultimately aligned with their raison d’être.

Properly underwritten, parks become prizes and priorities of each district and a lever to increase community participation. Optimally they offer an extra path to more intelligent local planning with buy-in from the grassroots that reflects a residential vision of where it lives, where the development ideas don’t all come from a builder or city staff or a politician.

The vexing questions concern incumbent political occupants. Can they direct their attentions in short order to these opportunities?

If they can’t at this juncture, it is worth asking if there is any point to the only elected Parks Board in Canada. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.