There’s a unique kind of politics that exists in Vancouver and no other city in Canada: park board politics.
As Vancouverites approach their Oct. 15 municipal election, they’ll be asked to vote in a panel of seven new park board commissioners.
These commissioners will oversee a massive portfolio of recreational goodies: 250 public parks and beaches, playgrounds, marinas, recreation centres, golf courses, street trees, sports fields and special gardens like VanDusen and the Bloedel Conservatory.
While it’s Vancouver’s city council that makes the vast majority of municipal decisions, hot issues flare up at park board meetings every now and then, like its decision to ban new whales and dolphins at the aquarium back in 2017.
But the park board was hit with a wave of challenges accompanied by fierce public debate this past term, fuelled by a pandemic that drove more people to the outdoors for rest, recreation and refuge.
What to do about tent cities in parks, especially in a time of crisis? What to do when the mayor wants to remove a park from park board control? What to do about people drinking in parks when it’s dangerous to gather in homes and restaurants? What to do about car versus bike traffic in Stanley Park?
The dramas have led some to ask why Vancouver needs an elected park board anyway, when the councils of other cities handle the park portfolio.
As the municipal election nears, here’s our explainer on how the only park board in Canada works, whether it’s good for democracy and its big decisions during the pandemic.
How did Vancouver end up with a park board?
The park board was created at the very beginning of the city’s history.
A federal military reserve was leased to Vancouver to be turned into Stanley Park, the first decision made by the council of the brand new city.
Stanley Park opened in 1888. The creation of this massive 405-hectare park called for a park board, separate from city council, to manage it.
“It was very forward-thinking of the original government in Vancouver to do something like that,” said Terri Clark, a retired park board public relations manager of 35 years.
Clark says the board’s independence from council “keeps the fox away from the henhouse.”
She credits the board’s persistence for bringing Vancouverites closer to the water, from the long construction of the seawall from 1917 to 1971 to the gradual acquisition of beachfront properties so that people had more of English Bay to enjoy.
Fast forward to the present and Vancouver’s got a lot more assets than Stanley Park.
“I’ve had a saying for a long time: the government that’s closest to you is generally the most important one in your everyday life,” said current park board chair Stuart Mackinnon. “What’s closer to you than your parks and your trees and your recreation?”
Mackinnon believes that having an elected board allows it to be an independent voice to advocate for parks, and underlines their contribution to the beauty and liveability of the city.
Adding the parks portfolio to city’s council plate — alongside other departments like engineering and finance — would be “too much,” he says.
“The city even struggles with keeping up with what they need to do… infrastructure, building, streets and whatnot.”
The park board is not completely independent when it comes to finances. While it sets its own annual budgets, city council decides how much to give.
About 55 per cent of the park board’s budget comes from tax dollars and 45 per cent comes from revenue through its facilities.
Is an elected park board good for democracy?
Every municipal election, Vancouverites elect their park board commissioners alongside one mayor, 10 city councillors and nine school board trustees.
Political scientist David Moscrop, who researches democratic theory, believes that’s too much. Turnout for municipal elections is already poor compared to provincial and federal elections and having a crowded ballot with 27 candidates to research and select is a turnoff, he says.
Moscrop says there are many reasons why including parks under the responsibility of city council, rather than a “parallel government,” makes more sense.
Pointing to contentious issues that the park board has had to grapple with in recent years, from homelessness to transportation infrastructure like bike lanes, he says that these ultimately are not “park issues.”
“These are broader issues that are significant to municipal life,” many of which are already overseen by city council, said Moscrop.
He doesn’t think getting rid of the park board would be undemocratic.
“It’s still democratic. [Parks would] ultimately be answerable to the city council and the mayor, who are ultimately answerable to the public at large. So you still have that line of accountability,” he said.
If the city were to design a new electoral system today, Moscrop argues that there would be no reason for it to include an elected park board with seven seats.
The only reason we have it is “because it exists,” he said, nodding to its roots in early Vancouver history.
“The park board is a democratic vestigial tail. It shouldn’t exist as an elected body. It’s extraordinarily silly. It’s unusual and nobody else does it.”
But associate professor Alexandra Flynn of the University of British Columbia's law school, who researches municipalities and governance, is of the view that “more democracy is always better.”
“I think it’s better to have more bodies and more entities that have some degree of power who are challenging the status quo,” she said. “I feel like there’s a sweet spot with the park board, the way they’ve been able to push the agenda on pretty important issues.”
Vancouver politics is also unique because there are municipal parties running candidates for mayor, council, school board and park board.
In a climate where it’s possible for one elected party to be given a lot of power, Flynn says having separate bodies, like one responsible for parks, is a good thing, creating more “push and pull.”
Why is the park board known as a political training ground?
Many first-time politicians start off as park board commissioners before making the jump to higher offices, from city council to provincial and federal politics.
