Parks are some of the most significant and meaningful public spaces in our cities. As traditional spaces of leisure, nature, and sport, parks have played an integral part of in the history of city life. And as cities have changed in response to complex global forces and urban technologies, so have the roles of park within them. From the movement to daylight streams and start connecting isolated urban parks into more ecologically sensitive city-wide parks networks to the creation of Mountain Bike Parks under highways and the Wi-Fi parks in New York City, the parks of the future promise to be as interesting as the cities that house them. Here in Vancouver—a city known for its natural setting and home of renowned Stanley Park—parks are particularly important.
Surprisingly, however, discussion around parks goes largely under the radar. Spacing Vancouver Editor Erick Villagomez and contributors Brendan Hurley and Yuri Artibise had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Vancouver Park Board Commissioner (and recently announced NDP candidate for the Vancouver False Creek riding!) Constance Barnes and Malcolm Bromley- General Manager of the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation —to discuss the role of parks in the Vancouver, challenges and interesting initiatives on the horizon. This is the first of a four-part series.
Spacing Vancouver: Thank you both for taking the time to chat with me and share some of your insights with Spacing readers. All Vancouverites know and use parks, but many don’t really have a good sense of those in charge of the system. So to start, do you mind explaining both your roles here as Parks Board Commissioner and General Manager of Parks and Recreatkon, respectively?
Malcolm Bromley: I’m the General Manager at the Board. It’s called the Board of Parks and Recreation. Historically it’s been called the Parks Board, which a lot of people still call it that, who’ve been around for a while.
My job is the senior administrator here. I’m responsible for all the operational and management issues at the Park Board and the staff—we’ve got about 700 people. We have about a $105 million budget, of which 60% comes from the City of Vancouver—we are City employees—and 40% comes from fees, charges, leases and agreements that we have. So we generate about 40% of our own budget.
Constance Barnes: I’m the chair of the Vancouver Parks board and a second term Commissioner. There are seven Commissioners. We are the only elected Board of Parks and Recreation in Canada. I consider my job to be an advocate—a voice of the people. What are we doing in our community centres, our rinks, our pools, our recreation and green spaces, our parks, our programming, and early care and learning?
It’s very complex, its extremely layered, but it gives us a real opportunity to bring to Malcolm and staff what the people want. Vancouver is huge but very diverse, and every community has different needs. I think of my job to be bringing forward what we are hearing out there in the community. That, and kind of directing staff as to what the needs are.
Spacing Vancouver: Given how important parks are to Vancouverites and the city as a whole, it always struck me how much park-related news goes unpublicized. Particularly given some of the really innovative work that is has been done in recent years. From the many stream daylighting projects that have been done to creative water management strategies used in new parks such as the extremely successful Norquay Park redevelopment, so much seems to go unnoticed. Can you speak to why this has been the case, and whether you plan to change this in the future?
Constance Barnes: I can definitely speak a little bit to that <laughter>. In all honesty, first I would like to say thank-you so much for being here and letting us speak to what we do here in the parks, because it’s not sexy <laughter>, it’s not what people are excited to read about.
These days the headlines are usually angry stories that get peoples attention. The things that get headline are situations like we’ve had in the past with goats, or with rabbits, or something tragic, or something horrible. It’s controversial, it’s not really that great.
And you’re right, we do great, great work. We’re looking at new and innovative ways of using green spaces and field houses and art projects. An amazing amount of work is hidden, because it is not that exciting news, it’s not top of mind. People also have expectations that those things will just happen. It’s a shame, but I’m grateful that you are here highlighting the work that we are doing.
Malcolm Bromley: I worked in Toronto a long time—29 years—before I came here and the same kind of situation occurred in there. I think it’s part of being a Parks and Recreation person. For the people that gravitate to this field, it’s a sense of calling and it’s civic duty. I don’t want to be hokey, but they really care about the environment, or recreation, or children, or seniors. We get paid pretty good money, but you are not going to be a millionaire working for Parks and Recreation.
So there’s a real passion for the work and not a desire to blow your horn and seek headlines. It’s just to deliver good quality services, to focus on the customers. We really work hard on making people happy with what we do and try to satisfy the needs of the public.
