Malcolm Bromley & Constance Barnes Interview – Part 3

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, the third  instalment 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. Part two is here.


Spacing: As you know, the internet is affecting all facets of city life and in recent years there has been a push to include Wi-Fi in public parks in a number cities across North America. Many systems have been, or are being tested currently. Locally, New Westminster’s recent City Wi-Fi pilot project that located a hotspot at Queens Park seems to have been quite successful.

Although the idea of making public spaces in Vancouver Wi-Fi friendly has been discussed for years, it seems to have died down recently, despite growing demand. How is the Parks Board responding to this issue, and what do you see the role of parks being in the internet age?

Malcolm Bromley: We are incrementally growing it. The space you are now [Parks Board headquarters] has Wi-Fi; it came on a year ago. There wasn’t Wi-Fi in the Parks Board office before. So when you are here at a Parks Board meeting, you can hook up. Creekside has Wi-Fi; False Creek also has Wi-Fi.

This is one of those opportunities where we should do things together [with the City]. When you go to a library, or a public civic asset, what should you expect in terms of accessibility to the internet? The City is developing a digital strategy – one that’s close to being completed – that will inform that kind of decision-making. Does it become now a standard utility that people should expect? I know in Toronto, they pulled a lot of ‘dark fibre’ through the city, so it’s basically a network that is ready to go that a provider could hook up to and *snap* bring it to life. So while they are doing work, lay the dark fibre.

I sit at the corporate management team table and I know we’re contemplating: “What’s the right strategy?” “What’s the demand?” We do get interest from providers who are interested in wiring the city. This is one of those issues that I think we need to do collectively. We need to work with our corporate partners, and we need to work with the providers that are quite eager to wire the city. Because it has an economic benefit as well; it’s for recreation and entertainment, but it’s also for the economic vitality of the city.

I was in Toronto, where in downtown, I think for a couple of years it was free. They wired it up to test it out in the downtown core, and then they began the charge. So I’ve been through those experimental periods.

I think we’re sneaking up on more of a comprehensive approach here. We’ve plucked off a few, but we don’t have a specific plan right now to expand it to [other] centres. We do work with our associations in partnership, and they frequently will pay for a service. At False Creek, they pay for the Wi-Fi as a service they like to provide for the users of that facility.


Spacing: And in parks as well? You always hear that, on a nice afternoon, people would love to take their computer to the park and be able to access the internet

Malcolm Bromley: I think we are open to it. For some people it is counter intuitive – going to nature so you can watch videos – but who are we to judge people’s leisure time?

Constance Barnes: We’re the old people who are thinking that! <laughter> The young ones are like: “Yeah! What’s the matter with that?” They’re tweeting and facebooking, and doing it all at the same time.

Malcolm Bromley: We have got to get kids back to nature and away from ‘screen time.’ So many hours are spent sitting watching TV and playing video games. There is a real movement to get back to nature, but we can’t be luddites. We have to listen, and move, and evolve. So I think we’re open to it, certainly around Stanley Park and our other parks that have buildings in them. Maybe we’ll do a compromised balance where ‘within this zone’ [Wi-Fi] is available. It’s not the whole park, so you can’t climb a tree way out on the back fourty and watch a video, but if you want to merge your activities, you can actually have a lot of fun with more mobile devices.

I just met with a guy from UBC. He’s a prof who has a side not for profit business that has done some work in Pacific Spirit Park about trying to enliven Stanley Park with QR codes and try and bring it to life so you can go around and get stories and video about the history and archaeology of the park and First Nations stories that relate to the park. We are looking to bring to the Board a pilot project that will grow that idea in Stanley Park.

We’re trying to find a balance between nature and technology. We’re open and we’re curious.

Constance Barnes: That will be good to work on with Tourism, because I know that Tourism is doing a lot of that.

I like what you touched on, and I’m of the mind that —to a certain extent— kids especially, are sitting in front of computers for hours and hours and hours. We have children that are now suffering from diabetes; they’re overweight, they need to get moving. We need to motivate them to get active, even the little ones.

Oak Park —the one that we just opened on Oak Street— is a gorgeous park by the Marpole Community Centre. There is no man made materials, it’s all beautiful yellow cedar. It has a little raised garden, so kids can plant. It’s using your imagination —what can you do playing in the sand, and playing with the blocks, and planting greens, and planting food and veggies, and seeing that end. I think we’ve lost that. I look at the Parks Board as still being that piece, especially if it’s urban.

