Malcolm Bromley & Constance Barnes Interview – Part 2

Malcolm Bromley and Constance Barnes at the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.

Spacing Vancouver Editor Erick Villagomez and contributors Brendan Hurley and Yuri Artibise continue their lively discussion 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—in this is the second of a four-part series focusing on the role of parks in the Vancouver. If you missed the first part, you can read it here.


Spacing: Given how many people use parks in the City and the many vested interests in how they are planned and used, can you tell me some of the challenges involved in designing, running and maintaining them? I hear that the discussion around the dogs is much more complex than it seems, for example.

Malcolm Bromley: It’s all about striking balance. Vancouver is densifying. I’m a big fan of density because I think it forces creative solutions to problems. Emery Barnes Park is an example; with the densification of Yaletown, we still needed green space, so we found a strategy to carve out that space.

We have to share the public realm between users—animals and humans. The dog park [issue] is one that is right down the middle. In my opinion there is a fifty-fifty split in terms of those for and against the whole dog issue. So our job is to listen and be responsive, and try to find safe ways that allow both dog owners and those who prefer not to be near dogs to enjoy public space together.

We are at the stage now where we are refining a policy direction that we are going to bring to the board that I think takes us to the next level of expanding and growing our dog park invetory in a way that’s responsible. It’s going to, I think, either make each side equally happy, or each side equally unhappy. <laughter> I’ll be fine with either one. <laughter> But I do think with a lot of listening and engagement, we’re going to have that solution. There are lots of other examples of where there are active and passive spaces in parks.

Each project that we do, we have to listen to all perspectives of what that project is. We installed lights in a sports field out in Jericho. That was a very difficult process because, up until that point, it was a very dark and remote area. There were sports fields there and some rudimentary lights, but we needed to increase our inventory of synthetic fields, so we put one in there.

Understandably, we had some people in that neighbourhood who were concerned about light pollution and the impact on the environment. It took a year of process. We had the lights ready to go for six months before we turned the switch on. We had to go through a lot of assessments with biologists; we had experts come in on lighting—these are satellite controlled lights that can be modified.

That’s brings us back to one of our earlier points. We really have to be thoughtful and process issues in an authentic way with the public. We really have to listen and demonstrate that we have heard them. If there is an adjustment we can make that is reasonable, people understand. You can’t give people everything they want.

Remember Constance, the first week I was here we were fixing the seawall, and we had to do the work when the tide cooperated. So when the tide was out, sometimes it was one o’clock in the morning. They were jack hammering out there, scrapping, driving the neighbours crazy on Beach Ave. It was just like a war.

Constance Barnes: It was pouring rain and Malcolm went out and met with the residents. They couldn’t believe that he was the general manager, but there he was. I remember because there were the trucks that went <<beep, beep>> when the backed up. Malcolm brought everybody together—it was all about bringing everybody together and having a discussion with the residents. The guys with the trucks were standing over there behind their trucks, and Malcolm said “I can see you over there, come on over and have a discussion,” and they did. As it turned out, it wasn’t a big deal; as a means of stopping the beeping, they could actually have some guy standing behind the truck using his arms to wave the driver back.

Those are the kind of things that have been happening for years and I don’t know that staff would actually meet the residents on location and say “let’s try and solve this.” Again, it’s that grassroots piece where there you are, you’re on-the-ground listening to people and coming up with solutions.

Malcolm Bromley: We made three or four adjustments that were reasonable. People said “I get it”. Everybody agreed that they wanted the seawall done, but it was the ways and means to get there. So we had a face-to-face dialogue.

We are using other tools to engage with people. I know that the desire right now is to go online and use apps. And we are using some of those tools. It is giving us some information. But at times, nothing replaces face-to-face interaction; problem solving, you’re kind of eyeballing and getting to the right place—forming the relationships.

Spacing Vancouver: And I imagine that there is a sincerity there; people come you to versus staying behind their monitors.

Constance Barnes: It makes a huge difference, because there are so many times I get emails and—I think this is just the way social media is—you read a specific tone into it. A perfect example is the elm trees. These are amazingly gorgeous elm trees and the email I received were just angry, angry, angry. But when we met the folks and looked at them eye-to-eye, the anger just diffused because, number one, you’re there. If you want to yell and scream, yell and scream, I’m hearing what you are saying. Now where do we go from here? So it’s not like you’re ‘type, type, type, type, type’ and ‘send’ and nobody is getting back to you.

