Cross Country Checkup

Canadian cities are legalizing alcohol in parks. Some are celebrating, others worry it's a slippery slope

Calls to loosen rules around drinking alcohol in public spaces have increased in recent years, spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic making it necessary to gather outdoors.

Calls to allow drinking wine, beer in parks have grown because of the pandemic

People lay in a public park
People sunbathe and relax in Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach Park, one of 22 parks where the Vancouver Park Board has decided to allow visitors to consume alcohol. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Calgary Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra says the idea to legalize drinking alcohol in some of the city's parks came straight from local residents.

Numerous "unsolicited" responses to a public parks survey called on the city to loosen alcohol rules and pushed council to explore the idea, he told Cross Country Checkup.

Last summer, a pilot was launched making it legal to consume wine, beer and spirits at 58 designated picnic spots across Calgary. It proved a success, with more than 1,500 bookings for the tables, according to numbers from the city.

"There's this idea that, maybe, if we don't stuff these things into dark corners and call them vices and really enjoy them in moderation and integrate that into a healthful society, we'll be in a better shape collectively," said Carra, who represents Calgary's Ward 9.

Calls to loosen rules around drinking alcohol in public spaces have increased in recent years, spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic making it necessary to gather outdoors.

Calgary expanded its pilot program in May, and other cities are mirroring its approach to the issue. This spring, Vancouver and Edmonton expanded similar programs that began last year.

All three cities limit alcohol consumption to between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. In Vancouver, public beaches and park amenities such as playgrounds and pools are among the spaces off limits to those with alcohol.

A sign that says 'alcohol permitted at table only 11:00 to 21:00'.
The City of Calgary expanded its alcohol in parks program last month. Visitors will be allowed to drink alcohol at designated picnic areas, such as the one pictured, in parks across the city. (Mike Symington)

Still, critics of the idea say it could lead to inappropriate — and potentially unsafe — behaviour, such as alcohol-related violence and vandalism.

Toronto's city council voted last month to disallow consuming booze in parks, directing staff to study the issue further and report back in 2023.

"I've heard from many people with complaints about things that happen in our city parks that are obnoxious and are problems for the community, and some of those things are fuelled by illegal drinking," Stephen Holyday, councillor for Toronto's Ward 3, said in an interview with Checkup.

"The way I've considered this is that it seems to be a solution which is in search of a problem."

Equity issue for those without outdoor space

Proponents say allowing alcohol in public parks is an issue of equity, particularly in Canada's urban centres where many residents live in small apartments with little, if any, space for socializing.

"The issue is really whether the city is imagined as a place where the vast majority of people have spacious backyards ... or whether we realize that in places like Toronto, a lot of people live in tiny apartments and they may not even have a balcony, and so they may need to socialize in parks," said Mariana Valverde, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto.

But Holyday argues that changing laws to allow drinking in parks will open the door to "something that can create problematic behaviours," such as excessive partying or disrupting other park users, and that legitimizing alcohol could make it harder for bylaw officers to limit this behaviour.

People watch late-day sunshine from Riverdale Park East in Toronto in October 2021. City of Toronto councillors voted last month against allowing alcohol consumption in parks, directing staff to further study the issue. (Evan Buhler/The Canadian Press)

As it stands, in Toronto, people caught drinking alcohol in parks can be fined.

Existing laws already cover offences such as vandalism and violence, said Dan Malleck, a professor of health sciences at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and an expert in drug and alcohol regulation and prohibition.

"There has to be a bit of a leap of faith and a recognition that most people are going to be reasonable — and also a recognition that if things go awry, it's not going to be catastrophic," he said.

Holyday acknowledges that people are already drinking in parks, despite bylaws against it, and that few tickets are issued for those who act responsibly.

Cherry-picking when to ticket means some people benefit from a lack of enforcement while others, such as those experiencing homelessness, are disproportionately disadvantaged, Valverde warned.

"If I went to a park with my family and we shared a bottle of wine along with our picnic, I very much doubt that the bylaw officers would be after me."

A beer can with an orange label placed on a log at a beach with people playing along the shoreline behind.
Critics say that opening the door to drinking alcohol in parks could worsen alcohol abuse, as well as alcohol-related violence and vandalism. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Alcohol-free spaces needed

Tim Naimi, director of the University of Victoria's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, warned that greater freedom in alcohol consumption can worsen alcohol abuse.

While he advocates for "maintaining things as they are," Naimi said he believes that more regulation around alcohol access and consumption is needed.

"There's a lot of good public health and safety reasons why these kinds of laws and ordinances exist in the first place, and to undo them should also be done with equal care," he said.

Naimi said it's important that the public have access to spaces without alcohol, even for those who enjoy drinking.

Malleck, who is strongly in favour of loosening rules around drinking alcohol in parks, agrees there should be options and said that drinking can be limited to designated spaces and parks.

Creating a one-size-fits-all rule is inherently "undemocratic" for the sake of protecting a minority that would be negatively affected by alcohol or would respond in problematic ways, he said.

"What will happen is you'll have a lot of resentful people doing things that are not necessarily in anyone's best interest, like drinking in public unregulated and flaunting other rules."

Written by Jason Vermes, with files from Steve Howard and Abby Plener.