It is budget time here in Vancouver, and once again significant cuts to the Parks and Recreation budget are looming. At risk are programs and services which contribute significantly to the quality of life in Vancouver’s 23 neighbourhood communities. Although considered a high priority by most Vancouverites, some of our senior staff and civic leaders consider these soft services. That is one of the reasons that staff reports and budget discussions tend to exaggerate potential savings and downplay the negative effects of cuts to and within the park’s board budget.

Although changes over the last few years to the budget processes at city hall and the park board were supposed to facilitate the participation of citizens and their community associations, the public consultation meetings were seen by many to be a sham.  There were folks who waited for hours and never got to speak, and there was an apparent disconnect between the budget decision making process, and the public consultation process.

I know the civic budget process is not fun for staff or the elected decision makers, particularly during difficult economic times. I understand that they spend long hours sorting through reports, debating issues and are lobbied extensively (in both the positive and negative sense of the term). For the most part, these folks (regardless of their political affiliations) are striving to make the decisions that they feel are best for our city. Unfortunately the  budget process gives the so called “hard services”  advocates and powerful corporate interest in our city a much louder voice; than the grandmother, or child whose program or service is at risk, or the voice of the community association lobbying (in the positive sense) on their behalf.

This imbalance between these respective voices, and their impact on civic budgets, is not unique to Vancouver, and it is something citizens in many cities are struggling with. Some cities, like Vancouver have made changes to their budget consultation processes, some have changed their governance models by adopting ward systems, and others appear to be seeking solutions through studies and reports.  I see positive signs in the recognition that there is an imbalance in these voices and that there is a real need to address it. Unfortunately there is no one simple quick fix and I expect a balancing of these voices is still many years away.

In the meantime, I think one of the things we as ordinary citizens can do to strengthen our voices when it comes to Parks and Recreation programs and services, is to adopt the Mantra, “Parks and Recreation programs and services are more than just fun and games”. If enough of us use this mantra whenever the subject of parks and recreation and/or its budget comes up in a conversation, at a meeting, or when motivated to write a letter to the editor of our local paper, we can dispel the myth that these are soft services and not as important as the so called hard services. If you think about it, I will bet that you, someone in your family, or someone you know has benefited from a Parks and Recreation program or service. Unfortunately we have a tendency, as does the mainstream media, to focus on negative events. This mantra can and should be used to highlight the many positive stories we all know but sometimes forget to share. I believe the value in sharing these stories is just as great as talking about the many studies that demonstrate the societal benefit of having well maintained parks and a wide variety of recreation programs and services. Without these personal stories, reports documenting cost savings in the provision of other high cost services like health and policing, seem to get lost or are forgotten while Parks and Recreation budgets continue to be cut.  This Mantra can be used an important reminder to each other as well as to the budget decision makers of the broader implications of making Parks and Recreation program and service cuts.

I started drafting this blog following a visit to the Adams Avenue Recreation Centre where I spent many hours during my formative years. This was an unplanned visit, which took place while I was in San Diego recently for a conference and visiting Family and friends. My cousin Ken and I set out to see if we could find the apartment my family lived in on Adams Avenue over 50 years ago.  We not only found the Apartment, but across the street I saw the recreation centre and playfields from my youth. My cousin who had visited us often, and is still much like an older brother to me, knew I had spent a lot time there and asked if I wanted to take a closer look. Little did he know that this would lead to a full tour of the facilities, while the Centre Director, Joanne McGhee and I, talked about the Centre’s past, present and precarious future. It appears that San Diego, like Vancouver is going through some financially challenging times and is considering significant cuts to its budget. Hearing Joanne talk about the kids who use the centre today, about the different programs they have, and seeing some of their projects, I couldn’t imagine what the neighbourhood would be like for them if the centre were closed. I also couldn’t imagine what my life might have been like had there been no Adams Avenue Rec. Centre. So much of what I have done in my life, and the journey to where I am, has links back to the time I spent there, and influences of its staff.

It was there I learned to play chess and with the encouragement of one of the staff I entered and to my delighted surprise took third place in a citywide chess tournament. I also learned to play table tennis there, and while a recreation coordinator in Nanaimo, I became the BC Table Tennis Vancouver Island zone representative. I also managed to win several medals in table tennis at the BC Games in Kimberly around the same time. My love of basket ball also began at that centre, and that with some modest talent, got me onto a brigade level basket ball team while in the US Army. I still remember my first visit to Berlin to play in a command level tournament. Although the Rec. Centre was a place to play, it was also a place where I learned how to socialize, and it was where I got my sense of community. Through programs like the San Diego Parks and Recreation junior recreation leader program, I learned about responsibility and developed skills that have served me well over the course of my life. I also feel that the communities I have lived in over the years have benefited as well. Prior to becoming a union activist, I was a community activist serving on various volunteer boards and committees, and worked as a Recreation Coordinator. Maybe I would have done these things anyway, but I know I have done them better because of the Adams Avenue Recreation Centre, and the dedicated staff that helped me along the way.

Note – I wrote about the Park Board in my initial blog post, and there you will find a link to its website and information about its structure and meetings which are open to the public. As an elected board, it is unique in Canada and you have the right to attend Park Board meetings. If this blog motivates even just one of you to attend, my time writing it will have been well spent.