Displacegrounds, Part 2

Last week I talked about the potential for an ongoing park and play area development project to displace campers from Reeson Park (a.k.a. the Whale Wall). That’s just one example, though. When City Council updated its parks bylaws, it banned camping in playgrounds. Since that time, some members of the public have been demanding playgrounds in order to displace homeless campers from Tent City and other locations.

Playgrounds for small parks?
In 2016, City Council was thinking about banning camping in four parks (Kings, Haegert, Cridge, and Arbutus), ostensibly due to their small size. One of the reasons given by city staff was residents’ concerns about the “Displacement of other park users” (p. 231). Given that staff were talking about ways to permanently remove campers, it’s an interesting choice of words.

Small park ban, clockwise from top left: Arbutus, Kings, Haegert, Cridge. Image source: Modified from City of Victoria.

During the consultation, some people clearly thought building playgrounds was the best or only way to stop camping. “Perhaps if there was a playground at the park,” said one person, “it could be excluded from use as a camp site.” Another person was confused that Council was allowed to ban camping in specific parks; they “thought we needed a playground in the park to prevent camping.”

The city’s no sheltering in playgrounds bylaw says:

“A homeless person must not place, secure, erect, use, or maintain in place, in a park, a structure, improvement or overhead shelter … at any time, in a playground.…”

The city is responsible for the bylaw, and it is responsible for the resulting public demand to use playgrounds to displace campers.

Tent City playground
In both court decisions related to Tent City, the provincial government (which owns the property) is on record saying they would allow overnight camping after the property had been restored (p. 7).

That wouldn’t do for some people, who immediately started looking for ways to permanently displace campers. Shortly after Tent City was shut down in August 2016, a local property manager suggested a possible solution. He said the province should build a playground, because “There’s one reason you can’t set up tents.” A petition went up at Change.org a few days later, sponsored by “Mad as Hell,” entitled: “Victoria Courthouse Lawn – NO CAMPING, PLAYGROUND WANTED!” According to one individual associated with petition, their primary goal was “no camping.”

Playground under construction at the former Tent City site.

Playground under construction at the former Tent City site.

The city might say that play areas at Reeson Park and the former Tent City site are about families and children, but the mayor has publicly acknowledged that playgrounds can be used as tools for displacement. She thought the “NO CAMPING” petition was too direct, however, and suggested softer language: “How about a petition for the Minister to build a playground! It will have the same effect because there is no camping allowed near playgrounds AND it is a more positive approach.” The “same effect” being the displacement of campers. Just a friendly reminder from our mayor, I suppose: you can displace more people with honey than with vinegar.

The text of the petition email said “Victoria Courthouse Lawn Reclamation - NO CAMPING!” so perhaps that’s the language the mayor was talking about. Regardless, she told the media “If there’s a playground [at the courthouse property], there is no camping overnight. That is what our bylaw says.” The bylaw actually says no camping in playgrounds, not near them (despite what the city writes elsewhere), but never mind.

Despite the comments from the mayor, Victoria’s no sheltering in playgrounds bylaws will never apply on the courthouse property, because it’s provincial land. That’s how Tent City started: the city’s 7:00 am to 7:00 pm shelter ban didn’t apply on the courthouse property, and the province initially decided not to kick the campers out. Nevertheless, when the province confirmed they were building a playground, the minister responsible said “The City of Victoria has explicit bylaws that prohibit camping on playgrounds, so there will be no camping on this site period.” The province says the area “will be closed from dusk-to-dawn each day,” and “Overnight camping will not be permitted.” Strict operating hours and no trespassing rules will have the same effect as the city’s bylaw.

Amrik Virk, minister responsible for the courthouse property, at a Tent City playground announcement. Image source: B.C. Government Flickr.

Amrik Virk, minister responsible for the courthouse property, at a Tent City playground announcement. Image source: B.C. Government Flickr.

The province used the playground and the bylaw to walk back their promise to allow overnight camping. Even though the province could set whatever rules they wanted, they said they had to ban camping in order to uphold the city’s bylaws. When Global News asked a few members of the public what they thought of the playground idea, one person said it would “obviously prevent camping,” so it seems the playground-as-displacement message was working.

The Tent City playground isn’t about giving children a place to play. It’s about reassuring residents, businesses, and the school down the street that homeless bodies won’t be seen in that space. That’s how the conversation started – playgrounds were “one reason you can’t set up tents” – and that’s how it will likely end. The minister said the new design is about “creating a safe public space and playground that the community can enjoy.” Everyone except the homeless community, that is, who will be subjected to intense scrutiny if they use the space during the day, and who may face arrest if they use the space at night.

Plans for the Tent City playground development. The image does not appear to show the whole property. Image source: B.C. Government Flickr.

City staff have said in the past that Tent City and the Reeson Park changes will help “address the shortage of play opportunities in the downtown area.” The projects are part of the same vision, and both have been supported by members of the public who are looking for legal ways to displace homeless Victorians. The city provided a handy way forward with its bylaws.

Playgrounds can be wonderful community spaces, but they don’t have to go hand-in-hand with displacement. The city leapt at a chance to fulfill its vision of a downtown playground by using the Tent City property, but in order to do so it had to back a campaign that was about displacement first, and playgrounds second.

It’s unfortunate that playgrounds are being used in Victoria as a way to push visible homelessness into the shadows. The correct response to visible homelessness is not “build a playground so we don’t have to see it.” The correct response is “build housing.” And don’t stop.

Stephen Harrison