Privatization and the Vancouver Park Board: Ken Sim’s “Outside the Box” Solution to Austerity

Vancouver Aquatic Centre. Photo by Bjørn Bulthuis (2005), Creative Commons

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim and the ABC majority city council have made waves by pushing for the abolition of the Vancouver Park Board. On December 13, 2023, council passed a motion seeking provincial endorsement for the Board’s elimination. To date, the province has signalled they may approve the request with caveats, including the requirement for a more comprehensive transition plan. 

The formal takeover of the Parks and Recreation portfolio by a yet-to-be-determined department of the City of Vancouver could allow for short-term municipal budget savings by privatizing some parks and recreation expenditures, along with the possibility of selling off park assets. Former Park Board Commissioners have pointed out that issues of duplication and bureaucratic alignment between council and Park Board have been addressed by previous city councils, suggesting that cost savings will be minimal. One former Park Board Commissioner claims the move will only save the city $140,000 per year. When asked, Sim and his fellow councillors have not been able to provide a projected dollar figure for the cost savings. 

Some interpret the move as a plan to permit the sale of park land for private real-estate: “The only thing it’s going to allow them to do is to strip out park board assets and sell off parts of the park…If they [Ken Sim and ABC] are gonna go this far and surprise everybody, there’s only one upside, which is the selling of land…Then you have to wonder whether or not that’s the underlying motive for them to do it,” remarked one ex-ABC Park Board commissioner. Green Party Park Board Commissioner Tom Digby has also referred to the plan as a “real estate coup d’etat.”

Sim claims to be steadfast in his commitment to protect Vancouver’s parks in perpetuity (and golf courses, unfortunately). The council motion includes the addition of a special amendment to ensure Charter protection of the city’s “permanent public parks.” According to ex-ABC Park Board Commissioner Laura Christensen, almost half of all Vancouver parks are not legally classified as “permanent parks” and would therefore not be protected under this amendment. Some of these unprotected parks are among the most popular and well-used in Vancouver, including parts of Jericho Beach, Sunset Beach and Thunderbird Park, according to a public municipal document. This loophole could allow for the sell-off of up to one hundred Vancouver parks. 

Privatization to “Solve” Austerity 

Whether or not the Park Board move will immediately entail the sell-off of assets (more on this in a moment), it does hint at the privatization of operating budgets in a context of austerity. Earlier this year the City of Vancouver faced a budget shortfall after increased spending on a few big-ticket items, most notably the 100 extra police officers promised by Ken Sim during last year’s municipal election campaign, which drove the municipal cost of the police to over a million dollars per day in 2023. 

Among other solutions, council has opted for a small property tax increase. This has amounted to a very small increase on a relatively small tax. The 7.5 percent increase will total an average of $100 per year for condo owners and $170 for owners of single-family homes, according to reporting by Ian Mass. Not surprisingly, the tax increase will not generate enough revenue to pay for the budget and its record increase in police spending. To put things into perspective: the 7.5 percent increase will amount to a week or two of lattes and a few croissants for Vancouver’s property owners, potentially passed on to renters in our patchy system of rent control in BC. Sim and ABC council are therefore taking more far-reaching measures, including $1m in cuts to the fire department budget and the intention to eliminate the Park Board. 

The Park Board decision can be seen as part of a wider shift in governance under Ken Sim. In addition to the usual raft of proposed austerity reforms, Sim wants to use his business connections to find “organizational savings” to go one step further. The idea is to turn the state itself into a private fundraiser in a last-ditch attempt to keep taxes low while reigning in basic services and funds earmarked for local community plans, including the stalled Britannia upgrade (more on that in a moment). 

In turn, this has meant transferring millions of dollars back to developers despite a budgetary shortfall. A small controversy recently erupted in May 2023 when ABC city council voted to reverse an empty homes tax increase levied on unsold condos, returning $3.8 million to developers who had already paid the city. ABC also rejected a proposed increase on the tax from 3 to 5 per cent. Literally millions of dollars were sent back to BC’s most cash-flush corporations, including the likes of Concord Pacific, Westbank, Holborn, Metcap, and Starlight investments.

Listening to Sim present his case for the Park Board, one might ask: what’s wrong with turning to philanthropy and private capital? For one thing, it means letting wealthy parts of the city use better services while low-income and working-class neighbourhoods continue to crumble. Just last month Sim and the ABC council reversed the Britannia gym and pool upgrade in East Vancouver, which had been in the works for years. In 2018, after 15 years of community engagement, Vancouver’s previous council approved the Britannia Master Plan, which allocated $20 million to site rezoning and design of an Aquatics building. Facing a budgetary shortfall, the ABC council has “paused” the Plan altogether but has stealthily passed it off as a sound decision made by upper management. 

When asked about his decision to eliminate the Park Board, Sim talked about excessive red tape for the multi-billion dollar film and entertainment industry, among other things. He also talked about removing the Park Board in order to support a new “outside the box” model of funding. According to Sim, the Park Board has gotten in the way of families doing their own private fundraising.1 

Private funding for public services has been on the agenda since Sim and ABC were elected. The recent Stanley Park train, rightly derided in the media, also had its more serious underside as a kind of test case and pilot project. Sim put it like this: “We’re looking for out-of-the-box solutions, for example, the Stanley Park train…We picked up the phone and we looked for private donors, and the community stepped up and we raised over half a million dollars with a few phone calls, and then we got a train expert come in to help us with the challenges that we have.” 

