More defensive… parkitecture

Here are a few things you can’t do in Victoria. You can’t loiter in Centennial Square, which the city calls Victoria’s “gathering place,” or outside the dozens of businesses with signs threatening the possibility of arrest if you linger too long. There’s no overnight sheltering on boulevards, in a playground, or in a half dozen small parks. And you can’t sit, lie down, kneel, or squat on downtown sidewalks between 8:00 am and 9:00 pm.

In theory, bylaws are supposed to apply equally to everyone. Anyone could be told to get the heck out of Centennial Square for taking too long to drink their half-sweet pumpkin spice latte. That’s not how these things work, though. Tamara Herman, writing for the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG), says that “certain municipal bylaws criminalize the day-to-day activities of the street community by targeting activities most residents are able to perform in the privacy of their homes.” Gordon O’Connor, also writing for VIPIRG, talks about the “disproportionate levels of ticketing” of Victoria’s homeless population. So whenever the city talks about making changes for the benefit of “everyone,” it should set off alarm bells, because “everyone” rarely means “everyone.”

City staff’s latest proposal would, amongst other, potentially worse changes, require people camping in parks to move at least 100 metres away from their campsite after they’ve packed up in the morning, and to find a new campsite for the following night that’s the same distance away (staff report; proposed bylaw language 16B). The report says “A person … must not occupy or remain in the same location in a park where he or she had an overnight shelter the night before.” Staff say these changes, and others, will “benefit park users in general.” But it’s clear that “park users in general” means ‘people who aren’t camping in parks.’ These changes aren’t for the benefit of “everyone” — they will negatively affect and further marginalize people who rely on our city parks to stay alive.

The Times Colonist reports that the city may not have thought through their proposals. Mayor Helps said that parks like Reeson, where there aren’t 100 metres of space to move, might be exempt. Then again, maybe staff had Reeson in mind, because the proposal also includes language allowing staff to kick people out “for the safety of park users … due to construction activity” (9A). A pathway is currently under construction in Reeson; if the city chooses to declare the park unsafe, or if they believe that the presence of campers is interfering with city employees (14A), these changes could allow them to kick everyone out.

Pathway construction at Reeson Park. Under the proposed bylaws, construction and/or 'interfering' with city staff could be used to close parks.

Pathway construction at Reeson Park. Under the proposed bylaws, construction and/or 'interfering' with city staff could be used to close parks.

The 100 metre proposal is getting a lot of attention, but a more damaging aspect of the proposed bylaws might be that it would allow the city to close off spaces — for weeks at a time — that people have used as campsites. Staff are asking for “provisions for legally closing parts of a park to allow a field to recover after intensive use or to re-seed the grass,” for up to three weeks, or even longer if they get approval from city council (9A). “Intensive use” could refer to a muddy soccer game, but the staff report makes it clear that they’re talking about camping:

Prolonged occupation of the same space has significant impact on the park areas in terms of physical effect on grass and other vegetation as well as on the ability of other park users to use the area for recreation activities.
— City of Victoria staff report

This is still very much the city that fought to keep people from sheltering in parks at all. The immorality of that stance was mind-boggling, and the city continues to resist the message behind the court ruling. Here we are again, with city staff equating recreation and vegetation with human beings’ right to occupy public space. Victoria already has rules about where people can shelter (only in certain places in certain parks); and rules about when they can shelter (8:00 pm to 7:00 am, March to October; 7:00 pm to 7:00 am, November to February). They would add to that rules barring people from staying at their sheltering site after it’s packed up; rules to require them to change their campsite every night; rules to allow the city to close down their chosen campsites; and another rule that would allow the city to take possessions that have “been unlawfully placed or left in a park,” which would be available for return “within six hours of it being removed” (19). The staff report said the six-hour timeframe is to help out people in case their tent is seized, but if it’s nighttime and your shelter disappeared during the day, realistically you’re probably not going to get it back that evening.

Rules upon rules. Camping is already banned in Cridge Park due to its size, but signs are up to tell people A) Not to camp; and B) Not to camp next to this stump-based playground. The City's website says Cridge Park does not have a playground.

Rules upon rules. Camping is already banned in Cridge Park due to its size, but signs are up to tell people A) Not to camp; and B) Not to camp next to this stump-based playground. The City's website says Cridge Park does not have a playground.

People sheltering in parks are already forced to wake up and pack up early. When I’m woken up by my alarm clock, I don’t have to move a muscle if I don’t want to, let alone 100 metres, or to another apartment. I also don’t have to worry that my landlord is going to lock my apartment one day without telling me, for three unannounced weeks of renovations. These proposals may force people to move further and further away when they can’t find a new acceptable site; when their preferred campsites are “temporarily” shut down for up to three weeks or more; or simply so they can avoid being told, yet again, where they can and can’t spend their nights and their days.

At a minimum, these proposals will take people’s energy; the changes could also take their safety, putting lives at risk for the sake of greener grass.

Stephen Harrison