A brief historical account of the Vancouver Park Board, with SUPPORT for its continuation
Submitted by Terri Clark, Park Board Communications Officer for 35 years, now retired.
I arrived in Vancouver in 1973, straight out of University in Washington DC. I was 23 and a new Permanent Resident with zero knowledge about the Vancouver Park system. That was soon to change.
My newly minted Communications Degree seemed a perfect fit for a job offered on the notice board at the downtown employment office, with position titled Public Information Officer – Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. I thought if I was lucky enough to qualify, I’d stay for a couple of years before pursuing a corporate position. I stayed 35 short years.
Probably the best bonus of starting at the Park Board (no ’s’, you wouldn’t say Schools Board), was that I’d be working along with the ‘greatest generation’ of employees for several years before they would hand over the reins to the new kids on the block. I can’t tell you what a privilege it was to listen and learn as they downloaded personal Park Board (PB) history that spanned from before the war years and then continued upon their return home to jobs kept waiting for them.
The late 1940s through 1950s were boom years when the PB in cooperation with neighbourhoods, built the first community centres through special, targeted community bylaws that were approved during elections. Community Associations would campaign within their own delineated neighbourhoods to approve additional taxes on their properties, over say 25 years, and when approved, the Park Board would receive the funds to complete the project. In effect, over a quarter of a century, communities paid for the construction of their centres that were then run in partnership with the PB. Some of the earliest centres built under this formula were Hastings, Sunset, Kerrisdale, Kitsilano, Marpole and Riley. Later centres were included in the city-wide Capital Plan which now is put up for voter approval every four years during Vancouver’s municipal election.
The Park Board depended on Community Centre Associations and Park Partners to be their eyes and ears at the grassroots level and for over nearly a century this worked well.
Right from the start I was bombarded for historical information by legions of students and this continued over the years, along with info requests from across the city about our many services and complaints re the same. The PB was a well-oiled machine with the Service Yard in Stanley Park which was the beating heart for landscape construction, sign making, facility maintenance, sanitation, parkland maintenance, etc.
The Sunset Nursery in South Vancouver was the horticultural heart of the organization where over half a million annual and perennial plants were grown every year from seeds sourced worldwide by some of the best horticulturally trained professionals in Canada. These were planted in parks, around golf courses and community centres and at our garden jewels, i.e., Queen Elizabeth Park, Stanley Park and VanDusen Botanical Garden. On a plot of leased land in Surrey, the forestry section ran a tree farm where new woody sentinels were grafted and raised until strong enough to be planted in parks and as street trees, with over 30,000 flowering varieties making Vancouver’s early and late spring a show stopper.
The staff at the Park Board had specific jobs and would see some facilities through from unveiling to replacement, perhaps 40 years later in their careers. They were on top of maintenance and kept precise records reported in the PB Annual Report. (Sadly, I doubt these public documents exist now as they evolved over the years, even before my departure, away from facts and figures. We lost this easy access to documents, which was such a vital tool to new employees and old alike.) Things started to alter for staff after the 2008 election.
The newly elected Mayor in 2008 did something never done before in the City’s recent history—he and Council fired the sitting City Manager with decades of service before being promoted to the top job. That was the first of 1000 cuts to ‘The Long Green Line’. Within two years the City Manager set the stage to decapitate the City’s and Park Board’s Corporate memory by firing Park Board Department Heads and Managers (all being made to sign non-disclosure agreements) and placing a hand-picked new Park Board General Manager in charge. This new Park Board General Manager answered to the City Manager, not the elected Park Board who depended on this civil servant to fight for PB budgets and to provide a whole host of orientation and duties for the PB.
The City Manager then threw a spanner into the well-oiled park maintenance machine under the guise of ‘efficiency’, absorbed the now reduced PB crews into the City’s building maintenance system, who now took over park facilities they had no experience in maintaining. This happened to sanitation as well. In addition, the Park Board Global Budget was lost. Through this Global Budget process, the Board along with staff would present their total budget to City, which would be approved and then operated by the PB with no further interference. The situation now is that each major expenditure must be separately approved by City Council.
Then the City Manager revised the Joint Operating Agreements with the 22 Community Centre Associations stripping them of funds previously garnered from modest membership fees and course programming which had provided the centres funds for decades. Even worse, this robbed Community Centres of their ‘self-worth’. In the past Community Centre Associations saved the monies they gathered from the above and were able to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to Community Centre enrichment such as the Kerrisdale Seniors Centre (just one of many examples).
Until 2015 when the City Manager was fired (though the Mayor praised her at his announcement while handing her a cheque for $556,000) the PB had its budget reduced over and over. The uninformed public were lashing out with complaints over decreased park maintenance, crumbling infrastructure that should have been foreseen, slowness in tree planting on streets and parks and the whispers of converting parkland to affordable housing.
Ironically, as Vancouver became drunk on development following Expo 86, the Park Board Director of Planning and the City Planner were prescient in introducing a new formula that would bind developers to an agreement to provide free community amenities such as parkland, community centres, daycares and schools, in proportion with the developments’ scope. Further, the said new high-rises could not be occupied until the agreed upon amenities were completed and turned over to Park Board or the City. Most all of Vancouver’s downtown parks hugging the waterfront in Coal Harbour and along the northside of False Creek can be attributed to this agreement.
I say ironically because the word on the street is the City will no longer require the ‘poor’ developers to make such community contributions. That, along with the current Mayor’s push to dismantle its biggest stumbling block, the PB itself, would make it almost a ‘fait accompli’ that parks will be up for grabs for housing development.
When I think back to all the time I spent at the Vancouver Archives researching PB history, when the hundreds of staff and Park Commissioner stories whispered to me through the mists of time, I feel such a swell of esprit de corps. Park Board decisions incrementally built the Stanley Park Seawall over six decades-—slow but sure. They took their modest annual parkland acquisition funds where, building by building they were able to purchase hotels and private residences along English Bay Beach to open it up for the pleasure of all.
Rather than see the CPR’s Old Shaughnessy Golf Course, located at 37th and Oak Street, turned into a housing development, the Park Board General Manager approached a former Park Commissioner, Grace McCarthy, then an MLA, to enlist her Provincial Government support after first obtaining a generous donation of a million dollars from WJ VanDusen. The City kicked in an equal amount and 55 acres were saved for one of North America’s finest botanical gardens, while CPR developed the upper reaches of the parcel for the present Shaughnessy Place.
There are literally hundreds of stories where, the separately elected and fairly funded Park Board and its long green line of dedicated staff, saved the day by protecting the precious good earth for the use and enjoyment of Vancouver’s peoples. As density increases, this need for open spaces and affordable recreation facilities grows exponentially.
The Long Green Line must continue. If we join hands, together we can make it so.
SPEAK UP in support of the Park Board by emailing your local MLA to express your opposition to the motion to abolish the Vancouver Park Board.
David.Eby.MLA@leg.bc.ca; Anne.Kang.MLA@leg.bc.ca; George.Heyman.MLA@leg.bc.ca; Brenda.Bailey.MLA@leg.bc.ca; George.Chow.MLA@leg.bc.ca; Niki.Sharma.MLA@leg.bc.ca; Mable.Elmore.MLA@leg.bc.ca; Adrian.Dix.MLA@leg.bc.ca; Michael.Lee.MLA@leg.bc.ca; Joan.Phillip.email@example.com; Kevin.Falcon.MLA@leg.bc.ca; s.chandraherbert.MLA@leg.bc.ca