[By being out there], we were able to come to a really great solution and actually went out and were planting some really interesting looking trees.

Malcolm Bromley: Siberian elms….

Constance Barnes: …but they got what they wanted.

Malcolm Bromley: My staff said no elms, but these folks researched elms that were resistant to Dutch Elm disease and could be pruned around utilities. It was a journey for my staff staff, as well as the community. It was one of those examples where we brought in Dave Hutch [Project Manager at the City of Vancouver] to facilitate and we kind of process problem-solved. And that day we planted the first tree. Isn’t that fantastic?

Now there is going to be a plaque on East 6th Ave commemorating it as a “Place That Matters” from the Vancouver Heritage Foundation.

Constance Barnes: They like the Park Board…

Malcolm Bromley: They didn’t like us then though!

Constance Barnes: No, they didn’t <laughter>

Malcolm Bromley: “We’ve come to chop your trees down….” I said to myself, how did you think they were going to react? <laughter>

Constance Barnes: Public consultation is a big piece. How do we do that correctly? Because, it’s reaching out—and again it’s cost, and how do you reach out to everybody? Send papers to their doors? But is that green? Conversely, if it’s online, you get seniors that go, “Well I don’t even have a computer.”

Malcolm Bromley: It’s habit. That’s how we always did it. So we’ve solved that problem, but more importantly let’s have that inform our future processes, because trees matter to people here, and there are other streets in Vancouver that are going to be faced with the same dilemma in the future.

We’d like to have a process here so, first of all, we put all of our tree data online. We were one of the first open data sources for the city. This scared some people, but I said that it’s information and to let others play with it. I can see us educating the public by saying “Go online and find out the health of your trees, and their life expectancy; and their treatment plans.”

People in Vancouver are very informed; they want to be part of the problem-solving. So give them information, bring them to the table and say, “Our trees are reaching this stage, we’ve got some decisions to make, what are we going to do? Here are our options… Here is what we could do—it could be a range from here to there.”

I have a lot of faith in people, and I know that Constance and the Board does. By giving the public information and opening discussions to problem-solve with them, it takes the pressure off us to be the smartest kid in the class. The public has some very smart ideas themselves.

Constance Barnes: Sometimes it’s like “That’s a really good idea! Why didn’t we think of that?” <laughter> That’s a great thing because the public becomes an important part of the solution, and that’s huge when you get somebody saying “Gee, they actually used my idea!” And again, as Malcolm has mentioned, people are very involved in this city. This is their city, it’s their park. And they say it, too!

We went through something similar with the skateboard and bmx park underneath the Burrard St. Bridge… people would come out and say “That’s my backyard!” Actually not so much, it’s not really, but that’s what they thought. And here we are now with families out there on their bikes—who were complaining at the beginning—with their young ones.

And that’s a big thing to: keeping people active—keeping them moving; keeping them healthy. I think of it as one of our priorities to ensure that we are keeping people moving and healthy, as well.

Malcolm Bromley: As you are talking, it reminds me of something I say to my staff: “Be brave, but don’t be dumb.” Don’t be arrogant and don’t be blind—be bold with a vision and bring people along. Stretch them—that’s how we grow; that’s how we get into new areas of business. It’s how we provide new services and think outside the box.

If you get whacked a couple of times—there’s a lot of opportunity to get whacked out there—you could just curl up and go back into your office and be safe and not think big. So we try to stretch. And sometimes we don’t get it right. But I’d rather stretch it and get it right 7 out of 10 times, then just stay static and keep doing the same things over and over.

Constance Barnes: Take some risks.


Spacing: It seems like there has been a building boom in community centres across Vancouver in recent years. Creekside, Hillcrest, Mount Pleasant, Trout Lake, Killarney, are just a few off the top of my head, and all of the new buildings are amazing in and of themselves. I’d love to hear how you think the new community centres have impacted their communities and the response of neighbourhood residents.

Constance Barnes: The response has been unbelievable.

