The first resolution of Vancouver council on May 12, 1886, was to ask the federal government to turn a “Reserve on First Narrows” into a public park.
A year later, the federal government agreed to lease the naval reserve to the city, and on Sept. 27, 1888, Stanley Park opened to the masses.
To manage the park, council appointed four commissioners to a park board. But conflicts arose.
“I think they realized quite quickly that a couple of people on the park board or the city council were developers, and they wanted to develop parts of Stanley Park as real estate because it such a great (location), it had waterfront everywhere,” said Terri Clark, former head of communications for the Vancouver park board.
“There was a natural friction between having parks and wanting to develop. So in 1890, they made it an elected board.”
That didn’t eliminate the friction with council, or citizens. Over the years, the park board has come up with many controversial ideas, from filling in Lost Lagoon for a sports stadium to cutting off a lane of traffic for a bike lane in Stanley Park.
Vancouver is one of the only cities in North America with an elected park board, and every time there’s a controversy, somebody seems to suggest council should get rid of the elected board.
On Wednesday, Mayor Ken Sim finally took that step. If the province agrees to his request to amend the Vancouver Charter, the elected board will be kaput, after 133 years.
Civic historian John Atkin thinks this may be a mistake.
“I think having an elected board whose focus is parks actually gives us the robust park system we have,” Atkin said.
“Imagine if there was no park board, or it was under the complete control of council. People could go, ‘We need to build housing on golf courses,’ and council goes, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’
“Where’s the counterpoint to that? I think the ability of the park board to own its own land, and to purchase quietly for future planning has served us very, very well.”
Today, the park board looks after 220 parks and 40 “major facilities.” But it took a while to build it up.
In 1902, Vancouverites voted 772 to 318 on a bylaw to spend $125,000 to expand the park system with the Powell street grounds (today’s Oppenheimer Park), and a block of land between Yukon and Bridge (Cambie) streets and 10th and 12th avenues, where City Hall is today.
The city also purchased the Cambie Street Grounds (Lawell Park), which had been rented from the Canadian Pacific Railway.
But the most visionary move was to begin to purchase private homes on the water side of Beach Avenue for park land. It took decades, but over time the entire English Bay waterfront became public, which is now one of the hallmarks of Vancouver.
More recently, Terri Clark said the park board was the driving force to negotiate with developers for park space in giant developments on False Creek and Coal Harbour.
“It basically came up with the idea of community amenities,” said Clark. “It’s because of that we got the developers to kick in for schools, libraries and parks.”
Clark fears that if the park board simply becomes another branch of the city, it could lose its focus, as well as unique civic assets like the park board’s own tree farm and the Sunset nursery, “where we grow 750,000 annuals yearly to put in parks and gardens.
“It’s a kind of an old-fashioned way (of doing things), but you know what? It’s so much cheaper than going out and buying things that aren’t available any more from a commercial nursery.”
The numbers being thrown around by some civic officials will probably spark some debate. Clark said she recently talked to someone from the city who said that it costs $25,000 to plant a street tree. So she called one of her old colleagues at the park board to check.
“I asked Guy Pottinger, who just retired from the park board, what does it cost to plant a tree now?” she said. “He said $350 for the tree. Sometimes you have to pay a little bit more for the city to cut into the concrete.”
For a long time, Vancouver has been B.C.’s only city with an elected park board.
Vancouver residents are being asked for input on plans to revitalize and protect the West End waterfront, from the base of the Burrard Bridge to Stanley Park.
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