Vancouver approves an equity-focused parks strategy for the future

October 15, 2019

Jake Tobin Garrett

Following a multi-year effort, last week the Vancouver Park Board approved its citywide parks and recreation master plan. Dubbed VanPlay, it will guide investment in parks and recreation for the next 25 years. Vancouver is the only Canadian city—and one of the only in North America—with an elected Park Board that governs the city’s green spaces.

VanPlay was necessitated by a much-changed, much-grown city bumping up against a number of challenges such as equity, population growth, and changing demographics and needs. 

For example, despite the fact that Vancouver has more parks now than it did 25 years ago, the amount of park space per person has declined by one third due to population growth. In short, people have outpaced parks. 

In the Canadian City Parks Report, our survey of Canadian park systems released this summer, Vancouver ranked lowest in average park provision with 2 hectares of parkland per 1000 people (see graph below). While this was low, it was also in line with other major urban centres like Toronto (2.7ha) and Montreal (2.4ha), showing how growth and density is challenging park systems across the country. 

Despite falling lower on parkland provision, Vancouver shone in the Canadian City Parks Report, which compiled data, but also surfaced stories about leading practices. 

Vancouver showed its dedication in striving for a progressive park system through policies such as instituting all gender park washrooms and performing a colonial audit of the city’s park system.

Vancouver brings that progressive focus to VanPlay. This is a report that features quotes from Audre Lorde, an explanation of intersectionality, and a diagram outlining the spectrum of privilege and oppression.

Vancouver’s focus on park equity stems from a recognition that the city’s park development has been historically uneven, creating inequities between neighbourhoods in park access and quality. 

As our cities explode with growth, it’s critical that we reckon with past planning and patterns of growth that have created uneven access to quality parks. We know parks provide multiple environmental, social, health, and economic benefits that everyone in a city should be able to share in equally. But how do we know where to invest limited public dollars?

The breakthrough in VanPlay is the use of geospatial data (a fancy way of saying data that is tied to a certain location, like income in a particular neighbourhood) to identify underserved areas where increased investment in parks should be targeted. 

The Park Board is calling these areas Initiative Zones. 

Initiative Zones were identified by examining three layers of data:

  1. Park access gaps: Areas where people are more than a 10 minute walk to a park and/or areas that are served by less than 0.55 hectares per 1000 people.
  2. Demand for low barrier recreation: The number of residents that have registered for the city’s Leisure Access Program, which provides low-cost recreation access.
  3. Tree canopy gaps: Areas of the city that have less than 5% tree canopy coverage. 

Now that this model has been created, the Park Board can layer other factors over time to reveal more nuance or target specific policy areas. 

These additional layers could include income, survey data on community engagement and satisfaction, locations of past capital investments by the city, and demographic data such as age. 

For example, the Park Board shows how layering on the city’s growth areas can provide further guidance on where to direct funds. Areas of the city experiencing growth pressures can often meet parks investment needs through the development process, whereas areas that are low or no-growth — but may rank as underserved — don’t have that same opportunity. The report concludes that equity strategies should target these lower growth areas for public investment. 

As Park Board Commissioner Camil Dumont told Mash Salehomoum, Park People’s Vancouver Program Coordinator, at the meeting where VanPlay was approved:

For me, this is the ultimate set of goals to inform my decisions. The sweeping and explicit prioritization of equity in such a monumental report really makes me proud of the work that we do at the Park Board.” 

Of course, data only tells part of the story — a fact that the Park Board recognizes. The report’s recommendations include on-going engagement between communities and the Park Board to assist in interpreting the data and understanding the lived experience behind it. The Park Board also has plans to make this data publicly available online through a mapping tool on their website.

It’s not hard to see what a powerful analytical decision-making tool VanPlay could become.

Other VanPlay highlights

 

Water, resurfaced

Vancouver is a city defined by water. When I lived there, I loved running along the seawall, or watching cargo ships unload at Crab Park, or chasing bunny rabbits at Jericho Beach. Water in Vancouver seems to be everywhere. And yet, as the report notes, 91% of urban streams in the city have been buried throughout its history.

As part of the City’s work on biodiversity as well as creating a city more resilient to the extreme rainfall events made more common through climate change, the VanPlay strategy aims to bring more of these streams back to the surface. This will create more natural habitat, new amenities for people, and also help manage rainwater during storms.

Streets to parks

We don’t think about it often, but streets represent the largest amount of public space we have in our cities—often about a quarter of the entire land area of a city. In Vancouver, streets represent 32% of the city’s land area, while parks sit at 11%. That’s a big public space resource for a city struggling to meet the public space needs of its growing population. 

Vancouver is already a leader in rethinking streets as public space, and VanPlay encourages more of this thinking with a recommendation to work with Planning and Engineering to create parklets, street closures, laneway activations and more.

Connectivity enhancers

Connectivity is another big feature of VanPlay. Vancouver already boasts the longest continuous waterfront trail in the world (the 28km sea wall that wraps around downtown) and a burgeoning system of bike lanes. VanPlay hopes to take this further.

An interesting element in the report is what the Park Board is calling “network enhancers.” These are elements—like bike repair stations, wayfinding, lighting, and seating—that bolster connectivity by increasing utility, safety, or pleasure between destinations.

Perhaps your walk between school and the park includes a small pollinator garden, a place to fill up your water bottle and a colourful piece of public art. 

We can’t always thread our city together with linear parks, but we can use these “network enhancers” to make the experience more enjoyable.

View the full VanPlay report here. You can find Vancouver’s City Profile in our Canadian City Parks Report here.

‘Percentage of land area’ and ‘network enhancer’ images courtesy of Design Workshop from VanPlay.

 

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