I’ve always said there (in Toronto), and it’s kind of transferring here, that we are a sleeping giant. We really are if you think of the landmass that we are responsible for, and the impact that we have on making Vancouver a livable city. I think we have a huge piece of that. A lot of the reasons why we are livable is because of the work we do. There seems to be an occupational by-product of working in this field though—we’re pretty low-key folks.
Spacing Vancouver: Malcolm, you’re a recent addition to the Vancouver Parks and Recreation team, having worked in Southern Ontario prior to coming here to Vancouver in 2010—including three years as Director of Community Recreation for the City of Toronto. What compelled you to make your way out west and what would you say are some of the key differences between the places you have worked in Ontario and here?
Malcolm Bromley: I worked in Belleville for a couple of years as well; it’s a small town east of Toronto. And then in Toronto for 29 years, finishing as Director. I thought I’d wind up my career there and never envisioned going somewhere else, but this opportunity came along.
I saw an ad in the Globe and Mail and talked to my family. I had never even been to Vancouver, ever. I’d been to Winnipeg; that’s as far west as I had been at the time. I contacted them, and for some reason I just followed my gut. I have a wife and three kids—two of which are still at home and it made no sense as far as my life plan. But when I came here for the last round of interviews, met the people and saw the city I just fell for it—I fell in love with the place.
I went back [to Toronto] and talked to my family about it. I said that this just seems to be the right thing to do and that it was a very compelling pull that brought me here. My youngest daughter said: “You’ll regret it forever if you don’t take this opportunity, it’s a once in a lifetime, so go for it, we’ll work it out.” So we’re working it out.
My family is still there and I go back and forth, but this July, they are all coming out here—at least my daughter and my wife—so we are all going to come together. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world, though. It’s not the easiest way to be a family; but I still have the passion and energy I had when I first came here—and it keeps growing and growing.
This relates to one of the differences of with Toronto. I worked in North York pre-amalgamation, and once we became one big city—it’s really big—the scale of it started to affect my ability to make changes I thought were necessary. The moving parts are so large—I had 153 community centres; it would take me 90 minutes to go across the city to visit two centres.
Whereas when I came here, the scale was back to something I thought was manageable—you could put your arms around Vancouver. I kept on showing up a half an hour early for every meetings because I thought I would take me a long time to get there <laughter>.
Other differences? People here are completely connected to the outside. It’s almost like an inside-out city. People spend so much time outside here. You don’t need a huge house, you don’t need a ranch style house and a garage and backyards. People really engage in the public space year round—whether it is the seawall, or the parks, or the community centres, tennis courts, pitch and putt golf courses, or the beach. People live outside in Vancouver, dress appropriately and are not deterred by some rain.
People in Toronto keep telling me, “Well, it rains there a lot.” I say yeah, I know, but it’s actually kind of lovely at times. You don’t have to shovel it and can carry on with your life <laughter>. During the winter in Toronto, you go home, shut the door and hunker down inside your house.
Because people use the parks so much here, they demand involvement. Everybody here is connected to something. Everyone here is on a mission of some sort. There is a lot of belonging to groups, whether it is neighbourhood associations or causes, or not-for-profit societies. This is an engaged, plugged-in community. I like that. You have to respect that, and factor that in when you are trying to do your work—when you are trying to building something, adjust something, or make a change. You can’t just do it to people, you have to do it with people. People expect that.
When I first got here, there were some adversarial relationships, though. I would show up for things and it was assumed that people were going to have to have a fight with us. I said “Why? Where is this coming from?” Maybe there was a legacy, or history, or learned behaviour. Slowly, I think were are getting a reputation for being open, for being collaborative. I don’t want to at all be disparaging of the past. Emery Barnes Park works so well now because a lot of the engagement tools we used to talk to people—”What do you want in this park?” “What works for you?”
So, I would say the most significant difference between Toronto and here is that the attention to detail and expectation for influence and input by the community is extremely high on every issue. You have to get all the facts. Often, for a particular decision, we’ll have conflicting opinions. There is a lot of ying-yang on issues here, whether it is pro- or anti-dogs, or pro- or anti-restaurants. You have to navigate through that and take your time.
It takes longer to process things here, but I think we get to a better place. I think we end up with unbelievably high quality facilities and parks and programs because of that. It is not accidental. It’s not a cookie cutter and we just don’t lay it on a community and move on.
