British Columbia

Half independent, half advocate, always political: The unique role of the Vancouver Park Board

Vancouver is the only municipality in Canada with a directly-elected park board — and that brings with it opportunities and challenges.  

Many of the biggest stories surrounding the city's parks have overlapping jurisdiction

Shot of sunbathers looking out at boating traffic on English Bay from Sunset Beach, which was closed to swimming due to high E. coli levels last week. (Christer Waara / CBC)

When most people take a trip to the beach, politics is usually the furthest thing from their minds. 

But in Vancouver, it's never far from the sand — or even the water's edge. 

"Our responsibility is to look after beaches and parks and make sure people have a great experience," said Park Board Commissioner John Coupar, who criticized the city following a beach closing last weekend. The city's beaches are governed by the park board.

Coupar disparaged the city for not accelerating plans to improve its sewage systems after Sunset Beach was closed due to high E. coli levels

"When the City of Vancouver continues to discharge human waste into our waterways, that's a big effect to the park board and I think it's very difficult and hard for us when we have to close the beach." 

Elected officials fighting over management of park space happens across Canada. 

However, Vancouver is the only municipality with a directly elected park board — and that brings with it opportunities and challenges.  

NPA Vancouver Park Commissioner John Coupar says the city needs to accelerate plans to improve its sewage system so that the waters surrounding the city stay clean. (CBC)

Why it began

While today the Vancouver Park Board oversees 230 parks, it was originally created in 1888 to help oversee just one: a large patch of green space at the western end of downtown that was leased to it by the federal government. 

Otherwise known as Stanley. 

"Because Vancouver was just in its infancy, the city government at the time said, 'you know, we don't have the wherewithal to look after this. We're building a city here,'" said Stuart Mackinnon, chair of the park board and first elected in 2008. 

"And so they created a park commission, and I think that single decision has shaped the way Vancouver is."

Mackinnon argues that an elected park board has been crucial to Vancouver's development because it ensured a separate group that could plan, advocate and maintain the city's green spaces. 

However, he acknowledges it can create confusion from time to time. 

"One thing that most people don't understand is ... we're a governance board, we're not an operational board," he said. 

"While I encourage people to write to me when they they do have problems, [we] don't have the authority to order staff around. What we can do is we can relay the messages that are coming from the public, and our staff will respond to them."

Tied hands

While staff can directly take action on some complaints, there are many issues in the news where the park board has limited influence — even leaving aside the recent ban on swimming at Sunset Beach. 

Last year, the board voted for a pilot project allowing beer and wine sales this summer at concession stands at English Bay and Kitsilano Beach —  a project delayed because the provincial government hasn't given the necessary improvements. 

Last month, the board voted to support a direct bus service linking SkyTrain lines to the swimmable beaches on the west side of the city — but that will ultimately be a decision made by TransLink.   

Finally, there's the fact the park board's annual budget requires approval of city council, which provides the board with about half its annual funding (around $122 million in 2018).

"It is a unique situation," said Mackinnon. 

Ultimately though — and perhaps unsurprisingly — you'll be hard pressed to find members of the park board arguing their role isn't necessary. 

"Over the history there is many times where the park board has has stood up for parks and recreation, sometimes against the wishes of the city. And I think there's a good that dynamic tension there is created," said Coupar. 

"I think we have a lot of authority is when we when we use it and when we use it expeditiously."

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