Posted by: VPSN | February 7, 2011

Greenspace planning: a tale of two measures

Open Space Per Capita (2006)

Recently we wrote a short post on the City’s Greenest City program – and encouraged folks to consider providing input to this worthwhile initiative.  (There’s still lots of time – and the good folks in the Sustainability office are looking for feedback and ideas throughout the month.)

The weather was pretty decent today, and it got us thinking about greenspace issues.  So by way of follow-up, we thought we’d profile one of our Greenest City “likes” … because we think it illustrates an useful lesson on public space planning.

Call this “the tale of two measures.”

When the City’s Bright Green Future Report was first produced, it contained a number of draft goals and targets – one of which was that Vancouverites should have “incomparable access to nature,” and that, specifically, every resident should live within a five minute walk of greenspace.  At first blush, this is a captivating – if not ambitious benchmark for the City.

Thankfully, this well-intentioned idea was recently given some important contextualization.  Because, if you think about it, merely being able to access nature is not the same thing as having a sufficient amount of it for everyone.

And this is where another, older, standard comes in.  For a number of years, the Parks Board has has employed a golden rule in which they target the provision of 2.75 acres of parkland per 1000 people.  This is seen as an ‘ideal’ for Vancouver neighbourhoods.  Some achieve it (and handily) while others don’t.  Those that don’t are deemed “park deficient.”

You can see from the above map how this plays out across the city: eight neighbourhoods are deemed to have enough park space, while 14 do not (note that the West End calculation includes Stanley Park, so the figure would change considerably were it removed).  This means that when Parks staff get sufficient capital funding to buy land for parks, they generally seek to create these parks in areas where there is a shortfall.

And here’s the rub: if the 300 meter Greenest City target had been set up as a new ‘lens’ through which matters of park planning were viewed… then some of the most park deficient neighbourhoods might not have fared so well in future planning.  In fact, many of them would have looked like they didn’t need any more parks at all!

The reason is that in a lot of the denser Vancouver neighbourhoods there are relatively sizable numbers of residents living in proximity to smaller greenspaces.  In other neighbourhoods – particularly those on the west side – there are less people, larger lot single family properties, but a greater likelihood that people won’t be as close to the neighbourhood park.  And this means, in other words, that neighbourhoods with substantial amounts of private open space would be seen as a priority for improvement under the Greenest City lens.

Thankfully, when it came time to spell out how the Greenest City goals and targets were to be implemented, City staff reaffirmed that park-deficient neighbourhoods were a priority.  And this means that the aim is to provide a good measure of park space for all residents first and foremost and then to work towards the 300 metre measure.

Net result: quantity and proximity are on the radar.  A good marrying of targets, as far as we’re concerned!


  1. Phew! I’m glad quality didn’t sneak in there. Bring on the forlorn grass fields and bushes, please! Does Vancouver really need more of its standard suburban style parks? Or should resources go towards really improving those that exist, linking them together through real greenways, maybe including some daylighted creeks, for instance. A big focus could also be on designing them to handle more activity, as the population increases. More isn’t always better.

    300m and 2.75 acres/1,000 people, really don’t mean a whole lot. We have the luck to have an incredibly talented and creative Parks Board, with access to some of North America’s best landscape architects (public and private). Given that we’re not in a situation of platting out new subdivisions, it’d be nice to see quality and design excellence as foremost concerns, even if they’re harder to measure.


    • Hi Desmond,

      We don’t disagree that funds should go to improving the park resources that we do have – and have written to that effect elsewhere. And yes, quality considerations should always be part of the consideration. But that being said, in many neighbourhoods in Vancouver the quantity of park space is also a very valid concern and something that needs to be addressed. So you’re right, ‘having more’ isn’t always better… but ‘having enough’ or ensuring equitability is also an important principle in park planning.

      And, that raises an interesting question about trade-offs… because both of these things cost money. So, for example: is it better to invest a chunk of money in an existing park to daylight a stream (a costly exercise, to be sure), or to acquire some space in an area that is park deficient, install a park that is so-so design wise, and have it in the public trust where it can be further improved in the future?

      Good point on the metrics. What sorts of measures do you think we should be using to assess the quality of park space? We struggled with this a few years ago when we were developing our public space evaluation tool. You can find out what we came up with here.

      Finally, it’d be interesting to hear your thoughts on the parks that have been recently redesigned – like Victoria Park in Grandview Woodland (or Grandview Park, which is currently under redevelopment). It sounded from your comment like you don’t see quality and design excellence in these or other parks. Cheers!

  2. I was actually just in Victoria Park (by Salsbury at Victoria?) this morning, and would agree that it’s pretty splendid. Not extravagant, but well designed – nice materials, simple, well thought-out layout, enough ‘stuff’ (playgrounds, bocce), but not too much. I gather something similar is proposed for Grandview Park, which sounds fine. I’d rather see more such upgrading, and perhaps investment in smaller urban ‘pocket parks’ along major shopping streets (Commercial at Venables/Adanac, or that jog along Main St), than the Parks Board extending itself by acquiring additional territory, which will end up just being grass fields with trees.

    Off the top of my head though, and looking cursorily at a map of Vancouver, I really can’t think of many parts of this city that are ‘park deficient’ (eg, don’t even have an open block or school site); and while some degree of equitability would be nice, I’m not sure that’s the best choice. I’d much rather have fewer but better parks, and for a variety of reasons (history, geography), they’re unlikely to be evenly distributed across the terrain.

    The audit tool is pretty good and very comprehensive, but my sense is that what comes out of it is really a snapshot, and wouldn’t necessarily provide a basis for citywide indicators/ comparisons, but would rather be a foundation for thinking about park upgrades and programming revisions. I’m not sure we need an indicator or a number, just a dedicated Parks Board, resources, and engagement with park users.

    • Definitely. The audit tool is meant to assess the physical condition of the park, as well as the social use of the space — and isn’t meant to be reduced to an indicator. The reason it was mentioned is because it blends both quantitative and qualitative measures. We didn’t want to go with one type versus another because we recognized that there was a utility in assessing both.

      Of course the challenge with the qualitative measures is that they’re often quite subjective… so to get a balanced picture you have to get a bunch of people doing the assessment, which gets you back into quantitative considerations. A quality greenspace to one person isn’t necessarily the same to another, as the rather pointed debate about the Grandview Park redesign illustrated.

      As an aside, perhaps some of your concerns about the quality of new park additions may be alleviated (or not, depending on your perspective) in recent developments. Emery Barnes Park just doubled in size (recent parks acquisition), and looks pretty sharp. It’s definitely serving a need in this community. There’s also some nice new park space and public realm work that’s unfolded in South East False Creek.

      Point taken about ensuring good design with parks, versus raw quantity — but at the same time, not all new acquisitions are destined for tumbleweeds.

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