If you are living in Yaletown, you don’t have green space — so where are you learning how you grow your vegetables? What could we be doing with composting? What could we be doing to make sure that every little one has grown a nasturtium and planted a carrot—and tasted it? So they know where their food is coming from… and that their little feet get the opportunity to feel the grass, or get dirty. I think that that’s part of what we need to be doing as well. Making sure that our youth —our children— are healthy and green, and active, and appreciating all the green space we have.

Malcolm Bromley: She touches on something that we have focused on here as an organization at the Board: taking our assets and seeing how else can we maximize these for other agenda items and other city building items around health, etc.. Food security wasn’t even on the radar of the Park Board before, but this Board felt it, I felt it, the staff felt it. Planting forty or fifty fruit trees and different parks with children, is a representation of what is to come. It’s understanding that food provision in public space is an opportunity to do many things.

We’ve got a city of extremes here. We have a city of haves and have-nots, people that are struggling to put food on their table. So, anything we can do through urban gardens and urban agriculture, such as helping provide logs and soil and mulch for the Downtown Eastside —in that space across from Save-On-Meats— we are trying to do as cooperative partners with other tables. We don’t have to own it, we don’t have to drive it, but we can be a cooperative partner to support it in trying to address some of those issues.

Some of our vacant field houses [need addressing]. We’ve got a whole bunch of field houses that the Board passed a motion over a year ago saying, let’s look at repurposing those for creative use. So now we have two field houses that have pilot projects for artistic space. First Nation artists are using one field house for up-cycling—that was your idea Constance.

Constance Barnes: Yep, that’s Sharon Kallis who does up-cycling. For all of our invasive species —one of them being english ivy— she comes in and pulls it out, dries it out, and then weaves it into everything from baskets to netting. The netting actually gets used. They used to purchase these spools for $700 from Australia, I believe, to put netting on the Sea to Sky Highway to prevent rock falls. It was this extremely expensive netting, and, as it turns out, this product from upcycling, using our green waste to weave into these nets is just as strong and very usable for that.

So its looking into what we throw away, finding green ways, and then asking how we can incorporate it into an art project or getting people out, getting them active, looking at the First Nations and their weaving, and tying that into utilizing green waste —that’s what’s called upcycling. Instead of discarding all of our waste —which we would burn, which is not great for the ozone anyway— we are asking, what could we be utilizing it for? So that is a win-win; and then you are engaging artists, families,  and kids. You’ve got people doing something they have maybe never done before. It’s that social interactive piece that we were talking about. Those are the things that we just never thought about before.

Malcolm Bromley: In fact, it’s a by-product of being open, curious, and approachable. People come to us now with ideas. UBC has a new pilot project, where they are looking at biofuels, and we are providing them with wood chips. Those types of engagements and partnerships really help us do city building and integration on several agenda items.

Whether it’s sustainability, or food, or settlement services, I’m a big fan that parks and recreation as a delivery vehicle for these other objectives that help people to grow as individuals; communities to grow with economic vitality. We’re an essential service that contributes to all of those core outcomes in the city. We are about fun, and we are about leisure and diversion, but we are about more than that. If we think about it, and if we pursue it and strategically use our resources, we can do two or three of these things at once.

Constance Barnes: No smoking on beaches and in parks; that’s huge! People were in an uproar. An now you look and you don’t see as many people smoking —they almost police each other. That was huge. An now what happens is other places in the world have followed suit. So it’s almost as though Vancouver is the leader in many of these things. We just thought “You know what? playgrounds, parks, beaches; all of those: no smoking, no smoking, no smoking.” That has been one of those real positives.

Malcolm Bromley: It’s true. Look at Van Dusen Gardens. Van Dusen is the first and only public living buildings in Canada, that we know of (there might be one in Montreal now). That’s the challenge: to build it, to maintain it, and to keep it within budget. But what is does is it inspires the community to take even the next step. That’s how you grow, evolve and continue to be dynamic. You’re bold and you try something new. You have LEED Platinum buildings, and everybody says that’s the end of it, but somebody says, there’s another level, (I joke) it’s ‘LEED Unobtanium’ <laughter>

Constance Barnes: We’ve got other places in the world trying to connect with us, asking “How did you do that?” “What are you doing?” How does it work for you?” So it puts Vancouver on the map.

