EXPANDING BOOZE ON THE BEACH
by John Streit The West End Journal
Two straight summer seasons of pilot projects initiated by the Vancouver Park Board (VPB) allowing open alcohol consumption in 22 designated public parks have ended. Now, the newly elected ABC Vancouver party dominated VPB is looking to go a few steps further, including making legal public drinking permanent, expanding the number of parks where booze is allowed and perhaps even allowing drinking on beaches.
Park Board staff are currently reviewing data from the second pilot project (each ran 13 weeks) and will then report back their findings to the Park Board commissioners. This also happened after the first pilot project where changes to several drinking area boundaries were recommended.
There’s no doubt, this major change on how Vancouverites are allowed to use their beloved parks has been a hit. On hot summer’s day it’s often hard to find a spot to drop a picnic blanket and enjoy a bottle of red or craft beer in designated sites. For West Enders our closest locations are Stanley Park (behind the lawn bowling green), Vanier Park in Kitsilano, David Lam Park in Yaletown and Harbour Green at Coal Harbour. In fact, a general VPB survey about drinking in public parks conducted after the first pilot project found 86 percent of respondents supporting the idea. Interestingly, the level of support among those who live or work near a site was more mixed. Roughly half were supportive of the pilot, and the other half unsupportive, according to the 2021 survey.
As we await the results of the second pilot (expected in the first quarter of 2023 at the latest), other findings from the first pilot project stand out. Park Rangers who patrol these sites had some issues. They said the designated drinking areas were not well-defined and the signage available was not very effective in communicating the boundaries. Also, people didn’t generally stick to designated drinking areas when drinking alcohol on site. However, “behaviour was largely respectful and non-problematic,” according to the survey. On another positive note, Park Rangers reported that on 94 percent of visits everyone was respectful and no one needed to be reminded of the pilot rules. Police had to be called for assistance on just 0.3 percent of visits.
As far as public safety goes, the Vanouver Police Department (VPD) said there were no increases in the number of alcohol-related calls to the designated sites. VPD data found “numbers tracked were consistent with the number of calls from the two prior years, indicating that the pilot, during this time, had little impact to police resources.” Vancouver Coastal Health reported that there was not a significant difference in the average number of alcohol-related visits to emergency departments per week.
Park operations and experience findings in 2021 showed an increase in wear and tear on grass and more garbage. However, behaviour again “remained largely respectful and unproblematic.” Cans and bottles were sometimes left behind but park users generally gathered them in one spot of the park, usually around garbage bins. Staff found empty alcohol containers on 35 percent of visits, and litter was noted on 83 percent of visits.
On December 5 of this year the Vancouver Park Board approved a motion by ABC Vancouver Commissioner Jaspreet Virdi calling for the expansion of the ‘Alcohol in Parks Program’ and making it permanent year-round. Virdi says “findings from the 2021 and 2022 alcohol in parks pilot programs demonstrate that responsible consumption of alcohol in Vancouver parks is not only popular but also without significant problems.” He adds a review of the City of Vancouver’s park inventory database indicates that “there are approximately 70+ parks around the City with existing washroom facilities that may support the expansion of the alcohol in parks program.”
The approved motion also included a bit of surprise for many park users.
Staff were directed to report back to the Park Board on or before the end of the first quarter of 2023 with a plan to “pilot the responsible consumption of alcohol on an appropriate Vancouver beach or beaches where adequate facilities exist to support such a beach pilot program.”
In fact, the motion is counter to the Park Board’s own ‘Pilot Site Selection Criteria’ which reads “no bathing beaches for aquatic safety reasons.” The Lifesaving Society of BC says, “alcohol reduces your ability to respond quickly and appropriately” and urges people not to swim if they’ve been drinking.
Holly Hayes is the managing director of A Beach For Everyone. Established in 2021, it was founded in Vancouver by longtime West End resident Paul Melhus, with the mission of “ensuring our beaches and parks are a safe haven where everyone can come to enjoy nature and natural sounds.”
Here’s our Q&A with Hayes about the possibility of expanding public drinking to West End beaches.
1. How do you feel the ‘Alcohol in Parks’ pilot project has gone so far? “It’s about time that we are taking this out of the shadows and not making people feel like criminals for doing something that many have already been doing responsibly for years, but are we dealing with the reality of the situation? Picnics at the beach with our favourite brew is NOT the problem here.
