Opinion: The importance of green spaces and the proven benefits to our health and wellness are well-documented, and the need continues to grow.Opinion: The importance of green spaces and the proven benefits to our health and wellness are well-documented, and the need continues to grow.Read MoreThe Vancouver Sun – RSS Feed

Opinion: The importance of green spaces and the proven benefits to our health and wellness are well-documented, and the need continues to grow.

The importance of green spaces and the proven benefits to our health and wellness are well-documented, and the need continues to grow. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

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As a University of B.C. student, living with my wife in a basement suite on Oak Street, we often enjoyed the green space of parks close by and I became an admirer of the Vancouver Parks Department.

In later years, I was privileged to either host, or co-host, three international symposiums or conventions that showcased Vancouver’s lush green-scaping. The Garden Writers of America, the International Garden Center Association, and others in the ‘green’ industry were truly impressed with Vancouver’s world-class parks and gardens.

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Vancouver’s Cherry Blossom Festival is something to appreciate each spring and well-planned tree plantings across the city create spectacular fall colour. Vancouver really is one of the top green cities in the world, thanks to the many brilliant horticultural leaders, dedicated staff and the many park board members over the years.

After a city council decision to eliminate the park board, I received a phone call from Bill Manning, who has worked in Vancouver parks for over 25 years. Initially he was the horticultural manager and then operations manager for one of the three city parks areas into which the city is now divided.

I asked Manning about the role of the park board and he confirmed its mandate was to oversee and advocate for parks and recreation in the City of Vancouver, looking ahead 10 to 15 years and beyond. As with most boards, they set strategic plans for development, generate budget projections, secure funding, and provide governance and policies that allow management to fulfil these obligations.

At park board meetings held every two weeks, members of the public are invited to express their opinions and share their thoughts, ideas and concerns. In addition, they hear current management reports and are able to answer any questions and request feedback from these joint meetings. The public is also invited to visit their website to express any concerns or opinions.

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According to Manning, the park board used to oversee all the parks’ buildings and facilities, but when Penny Ballem was city manager about 15 years ago, she restructured the board, and most of the recreational buildings were put under city council control.

The Vancouver park board currently oversees and maintains over 250 parks that comprise about 11 per cent of Vancouver land. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Manning mentioned that when he joined the Vancouver Parks Department in 1992, there were many highly knowledgeable members in the department who placed a good deal of emphasis on horticulture.

Since 1930 there had been a Vancouver Horticultural Apprentice Program in place to help educate and mentor horticultural workers. Folks like Bill Livingston, who was instrumental in the design of the Van Dusen Gardens and the Bloedel Conservatory, Bill Brown and Hugh Monroe were some of the outstanding horticultural leaders whose foresight and experience brought so much value to the parks and gardens.

Over time, he said, the emphasis became less horticulturally oriented and moved more to the management side. The effectiveness of the many boards varied because of the differences of opinion and the ability to work together. They increasingly had to deal with divisive public issues like bike lanes and off-leash dog parks, which often placed them in no-win situations.

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Regardless of the makeup of all the many park boards over the years, they did have the professionalism to work together efficiently, and overall, performed their mandates effectively.

It may seem unusual for Vancouver to have its own elected park board, as it’s the only city in Canada to do so. In most cities, one of the city councillors is appointed to oversee the parks department. Sometimes an advisory council is appointed, which will report to the designated councillor. It works in many cities, but Manning feels the priority of the parks and gardens, along with recreation, will be diminished if the park board is abolished.

Manning wasn’t critical of the current park board system, which he has worked within for so many years. He also worked in the Calgary parks; system with the more traditional structure of city councillors having oversight and responsibility.

He simply felt that in a changing climate, with the increased importance of green spaces for a growing population, there needs to be a greater comprehension and understanding of the value of these assets, and maintaining a larger, more focused board, with a stronger connection to the public was very important.

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The Vancouver park board currently oversees and maintains over 250 parks that comprise about 11 per cent of Vancouver land. In addition, they maintain 22 kilometres of seawall at Stanley Park, and walkways along False Creek. Their mandate includes 10 ocean beaches and a freshwater lake beach. Not only are they responsible for the city’s recreation programs, services and assorted facilities, but park infrastructure also comes under their jurisdiction.

In a time of significant climate change with the huge challenges of heat and drought and the drive to expand green spaces, there needs to be a high priority placed on the viability of parks. The importance of green spaces and the many proven benefits to both our health and wellness are well-documented, and the need continues to grow.

Urban forestry, where Vancouver, and indeed, all cities, will need more canopy cover to help cool the environment and create more habitat for pollinators and wildlife is paramount these days.

These issues need far more emphasis and the appropriate funding to continually to improve and maintain green spaces, parks and gardens. There also needs to be a long-term vision and strategic plan for the future of our parks and gardens in the face of an increasingly challenging climate. A rapidly growing and diverse population will also require more green space as the proven benefits to health and wellness become even more significant in our fast-paced lives.

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No matter what the outcome of the park board decision, it’s one of Vancouver’s most important assets and needs dedicated people and public input to ensure the long-term viability of some of B.C.’s, and indeed, Canada’s, most spectacular green spaces for generations to come.

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