Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
On Tuesday evening, my brother and I cycled to Cates Deck in North Vancouver, where we quaffed a happy-hour beer. We didn’t have to sneak or hide. Our cans were not wrapped in brown paper, our beverages were not disguised in plastic cups. We simply flipped the tab and drank from the cans in broad daylight for all to see, knowing that as of Monday, council’s decision to allow drinking in some parks and public spaces was in place.
This wasn’t our first rodeo. When we were younger and living in apartments with small balconies, we used to gather with friends for outdoor picnics at Spanish Banks. We’d lug a portable barbecue and cooler with wine and beer down the steep path to the water and, probably because we weren’t particularly rowdy, we never got caught. Still, we kept the bottles hidden and there was always that niggling worry cops would drop by and bust up the party. Even so, being white and middle class, we would have gotten off relatively easy – likely the worst that would have happened is they would have asked us to pour it out.
I hadn’t reminisced about those days for a long time until suddenly, we were in the thick of a COVID-19 pandemic, and meeting up with friends – outside – became the only safe way to socialize. I thought about the constraints placed on so many Vancouverites who live in apartments with little or no outdoor space. Sure, they can get together with friends and family in parks. But unless you own property or can afford dinner with drinks at a restaurant patio, there was no legal way to enjoy a drink at an outdoor picnic. Until now.
North Vancouver was the first Lower Mainland municipality to democratize some of its outdoor space. This week, Vancouver followed suit. Council voted to allow people to consume alcohol in some public gathering spots. Exactly where is still to be determined, says Councillor Pete Fry, one of the councillors who pushed for the motion. For now, parks and beaches that fall under Park Board jurisdiction won’t be included.
Park Board discussions on public drinking are stalled over interpretation of the provincial Liquor Control and Licensing Act, which allows “municipalities” and “regional districts” to set the rules for public alcohol consumption. Vancouver has a separate governing structure for parks, which doesn’t fall into either category. Civic lawyers say a legislative change would be needed for the park board to change drinking laws in parks and beaches.
As city staff identify plazas and side streets where picnic tables and public drinking will be allowed, care will be taken to ensure distribution is equitable across the city, Mr. Fry says. The same people who complain of being overpoliced are also most often targeted for bylaw infractions such as public drinking, he notes. The goal is to give everyone equal opportunity to socialize outdoors with a drink, he says.
Outdoor socializing space is not the only place where inequities arise. Lorien Nesbitt is a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the equitable distribution of green space in urban environments. Her PhD research examined green space in 10 large American cities and found that people with lower incomes and education levels inevitably had less access. In some cities, racialization was also predictive of lower access to green space. “So, those typical power structures in society are related to whether you have green space in front of your house, backyard and parks near your house.”
Vancouver stacks up well when it comes to park access, says Ms. Nesbitt, noting 95 per cent of residents live within walking distance of a park. But when it comes to trees, the balance tips, she says. “When that’s broken down by neighbourhood, on the West Side, there is in some cases twice as much tree canopy as on the East Side.”
Short of a revolution only the Marxists want, there is no way nor will to redistribute privately owned green space. But there is much we can do to ensure our public outdoor space is distributed fairly and people have more latitude over how to use it. The Park Board was already considering allowing alcohol consumption on beaches. The COVID-19 pandemic has simply accelerated the conversation. Let’s seize this moment and relax the rules – our city will be a better place for it.
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