Is B.C. park space keeping up with population growth?

Permits and restrictions may be a “necessary evil” to curb crowds in busy parks, but they’re not the only way to improve access to green space.

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There is no lineup at Buntzen Lake at midnight. The starlit lake shines like a second sky. The beach is quiet.

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But online, the Anmore park’s booking system is buzzing.

At 12:01 a.m. the day before the August long weekend, Anmore resident Lana Love tried to book a day pass on her phone.

The system, introduced in late June as a way to reduce traffic and crowds at the popular B.C. Hydro reservoir, releases free parking passes at midnight for visits the following day.

Last weekend, they were gone within minutes.

“How does that happen?” says Love, who likes to walk her dogs at the lake. “I’m not saying that as a resident I’m entitled over anyone else. Still, it’s frustrating not to be able to go.”

Many blame poor planning and a lack of investment in parks and green space for the problems that plague destination parks across the Lower Mainland.

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Snagging a picnic table or parking space at a lake or beach has been a challenge for some time, even before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed more people outdoors. But there are signs it’s getting harder.

On weekends, provincial parks like Cultus Lake in Chilliwack and Cypress in West Vancouver have had to grapple with people ignoring parking restrictions and terrible traffic, creating a dangerous situation when first responders can’t get through. Access to some waterfront areas, like Crescent Beach in Surrey, close when parking lots are full.

The issues go beyond traffic, too. On the August long weekend, for example, Port Moody police reported three incidents at Sasamat Lake in Belcarra Regional Park: a brawl involving 20 people, a drunk man arrested for allegedly threatening a park ranger, and 40 cars ticketed or towed for illegal parking.

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A woman inflates her standup paddleboard at White Pine Beach at Sasamat Lake in Port Moody.
A woman inflates her standup paddleboard at White Pine Beach at Sasamat Lake in Port Moody. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

As a result, more B.C. parks have adopted systems to manage or limit crowds, like day passes and parking restrictions.

“It’s killed spontaneous park culture,” says Port Moody Mayor Rob Vagramov about the Buntzen booking system. “It’s become about filling out little forms. I don’t think that’s the way to go with parks.”

Quotas and closures also disadvantage people who are unable to plan ahead, struggle to fill out forms or lack reliable Internet.

“It definitely raises questions of who is able to access spaces,” says Ingrid Jarvis, a PhD candidate in the forest and conservation sciences department at the University of B.C.

Multiple studies show health benefits from access and exposure to green space, including reductions in disease, as well as quality of life and mental health benefits, she says. “You don’t want to limit people from accessing green space.”

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Ingrid Jarvis, PhD candidate in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of B.C.
Ingrid Jarvis, PhD candidate in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of B.C. Photo by Steph Troughton, UBC /jpg

When asked if parks are keeping up with population growth in the region, Anmore mayor and chair of Metro Vancouver’s regional parks committee John McEwen says simply, “They’re not.”

Confined by the mountains, ocean and American border, and faced with rapid densification of urban centres, Metro Vancouver finds itself “playing catch-up” with land acquisition and park creation on the region’s periphery, he says.

McEwen credits the Metro Vancouver board for realizing the problem in recent years and committing money to buy land when it becomes available, increasing the parkland acquisition fund by an additional $4 million in 2021.

“I’m optimistic because I think the mindset around parks has changed,” he says.

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Last month, the Metro Vancouver board passed a new Regional Parks Plan, setting goals on issues like the growing population, climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous people, among others.

According to the plan, visitation to regional parks has grown at a rate of almost double population growth, which is expected to continue to rise by an average of 35,000 people each year. In 2020, visits rose 38 per cent compared to 2019, with visits in 2021 remaining at a similar level despite the easing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

While Metro Vancouver hasn’t set a target ratio of parkland to population, McEwen says the goal is to buy “as much as we can right now because we’re so far behind.”

Anmore mayor and Metro Vancouver parks committee chair John McEwen on the Brunette-Fraser Greenway in August 2020. Metro Vancouver is working on a plan to expand its greenways system across the region.
Anmore mayor and Metro Vancouver parks committee chair John McEwen on the Brunette-Fraser Greenway in August 2020. Metro Vancouver is working on a plan to expand its greenways system across the region. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

So how much green space does Metro Vancouver actually have? And what is the optimal ratio of population to parkland?

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The answer is complex, says Jamie Vala, Metro Vancouver division manager for parks planning. “I think the old way of thinking about acres per population is somewhat out of vogue.”

The quality of green space can be as important as the quantity, as well its accessibility and proximity to where people live, she says. A lake within driving distance of a major urban centre may be a very desirable location during an August heat wave, but boulevard gardens and trees, schoolyard playgrounds and sports fields, as well as wild places also play an important role.