Philip Owen was a park board commissioner before becoming one of Vancouver’s longest serving mayors from 1993 to 2002. The Non-Partisan Association’s Melissa De Genova, seeking a third term on city council this year, also started at the park board. Spencer Chandra Herbert is a former commissioner who’s currently an NDP MLA. Sarah Blyth, who spent two terms on the park board, went on to a very different kind of public service: helping start the country’s first overdose prevention site in the Downtown Eastside.
Current board chair Mackinnon, after three terms, is running for council this year, though he’s leaving the Green Party of Vancouver to join Vision Vancouver.
While the park board is a place to cut one’s teeth, it’s also draining.
Aaron Jasper, a former board chair, once told the Vancouver Sun: “It has traditionally been retired people or those with no children at home who have the time to do this. We have to find ways of making it easier for single moms and young people to serve. If all you get is empty nesters running for office, you are doing the park board a disservice. I think there needs to be a discussion on properly compensating people for the jobs they do.”
It’s common for commissioners to work other jobs while serving in their elected role.
Commissioners get paid a little over $18,700 per year. The chair of the board gets a bit more, $23,400, but it’s still significantly less than a councillor’s salary: $96,400.
How do Vancouverites feel about the park board?
One mayoral hopeful was set to get rid of the park board.
It was the first major campaign promise of Ken Sim, who ran with the pro-business NPA last election and is running with a new party called A Better City this year.
However, Sim has now reversed his stance.
Abolishing the park board and transferring its responsibilities to city council would require provincial approval and Sim has said that the “time and attention” needed to do so during an NDP leadership race would be difficult.
All other municipal parties are in favour of keeping the elected park board as is, but a recent poll hints that Vancouverites’ stance is changing.
Public opinion firm Research Co. polled voters in June about whether they’d like the elected park board to be abolished and its responsibilities incorporated into the city at large.
Fifty-two per cent of respondents wanted to get rid of the current model, eight per cent higher than when the same poll was conducted a year and a half ago. Only 25 per cent of respondents were in favour of keeping the elected park board.
How does the park board handle tent cities?
The park board took a stand this past term when it came to a park with a history of tent cities.
In 2008 and 2014, city council and the park board were in agreement when they asked for court injunctions to back the clearing of unhoused people who had set up tent cities at Oppenheimer Park.
In 2019, another tent city at the park grew to about 200 tents.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart wanted the park board to temporarily transfer control over Oppenheimer Park to city hall, which he admitted broke with tradition.
He called the tent city a “city problem that’s taking place in a park,” and said that the city, not the park board, was better positioned to work with senior governments on housing solutions for people sheltering at the park. He said that an injunction was one option that needed to be on the table.
But this time, the park board decided not to pursue the usual injunction.
“We basically said enough is enough,” said Mackinnon. “These people without homes have worth, have dignity and they need a place. Parks aren’t the place for them, but we’re not just going to throw them away. So we took what I think is a compassionate and trauma-informed approach that focuses on human rights.”
Instead, the park board voted to work with the city to find housing for everyone sheltering at Oppenheimer.
(The tent city would eventually be shut down a year later by a provincial order, citing fears of COVID-19 spread. Campers were offered housing and faced possible arrest if they refused to stay.)
“It was tough times,” said Mackinnon of his board’s unusual stance. “I received a lot of support from people in Vancouver, but I also received a lot of vitriol.... Social media and the immediacy of email means that anybody can send anything they like, and some of it was pretty vile, I gotta tell you.”
In 2020, the park board passed a bylaw that allowed overnight tenting in parks for people who don’t have a permanent home, but only if tents are removed by 8 a.m. The bylaw also requires tents to be attended and prohibits campfires and propane stoves.
And in early 2021, the park board’s general manager did support an injunction when it came to removing the residents of a tent city at CRAB Park, arguing that they could shelter elsewhere.
In that case, a Supreme Court judge ruled that because residents had nowhere adequate to stay, they had a right to shelter at the park. The judge also added their presence in the park wasn’t causing harm to the public.
Residents and advocates called this ruling a “monumental” victory.
Flynn of UBC’s law school said it was an interesting decision that highlighted the limits of what a unique body like the park board could do in this situation.
“It called out the park board as a public body that needed to be more conscious of the constitutional rights of those living in encampments,” she said.
What’s in the park board’s future?
It’s been 132 years since the park board was created, but it’s still heading into new territory.
Public drinking was finally welcomed to major parks during a pandemic pilot, for example.
And the park board voted on a motion in early 2021 to explore what co-management of its lands with the three local First Nations — Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh — could look like.
“We’re going to be sitting down with [them] in the next few weeks and then we’ll take it from there,” said Mackinnon. “This is not an idea that said what will happen — because, of course, that’s the old colonial mentality. This is a conversation between partners on what the management or co-management of our parks can look like in the future.”
The park board’s independence puts it in a good position to explore “innovative” governance practices like sharing decision-making with First Nations, says Flynn.
Decisions like this highlight the uniqueness of the park board, said Mackinnon.
Did Vancouver’s early leaders intend for parks citywide to be governed in this way? Or were they just concerned about offloading the management of Stanley Park from its first council so that it could focus on building up a city?
“It was perhaps accidental,” said Mackinnon, “but such great foresight.”