I actually struggled with it at the beginning. I’m of the old mind that a community centre is just a funky little old building. I’m born and raised here so I’m one of those who is really attached to the old centres. A perfect example is Mount Pleasant. I actually ran to save the outdoor pool; until I got on the Board and realized how many dollars we were spending on, not only attempting to maintain it, but to subsidize an outdoor swimming pool. It’s brutal, especially when you do not have a lot of extra budget dollars.

I’ve now learned; I go in and see it’s more like a recreational facility. When you go in and see the programming, the light and  the environmental aspects—including the lovely yellow water is the toilets at Creekside Community Centre [recycled rainwater]—it is really amazing. Just the thinking that has gone into some of these buildings is extraordinary. Then you talk to the people…

At Creekside, for example, the childcare spaces are just spectacular; there are waiting lists for years, but it’s exactly what the [children] deserve. You’ve got green space, you’ve got these great little ‘sleepers;’ it’s open, it’s got play areas—it’s got everything that a mom or dad wants for their child as they drop him/her off for the day. You also look at the facilities in terms of the fitness spaces—un-believable!

So it’s very different, those elements are different than what we’ve had in the past. You’ve got libraries, you’ve got multi-use space, you’ve got arts, all these different things—Trout Lake has a pottery studio! I don’t see us going back; I see us building on this. I think it is even more interesting for programming opportunities—we still look at it as the old programming, but in a new space; I think we can build on that.

What I’m hearing is that a lot of the old programming is not as relevant as it could be to the families that are coming in. So many new immigrants are arriving to Vancouver and the programming needs to reflect that. Maybe things that are more culture specific can be offered. In that sense, I think we can do things differently to ensure that everybody in the community feels that they are represented at their local community centres. I’m not exactly sure how that will work as we go forward, but we need to work on it.  Nonetheless, I think our new spaces are spectacular…..they really are.

Malcolm Bromley: There is no universal standard for how much recreation a community should have. That’s a challenge for us. Some people think, “well, if a centre is packed, we need more centres.” Having been very active in the profession in Ontario and seen a lot of things across the country, [Vancouver has] one of the best inventories of facilities that I’ve every seen. They are unbelievable. It feels like I’ve be an official opening every two weeks since arriving here. Of course, it’s the timing of my arrival. A lot of things were in the works by my predecessors, who did a lot of good work.

You look at a place like Mount Pleasant—the old Mount Pleasant and the new. Bringing it out to a high street, and merging it with a library, has doubled the amount of participation. We kept the metrics; we looked at who used to old one, who used the old library and who is using the new one, and it has doubled. Incredible! Sunset, the same thing: a free-standing community centre that was inside the park; you bring it to the street and you make it more accessible and it instantly improves the participation.

So there are some urban form accessibility issues to keep in mind as we evolve our models. I don’t think you’ll see us building single purpose buildings very much any more. It’s very expensive, and the public has really responded well to having one-stop shopping. Hillcrest has a library in it that’s packed now. Sandra Singh, the librarian, says we really co-exist well together.

I think we’re sneaking up on almost redefining a new space—not quite a library, not quite a community centre. It’s almost an ‘enrichment learning centre,’ where we help people go and have different experiences that enrich their lives. Sandra and I are talking about that. This maybe the new Marpole opportunity, where we can continue to evolve the model and get more bang-for-the-buck but also make a better service for the public.

Constance Barnes: That’s going to be an interesting discussion. I’m a library trustee and we talk about books, and how that whole aspect is changing, and all the space that has books. Whereas now they are bringing in, what are they, Kindles? I didn’t even want to say it because I’m a book person. <laughter> I like the binding and the smell of the book, that’s so important, you know? Having a mom as a writer, you can’t imagine, you can’t even say the ‘K’ word in front of my mother. It’s changing, though.

Malcolm Bromley: It’s changing. But it is an opportunity, too. We’ll have treadmills with Kindles on them. <laughter> We’ll have new concepts…

Constance Barnes: There you go… and a dog on a leash with a little dog treadmill too. <laughter>

Malcolm Bromley: Now you’re thinking! <laughter>

••• [Click to Read Part 3] •••

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.

One comment

  1. Intensive green roofs (with trees) on infill buildings would reduce the need to have street-level parks, which generate little property tax increases compared to infill buildings and reduce the cost of utilities and stormwater runoff.

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