My curiosity is raised whenever the City of Whitehorse claims to have prepared a policy that’s similar to other municipalities. That was the case a few years ago, when the maintenance bylaw was amended to regulate the height of grass to four inches. It’s a situation normal in other municipalities, they said. It isn’t.
But this isn’t about the maintenance bylaw; it’s about the Use of Parks and Paved Trails Policy, which sets out a permitting regime that’s supposedly like Kelowna’s, or Australia’s (of all places). It isn’t.
One of its attention-getting provisions requires a permit whenever 10 or more people gather in one of the city parks – any park.
Expanding the scope of permit requirements to that degree wasn’t on the table when the policy was discussed back in January at a council and senior management meeting. It’s an unusually low target. Toronto’s trigger is 25 people, Vancouver’s 50, New York City’s is 20 people, and in Portland, Oregon up to 150 people can gather without a permit. Many municipalities don’t even do head counts.
More concerns are raised with the policy statement, which gives commercial, and private, and exclusive, use of park space (and paved trails) equal weight to the “public” (defined as “ordinary people in general and the community of residents and visitors as a whole”). That’s commercial, and private, and exclusive use of public park space – any park. These are challenging priorities for a public park system to share in equal measure; the position isn’t typical of other municipalities. That’s not to say that other municipalities don’t allow commercial, or private, and exclusive use of parks, ever. It’s not a given that they do, either. But generally park system policies are grounded in the bedrock philosophy of public access with a conviction that’s absent in this policy.
What’s our park system going to look like in a few years, then? Conceivably, organizations, businesses, schools and political parties may be comfortable with navigating the permit process; casual users of 10 or more, not so much. Once cost recovery becomes a factor, maybe ordinary people will wonder why they’re paying taxes and fees on parks (and parks bureaucracy) that they’re not always – maybe even rarely – able to access.
We’re not short on entrepreneurial thinking, for sure; it’s a sign of the times that I’d feel less trepidation about blaspheming a religion than to openly question any development proposal. But whether the City of Whitehorse meant to or not, they’ve approved a policy that lays the tracks for some wheeling and dealing in the future, with our public parklands at stake.
As for the embargo on people gathering spontaneously in groups of 10 or more, we could have said with confidence, before the Anti-Terrorism Act was passed, that it breaches our charter right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
As it is, though it probably wasn’t the intention, Whitehorse just might be the first municipality in Canada that can claim its parks are C-51-ready.