Spacing Vancouver:Vancouver is a unique city insofar that it has an independent Park Board. Given that many people might not know specifically what that means for a city, can you explain the implications of this system and the positive and negative aspects of having the Parks Board as a separate governing body?
Constance Barnes: Well, the positives are—we touched on all the different community centres—we liaise, we are liaisons to each community centre. It gives us an opportunity to go out to each one of these locations. They meet once a month, and we sit in on their board and listen to what their issues are—what’s working and what’s not. We also have the opportunity to come back and discuss it with staff.
In that sense, it’s not high level, but are basically putting the program in, so it’s like you said—‘not cookie cutter.’ “Here’s our core, here’s what we do; everybody doesn’t gets the same thing because every community is so different. For myself, I liaise to two total opposite ends of the city: Strathcona and Kerrisdale
In Strathcona, for example, we are feeding 200 children every single morning at a breakfast program and have a backpack program. So on Friday’s, these kids are bringing food home.
In Kerrisdale….not so much. Their issues are a little bit different; it’s not that they are any less important. They have more seniors, so their issues are geared towards this demographic and making sure that seniors are engaged. One important issue we are looking at is alienation: seniors feeling alienated and almost detached. So what are we doing there in terms of programming to make sure that the seniors are moving, that there are outreach programs to get them into the community centres?
So I think as ‘electeds,’ it gives us the opportunity to be that voice. I think that public piece is really hard, and we hear it all the time: “You haven’t gone out to the community.” You know, “public consultation,” “public consultation.” It gives people an opportunity to come to the Board, to come to committee, to speak as delegates, to have their organizations come and say “We’re advocating for this, this and this” as opposed to the City making all the decisions.
So yes, we get dollars from the City, but we’re in a position to decide where those dollars go and what kinds of facilities are needed. Everything from the beaches, to the seawall, to biking, to golf courses, to swimming to skating; that is all with us. Those are decisions that we are making.
At the same time, one of the tough parts is that we are so ground level—they can kick you while you are walking past, and they do! I seriously cannot walk out my front door with somebody saying “The hat came off that totem pole”, because that is in a park. Everyday, I wake up and I’ve got three or four emails because a dog was off-leash, or somebody is working out, or has ‘bootcamps’ going on in a park space that they are not supposed to be in; or something is going on with parking; or a restaurant that’s just opened and they feel that it’s corporate. So it’s always something. We’re very, very ground level; on the ground, open to all of it. I myself, love it! I’m kind of like “bring it on!” <laughter>
Again, like Malcolm says… Malcolm is so different than what the past has been. And, again, it’s not slighting what the past has been, but when he first came to Vancouver and he started showing up at meetings……it’d been raining out there, and he’d have his slickers on, and he’s talking to the workers. And I’m like “hmmm, who is this guy?” <laughter> And he’d say, “I’m Malcolm Bromley, how are you doing?” Aren’t you the new GM?” “Yeah!” and he’s out there with the people. It gives us an opportunity to do that.
It has changed huge in the sense of the energy level here, the staff here, they feel that they can get out and do the work. They can try things. Sometimes we try them and they don’t work so well and we go, “OK, we need to rethink that.” But again, as ‘electeds’ and as a Board, it really gives us an opportunity to be kind of separate—and I don’t mean totally separate from the City, because we work with the City, and work with the School Board. But the fact that we are an elected body really gives us an opportunity to get down and dirty and look at the work, hash it out.
We are not all from the same party, so we’ve got different parties here—with different beliefs—and we really try to work as a team. The election is over, we are all here now for three years, let’s try to figure out how to do this respectfully and collaboratively.
I think it’s a real gift for Vancouver that we have this opportunity to come out and really advocate for what we’re hearing. So sometimes it is really a positive, but—honestly—there are times I go “Whoa!”
Malcolm Bromley: Being an elected official takes so much courage. It is a very difficult job. You get a performance appraisal every three years; and it’s a serious one—you either pass or you fail.
In other jurisdictions, Parks and Recreation is typically a committee of Council and they have other things to worry about. We are fortunate that we’ve got a group of elected officials with a single focus, which is parks and recreation. So we can really drill down deep into it and engage on those topics. I think that is why we have such a great system here; the Board brings a focus and a singularity of purpose to the table.
