British Columbia·Metro Matters

Vancouver's new park is a hit. What can the city learn from it?

In a city where it's hard to find agreement on anything involving the Vancouver Park Board, a brand new park seems to be providing a moment of unity. 

Several new parks are in the planning stages, while Queen Elizabeth and Trout Lake are set for upgrades

The recently opened park at Smithe and Richards in downtown Vancouver will soon be getting an Indigenous name courtesy of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In a city where it's hard to find agreement on anything involving the Vancouver Park Board, a brand new park seems to be providing a moment of unity. 

"It looks to me like they did a really great job," said board commissioner Camil Dumont of the positive feedback for the downtown park at Smithe and Richards streets which opened last month. 

Fellow park board commissioner Tricia Barker, on the opposite side of most park board debates with Dumont, agreed. 

"The planners got it right," she said. 

"I was down there that first Friday night and there were kids everywhere playing, having so much fun. Everyone talking about that crazy big slide. The excitement was so amazing to watch and see and feel. I haven't seen that many happy people around for a long time."

It's the first major new park in Vancouver in a decade, and with an elevated walkway and grass-free design, certainly among the most distinctive.

"We knew this park had to be really hardworking and have a lot of capacity to be able to hold a lot of people," said Dave Hutch, the park board's director of planning and park development.

"There are some real fundamental elements that we have in all our parks, but there are so many things here that we've done differently." 

Park board commissioners say there's much that can be learned from its early success. 

New parks for new neighbourhoods

Recently, Vancouver's park evolution has focused primarily on playground upgrades throughout the city. 

But the creation of the Smithe and Richards park is the start of an ambitious development of new parks that hasn't been seen in Vancouver for some time. 

The neighbourhoods of Olympic Village, Mt. Pleasant, River District, Oakridge and Marpole are all scheduled to get new or significantly upgraded comprehensive parks in the coming years, at a cost of around $50 million, much of it coming from developer contributions.   

"It's actually part of solving the housing crisis," said Hutch, explaining that most of the new parks will be in denser areas of the city. 

"People living in those homes usually have little or no access to private outdoor space. This is their outdoor living room. This is their backyard. So, we're working hand-in-hand and making sure we're trying to keep pace with those new residents." 

Park Board director of planning and park development Dave Hutch says Smithe and Richards will further improve as the Kafka's Coffee building opens and the greenery inside the park starts to bloom. (Murray Titus/CBC News)

Bells & whistles but also washrooms

At the same time that new parks are being designed and created, two of the city's oldest and most venerable parks are set to get big upgrades. 

Queen Elizabeth Park is in the midst of a master plan study, while on Monday, the park will vote on a renewal plan for Trout Lake that includes improving the water quality of the lake, upgrading the sports fields and dog parks and designing an area devoted to reconciliation. 

Dumont believes that as the city evolves, so should park space.

"So much of our infrastructure and our park design is just from a bygone era," he said. 

"We have different concerns now with climate and with water conservation and things like that, so we have to really kind of think of it in a forward-looking way … I'm hopeful that the experience at Smithe and Richards will be a piece of that."

Barker also said consultation was key to ensuring new parks meet the needs of new neighbourhoods but said there still needed to be a focus on the basics. 

"We all like bells and whistles, but making sure that we have washrooms that are available for people … and also to make sure everything is really accessible because we do have an older population," she said. 

Vancouver is proposing a $4 million renovation of the underused Yaletown Park close to Smithe and Richards, which is dominated by bumpy pavement with patches of grass sticking out. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

Whether the new parks create as much of an initial hit with the public as Smithe and Richards (which will be given an Indigenous name in the coming months) remains to be seen.

For now, the park board is happy that a project that took more than two years and $14 million has landed positively with much of the public. 

"This is a nice feeling to have," said Dumont. 

"It's kind of fun to have something new and different." 

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