Pot in the Parks: What city builders across Canada say about what the legalization of marijuana will mean for public spaces
July 31, 2018
With pot smoking set to become legal in Canada on October 17, we’ve been wondering what legalization might mean for parks and public places which are the living rooms and backyards of city dwellers coast to coast.
Chances are you’ve sniffed pot wafting through the park more and more lately. Of course city bylaws make it illegal to puff in our parks, but apparently, not everyone’s received the memo. We spoke to three city builders in three of Canada’s key cities, Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, to get their opinion about what the legalization of pot smoking will mean for the use of parks and public spaces and the people who love them.
A Vancouver Perspective: Mitchell Reardon
“Public pot smoking has been widespread in Vancouver for several decades. The city has changed a lot since the Gastown Riots in 1971,” says Mitchell Reardon, who is Experiments Lead & Urban Planning and Design Lead at Happy City, a Vancouver firm that “uses lessons from psychology and public health to design happiness into neighbourhoods and cities around the world.”
Reardon emphasizes that, like most west coast cities, Vancouver tends to have a “live and let live” vibe which extends to the general feeling about pot smoking in parks and public spaces. However, just because the wafting smell of pot isn’t shocking to Vancouver’s residents, don’t assume that public pot smoking isn’t a budding issue in the city.
Reardon thinks that visible pot smoking could be used as a political wedge issue, used to roll back progress on issues like the pedestrianization of urban streets. Vancouver’s Robson Square is a car-free space that has been opposed on the basis that cannabis vendors have popped up in the square. A 2016 article features the headline “Local businesses rethink Robson Square plans after police raid marijuana market.” Reardon thinks that if pot sales become visible in public spaces, it might be used as a tactic to undermine innovative projects like the pedestrianization of Robson Square.
“My biggest concern is that legalization is used as a wedge issue to block public space” says Reardon.
Photo Credit: Nathaniel F, Robson Square
Ultimately Reardon believes that existing smoking by-laws, as well as those regarding public safety and anti-social behaviour can be applied to the challenges that might arise from pot smoking in Vancouver parks. Otherwise, it’s not an issue he thinks is deeply concerning. He adds, “In a city where nearly 500 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, and where needles are a common site in many Vancouver neighbourhoods, the public space concerns associated with pot use are dwarfed by our crippling opioid crisis.”
A Toronto Perspective: Carolyn Wong
About five years ago Trinity Bellwoods became the park to be seen hanging out in during the warm summer months. Even the New York Times highlighted the park in their 36 Hours in Toronto feature. Drinking and pot smoking had become so commonplace in the park that a heated community meeting was called to address the growing frustration of local residents. There are about five dispensaries within a short walk of Trinity Bellwoods and, in some ways, it has become ground zero for recreational weed consumption in public spaces in Toronto.
Recently, a Facebook event popped up for a party in Trinity Bellwoods called “First Legal Smoke in Trinity Bellwoods” and dated October 17th, the day pot is set to become legalized. Quickly, the event filled up with comments from local residents including one that read:
“I’m happy that weed is going to be legal but please stay away from the playground and dog bowl. Keep in mind that TB [Trinity Bellwoods] is a place many go to escape the city in the city. Getting smoked out is not going to be nice for anyone other than you. Please consider your neighbours just trying to enjoy the park.”
Carolyn Wong, a member of Friends of Trinity Bellwoods Park and manager of the weekly Farmer’s Market, is pretty chill about the whole pot in parks issue. But, she makes an important point: “Pot smell is thick and it hangs in the air. Not everyone wants to smell it.” When she smells pot at the Tuesday Farmers Market, she generally requests that the smoker take a moment to step away from shoppers so as not to invade other’s space.
Similarly, Wong notes, recently pot smokers who lit up during a movie night in the dog bowl were politely asked by other movie watchers to move away from the crowd gathered to see the show. As far as Carolyn is concerned, if people just applied the basic rules of common sense and courtesy, legalization wouldn’t be a big challenge to park groups.
Wong would love to see a public campaign that reminds people to keep the smoke away from others in the park. She points to the old Ben Wicks “Be Nice, and Clear Your Ice” television campaign which reminded Torontonians to clean up the ice around their home and businesses for the safety of others: “A campaign reminding people to be courteous about smoking in general would be great,” she says.
A Calgary Perspective: Druh Farrell
Druh Farrell, a city councillor in Calgary’s Ward 7 is taking a “wait and see” approach to the issue of pot smoking in parks. She’s encountered the increased use of recreational drugs in Calgary’s large urban parks like Prince’s Island and Riley Park. But is it a concern? “Only time will tell,” she says.
Photo Credit: Prince’s Island, Wendy Cutler
Farrell believes that there will be a lot to learn once cannabis is legalized, but she’s confident because “Calgary has done a good job of researching other cities and has come up with a balanced approach.”
On the question of Cannabis Tourism, which could see people visiting Canadian cities in order to enjoy the benefits of pot legalization, Farrell admits that visitors may be inclined to visit Calgary and partake in public spaces without much thought to existing bylaws. However, Farrell believes that the city will need to be nimble and react to the realities of pot use in public rather than create policies based on issues that may never come to pass.
Like Carolyn Wong, however, Farrell believes that it wouldn’t hurt to remind Canadians of their responsibility to other park and public space users.