The challenge is that it is another level of government that other cities don’t have. So we always have to find an appropriate balance of interface with Constance’s elected colleagues at City Hall. They are our primary shareholder, if you want to say—they kind of own the company. But they respect the Board.
We have to evolve and grow. The Board is 124 years old. There was a time—probably most of the time—where it was quite, quite independent. “Here’s some money, go do your thing, just don’t overspend your budget next year.” But, as the city grows and evolves and takes that next step to a world-level city, we need to think of city-building. And if you are going to do city-building, you have to do it collaboratively with your partners.
My job is to try and strike a balance, with Constance on the elected side and me on the bureaucratic/administrative side; to be a good partner, to collaborate and converge on projects where we can help build the city. We run into constant overlap with transportation, planning, density, community amenity contributions—a lot of key decisions that go on in the city. We have to be at the table and work collaboratively with others. Same with the School Board.
I think that one of the changes we have made in the last couple of years is real active partnerships with other agencies who are interested in trying to solve problems for the citizen. It is really citizen focused—how do we use these tax dollars wisely? I get that the public is concerned about their tax dollars; we have just come through a tough time economically. You really have to show value for money. It doesn’t make sense to the public if we are all building separate buildings—you build a library here, and you build a community centre beside it; you build housing over here and you have a school have empty over there. Why don’t we think this through and come up with a different model or paradigm?
That’s the stage we are in now. I think we are striking the right balance, where the Board focuses on our policy. They ‘own’ parks and recreation and give us direction on policies. As staff, we look for opportunities to integrate and leverage with other city departments and agencies.
Constance Barnes: That’s difficult though because it’s a change. I’m good with change. Malcolm is good with change. But there is always a perception that “you’re losing your autonomy” or “the City is directing you to do this, this and this.” Whereas there has been many times—and I’m born and raised here—where you think “why did they build that there, when they did that there?” “Why didn’t they work together collaboratively?” which is what we’re doing now. And it is also efficiencies—everything from shared services to working with libraries, working with the School Board, working with the City.
Some people may look at that as “you’re not doing your own thing.” I like to look at it as “why should we be doing our own thing?” We are all in this together; if we can look at the resources, making sure we are being fiscally responsible, look at those tax dollars and where they are being utilized—working together as a team—it makes better sense.
But you still do get those people who say “no, you are giving in, and you need to be out there fighting. You need to be fighting for every dollar, and fighting for your autonomy, and it’s all about the Parks Board.” Whereas, I think the world is changing and it cannot be all about “your” stuff. It’s gotta be like a family….we all have to come together. As a single mom, it’s always been like “Dad said, and you said, and I said…” and I say, “You know, We are all still in this together, let’s pool our resources, and Dad, come on a cough it up.” <laughter> “You may be living over there, but I need a little bit of that love.” <laughter> It’s the same kind of thing.
We’ve got great people at the City looking at arts; we’re looking at bike lanes. Why wouldn’t we be at the same table? Sometimes we have to insists and say “Excuse me City, why weren’t we at that table? We need to be involved in that.”
Malcolm Bromley: It is two ways, right? It takes two to make the thing happen.
••• [Click to Read Part 2] •••
Yuri Artibise is a public policy analyst and social media specialist. Through his Yurbanism brand, he explores the ‘Y’ of urbanism by sharing ways to make our cities more livable, community-oriented places one block at a time. He currently works with PlaceSpeak, an online location-based community consultation platform.
Brendan Hurley is a local urban designer who focuses on planning for adaptive neighbourhood change. His recent work has been internationally focused, but is strongly rooted in his native Vancouver. Living and working out of the heart of downtown, he remains keenly focused on the region’s development and history. Brendan is a regular contributor to Spacing Vancouver, but also consults as director of the UrbanCondition design collective.
Erick Villagomez is the Editor-in-chief at Spacing Vancouver. He is also an educator, independent researcher and designer with personal and professional interests in the urban landscapes. His private practice - Metis Design|Build - is an innovative practice dedicated to a collaborative and ecologically responsible approach to the design and construction of places. You can also see some of his drawing and digital painting adventures at Visual Thoughts.