Vala says that while Metro Vancouver is working to address capacity challenges by increasing parkland, building trails and other infrastructure to better utilize existing park space and increasing transit options and greenways to reduce parking problems, the regional district must also balance the need to protect undeveloped and environmentally-sensitive spaces.

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The Metro Vancouver Regional Parks Acquisition 2050 report discusses the “nature needs half” movement, which aims to protect half of the planet through large connected ecoregions.

The report notes that about 40 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s land base is protected, including five per cent in regional parks, 15 per cent by the province, 17 per cent in watersheds and four per cent by local governments.

But even the report notes that much of that land is protected in “mountainous ecosystems,” with lowlands near population centres “under-represented and most threatened.”

According to the 2022 Canadian City Parks Report, which profiled 30 cities across Canada, including seven in B.C., Vancouver has about 1.8 hectares of parks and green space per 1,000 people, or about 10 per cent of total city land. In comparison, the Township of Langley has 6.1 hectares per 1,000 people, but it’s only three per cent of its total land. Surrey has 5.2 hectares per 1,000 people, nine per cent of its total land.

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But there are indications the amount of green space in the region may be decreasing.

A Statistics Canada study on “urban greenness,” which used satellite images to determine the amount of vegetation in cities compared to “grey” areas that consist of buildings, impervious surfaces, bare soil and low density vegetation, listed Vancouver as one of the cities with the largest reduction in urban greenness from 2001 to 2019.

Researcher Jennie Wang says that while the data does not reveal the causes of lost greenness, which could include drought, climate change or urban development, the “trend lines” could inform decisions made by city planners to help preserve trees or green space.

“We don’t often realize it, but urban areas are an ecosystem too,” she says.

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Anmore mayor and Metro Vancouver parks committee chair John McEwen.
Anmore mayor and Metro Vancouver parks committee chair John McEwen. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

B.C.’s parks are part of a complex system comprised of several layers, from municipal and regional parks to provincial and national parks.

The Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. wants to see more co-ordination and a province-wide strategy to provide a framework for all levels of government to expand and acquire parkland, says executive director Louise Pedersen.

“The day pass may be a necessary evil,” she says, but it wasn’t inevitable. “Because we’re playing catch-up with park space, we’ve had to resort to quotas and permits and restrictions.”

Free day-use passes are required to visit three of B.C. busiest provincial parks, including Garibaldi, Golden Ears and Joffre Lakes.

B.C. Parks campsites are also busier than ever. In 2021, more than 3.1 million campers stayed in provincial parks, with a record 260,000 reservations. So far this year, about 260,000 have been made to date, indicating 2022 will outpace last year, according to the B.C. Ministry of Environment.

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Recreation expansion projects are underway as part of a three-year $21.5-million investment announced last year, with a “large portion” to be spent on “expanding day use and camping opportunities in the Lower Mainland parks where demand is high.”

At the municipal level, many B.C. cities are working creatively to make park space better, not just bigger.

Vancouver park board general manager Donnie Rosa said that while the city has little undeveloped land where new parks could be created, park design has evolved so parks “work harder” and accommodate more users.

As neighbourhoods densify, parks can also be layered, she says, pointing to the rooftop park planned for the Oakridge development. Partnerships with schools, hospitals and even private developers can further maximize green space.

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Rosa was not particularly concerned with Vancouverites leaving dense neighbourhoods in search of parks, noting that for “every person leaving to go to Buntzen, I think we have someone coming into the city.”

A key aspect of park planning is to ensure “older parks are not left behind,” says Coquitlam parks manager Kathleen Reinheimer. People should have an array of options close to home, preferably within walking distance, including playgrounds and playing fields, with larger destination parks and more rugged forested trails within their city as well. Connectivity between the different parks is key to reducing traffic challenges, she says.

In Surrey, where there is still the opportunity to create new parks in undeveloped areas, the city’s Official Community Plan targets 4.2 hectares of parkland per 1,000 residents, says parks manager Neal Aven. “We still have lots of land slated to become new neighbourhoods and commercial areas, so we’re in a fortunate position to be able to increase green space.”

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Jeff McLellan at Kyle Park in Port Moody.
Jeff McLellan at Kyle Park in Port Moody. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Back in Port Moody, resident Jeff McLellan says small-scale, targeted public consultation would help the city understand what people want in neighbourhood parks beyond a few scattered picnic tables and an old playing field.

“There’s a lot of other parks besides Buntzen,” he says, pointing to Kyle Park, where the city has created a popular area with a mister, hammocks and games. “I think many of our green spaces are underutilized.”

While he thinks the Buntzen booking system may need a few tweaks to create consequences for people who overstay their pass, it’s an improvement over the free-for-all of the past.

“But I still refuse to go up there in the summer,” he says. “There’s too many people, even with the new system.”

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