Spacing: I want to stay on the topic of the future and how you respond to changes having direct impact on parks in the city. For example, the high-tech, hide-and-seek treasure hunt called geocaching has grown quite a bit in Vancouver—where people armed with a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a set of coordinates search for hidden treasures in local parks and other public spaces. Or the growth of new sports like Hardcourt Bike Polo that recently found its first purpose-built court in Grandview Park.

These activities speak to the changes in technologies and culture, and parks have to accommodate this in some way. So, what approaches do you take recognizing these cultural transformations and planning for them?

Constance Barnes: I just think it’s listening to the people. It’s the people. For that end of it, [Park Board Commissioner and current Chair] Sarah Blyth has been an advocate. She’s a young Commissioner, who has been a skateboarder, suffers from a disability —that I don’t find to be a disability— and that is something that she felt she does well, which is snowboarding, and then BMX bikes, and skateboarding. She brought those to the table.

Once you let one organization in with a little bit, and all of a sudden, they have all these ideas. So it’s being open. And you know what, there is a lot of pushback, because it’s new. But again, it’s like the BMX park under the Burrard Street bridge. Once it’s there, and people see it, and you see the kids out, and active, and not up to no good, it is a huge piece. They are doing something that is positive, and staying active and healthy.

People come forward; they see that and they go “Have you ever heard of…?” Many times we go, “Geez, no we haven’t heard of it, bring it to the Board!”

Malcolm Bromley: You’ve hit the nail on the head. We’re kind of coming back full circle. We were talking about the benefits of having a Board. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a by-product of having a Board, because the Board focuses on innovation and quality of recreation. We think about one thing all the time: parks and recreation environment. What new things can we pursue?

More importantly, you are so accessible as elected officials. When people have an idea, they pick up the phone, they email you, and we can turn it around quickly. We go and talk to them and see if it’s got some potential to move.

Constance Barnes: I forward it to him… <laughter> at three in the morning! <laughter>

Malcolm Bromley: If you are part of a bigger political machine, you are not going to have that nimbleness. You are not going to have that attention to detail. When you are an elected official, you’re measured in one way: you get re-elected. That’s how they are measured, and that means they are making people happy.

To meet the needs of people you have to listen and respond. You’ve got that single purpose of parks and recreation as a mandate. I think that really is a byproduct that has resulted in these innovative, creative attempts to be bold, and to be different.

Constance Barnes: We’re open too. I mean, we have delegates who come, and they sit, and they get their five minutes. They speak to whatever they want for their five minutes; and usually, depending on what’s on the agenda, we hear all kinds of interesting things.

Sometimes they come in and they give us a bit of this <makes slapping sound>, and with that… because it’s one thing to come in and rant and rave, but what is the solution?

Sometimes they come up with great ideas and we direct staff to check into it. Staff comes back and says “Yeah, we can do that.”

Malcolm Bromley: It’s a lovely process when something starts out as an idea —or sometimes it start out as a complaint. After we go through a process, and we’re respectful, and we listen, and we go out there, and we talk. When it finally comes back as a good new story and a happy ending, it’s a wonderful feeling.

I gotta tell you, as a bureaucrat and as an administrator, we and the Board all look at each other, and it feels great. To think, we could have tried to bury it, or shoo them away, or make excuses, but when we can find a solution —we’re not 100%— it’s very satisfying. Don’t you find that?

Constance Barnes: Yeah, especially when it gets to be done within a year. <laughter> It’s those ones when it is this year, then it’s next year, and then I got to run again to be part of this one… <laughter> But it is quite powerful. You go by things —I’m on my bike all the time— and see things and go: “Hey, I remember when we did that!” or “I remember that elm tree.” or “I remember planting that.”

Every piece has a story. Every piece has somebody, it could be a dog story, it could be [something else], but everything has its purpose, and its history, and a little bit of a story to tell. It’s very cool.

Spacing: The bike park in particular. I remember when it came out, [the story] just went all the way down the west coast, because it’s the only purpose built hard-court bike polo court, it think in North America. That means all the tournaments are going to happen here. It’s weird to kind of appreciate, at least for people using it. Some of these people are coming from who knows how far to actually play here. It’s an amazing thing.

••• [Click to Read Part 4] •••

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.