“What the pilot project seemed to enable this past summer was excessive drinking and underage drinking with a lack of enforcement. The correct support needs to be given to the project to ensure the Park Board bylaws are followed and supported. This way we can ensure the responsible consumption of alcohol does not escalate into a potentially dangerous situation.”
2. What are your thoughts on making legal public drinking in certain parks permanent? “Outdoor drinking is nothing new. Cracking a cold one after a long day at work is not our concern. But where are the safety measures to accommodate this?
“We support this decision from the Park Board, so long as the correct measures are in place to ensure the majority can enjoy all that our parks have to offer.
“While it is tempting to pack a cooler full of drinks and hit up your favourite beach or park. Alcohol and sun don’t mix very well. Unlike a licensed venue, where you know that if you look under 30 you will be asked for I.D, who is controlling underage drinking on the beach?”
3. The park board is now tasking staff to study expanding the program to more parks. Too much too fast, or about time? “It’s already happening, so what is the point of banning it in certain areas? Provided it can be expanded in a way that supports safety, we don’t see a problem.
“Common sense enforcement is required to ensure a small group of people doing the wrong thing don’t ruin it for everybody.
“What we should be focused on is the reality of the situation. This past summer, the pilot project was poorly implemented and let’s be real, it was a free for all. No one was checking a map of which 22 parks they could drink in.”
4. The park board is also considering expansion of public drinking to beaches. What are your thoughts on this? “When alcohol alters your state of mind, it is not a good idea to then add water and swimming into the mix. This ensures the potential for more safety concerns.
“Who is responsible for safety on the beach? Lifeguards should not be focused on controlling people’s drinking, but resources are limited, and we can’t have the VPD everywhere.
We have already seen an example of how this didn’t work last summer with the incident at the Drum Circle on Third Beach. When the Lifeguards tried to attend to an unconscious person and they were ‘obstructed and harassed’ and even had a bottle thrown at them.”
5. What sort of checks and balances are needed if this were to happen? “What we would like to see is the correct level of enforcement so that this does not put anyone’s safety at risk, negatively impact the neighbors, or give preference to loud and unruly patrons over those that are out in nature to enjoy nature. We need to find a balance so that everyone can have a good time.
“Park Rangers are meant to be the front-line ambassadors in parks and public spaces. They are also required to enforce the Park Board bylaws.
“As per the Vancouver Charter, item 496: ‘employees to have special powers. A person employed by the Board as a warden, lifeguard or security guard in parks has, while performing a duty in a park, all the powers and authority of a police constable.’”
“The previous Park Board did not allow rangers or lifeguards to exercise their full rights as ‘peace officers’. The new board should do so as this could deter bad behaviour.”
6. What do you feel is the current state of Vancouver beaches in the summer? Fun? Safe? Accessible? “We conducted an end of summer survey, where we found that more than 95 percent of West End residents avoid Sunset and English Bay beaches The amount of noise, excessive drinking, smoking, and aggressive and unruly behaviour has contributed to the decline in our beach culture and quite frankly ruined the experience for our neighbours.
“Next summer we aim to survey people while they are on the beach to understand more about the situation. Perhaps when we learn more about where they are from and what drives them there, we can work more closely with the board and the staff to improve the experience for everyone.
“I am sure that we could all agree on one thing, we want our beaches to live up to their world class name, but as locals, what we have seen in recent years is far from that.”
7. Anything else you’d like to add? “Our concern with the new Park Board Commissioners is that there could be a disconnect between the direction given from the board and the willingness and desire of the staff to implement these directives.
“Will the staff handle the expanded pilot project the same way they are handling the removal of the temporary bike lane? Considering it was always meant to be ‘temporary’ the Board have asked for the staff to proceed with the plan to remove the temporary bike line but instead provided a budgetary proposal of the costs associated in doing so – although we now see that it is proceeding.
“The commissioners certainly have their work cut out for them to ensure there is alignment between their vision and the vision of the Park Board staff. Perhaps if they can’t reconcile that, they may need to look at making some staffing changes. Keeping in mind that the commissioners are elected officials and it is their responsibility to give direction and get results.”
West Ender John Streit has been a BC radio, TV and online journalist for more than 20 years. You can listen to him anchor Global News on 980/CKNW in Vancouver.