Beedie and others were listed as donors to the train, more or less furnishing the same politician-developer alliances that founded ABC and propelled them into electoral victory in 2022. Anyone concerned about the heightened link between Sim’s party and real-estate interests should also look at the role of Chip Wilson – not only a donor, but a mentor to Ken Sim with an enormous real-estate empire in Vancouver. 

Centralization as a Vehicle of Deregulation 

Some critics of Sim have lamented the undemocratic nature of the move, and have framed the Park Board as being “closer to the people” because of its smaller scale. OneCity has taken this approach, focusing on the lack of democratic process. They have rightly called for a referendum, but have said little about Sim’s privatization agenda. Certainly Sim’s lack of democratic accountability is infuriating and should be seen as an insult to the people of Vancouver: Ken Sim ran explicitly on a promise, declared in October 2022, to not abolish the Park Board. Do campaign promises mean nothing?

There is a clear and discernible trend towards centralization in the hands of the Mayor’s office and – arguably to an even greater degree – the unelected City Manager’s office. Both the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC) and the city’s housing file have recently been folded directly into the City Manager’s office, reporting to the Mayor. This partly explains the $180,000 additional budget added to Sim’s office in the recent municipal budget. Regarding the centralization of parks and recreation decisions, Sim has stated: “When you have more than one person accountable for anything, no one is accountable.” 

We should scrutinize this reasoning. If the Park Board is phased out, council will assume responsibility for its operations, and the council comprises more than one individual. The logic is wholly flawed. What Sim and ABC ultimately want is a business-like combination of complete deregulation and complete Mayoral control. Often centralization can be the last phase before wholesale deregulation, while time and again in the neoliberal era we have learned that “restructuring is often a prelude to sale,” to cite one report.

Currently, we are awaiting the release of a Budget Task Force report, reputed to take aim at city council’s supposed budgetary “overreach.” This overreach apparently includes municipal spending on housing and DTES services. Parties like Sim’s ABC tend to view park and recreation services as a hangover of 20th century social democracy, something that needs to be reigned in if not privatized entirely. It is not coincidental that Sim’s Park Board decision comes on the heels of a city audit which finds that the Park Board has not been properly “capitalizing” on its services and should be charging higher user fees. In the context of record-low property taxes in Vancouver, increased user fees are supposed to make up the difference. This is a deeply regressive way of delivering public services and represents yet another step backwards in neoliberalism’s assault on the crumbling remnants of the welfare state.

In Defence of Democracy?

In an interview with The Tyee, former Park Board Commissioner Sarah Blyth concludes that the Park Board represents “a level of democracy that often feels closest to the everyday concerns of residents.” This might be true, and it makes us think of all the other forms of local control that have been gradually eroded in BC since the 1980s, from legislated tenant councils in social housing complexes to community neighborhod bodies eliminated by the SoCreds. 

By the same token, it is necessary to point out that the Park Board has been ruthless in its attack on unhoused and Indigenous residents, both past and present. This extends far beyond the recent history of tent city decampment and includes the eviction of housed Indigenous communities in Stanley Park and across so-called Vancouver.2 Since the beginning, the Park Board has been an agent of colonial dispossession, something we need to recall during these rosy discussions of a “democratic” Park Board.

Regarding the threat of the sell-off of Park Board assets, it should also be pointed out that the mere existence of a Park Board has never been an obstacle to the privatization of assets. What matters more than the institution itself is the politics of those elected to govern it. Recent decisions by the School Board are a parallel case in point, with the proposed sell-off of Kingsgate Mall, despite the board having democratically elected representation. On the flip side, the idea of a development surge has also been thrown around in the public discourse in a somewhat naive and uncritical way. Private capital has always been careful in calculating when or if unconstrained land should be freed for development. As mentioned, Stanley Park itself was born out of a desire by developers to take land off the market, prevent competition, and maintain scarcity value of existing CPR holdings. 

Before the formal invention of municipal zoning, monopoly developers like the CPR already created their own mechanisms of internal self-regulation and spatial segregation for the creation of speculative value. “As Vancouver’s major landholder,” writes Donald Luxton, “the CPR was strategic in its release of land for sale, opening new areas for settlement only when other neighbourhoods were full and demand for land was high.”3 Even things like green space have been implicated in this colonial logic of development. Stanley Park itself was a mechanism of scarcity and land supply control, recruited in the fight against market devaluation to place limits on competition-induced expansion.4 Developers have never been against growth, but they have never been in favor of unconstrained growth – far from it. Capitalist planning, as the radical urbanist Utopie group put it in the 1970s, is “stretched between the necessity of freeing as many forces as possible and the necessity of controlling these forces as much as possible.”5  

Reflections on Strategy 

We are currently witnessing the growth of a “cross-partisan” alliance in response to Sim’s threat to the Park Board. Yet if we focus on principles instead of a technocratic attachment to the Park Board, we might have a better chance of defeating Ken Sim’s privatization agenda. From endless tent city evictions to the proposed sell-off of Kingsgate Mall, what each of these examples shows us is that the form of institutions is not always all-determining – what matters is the content. 

Or, put another way: pay close attention to fair-weather friends like the “ex” ABC commissioners who have now broken with ABC to call themselves independents. Certainly, we should cherish the internal fractures of the right, wherever they might emerge – but that’s about it. Current commissioners, like Brennan Bastyovanszky, ran on a vigorous law-and-order agenda and were lavishly endorsed by the Vancouver Police Union. On the Park Board, they unleashed endless violence on Vancouver’s unhoused community attempting to survive in city parks. 

There are reasons to believe that ABC and ex-ABC Park Board commissioners might be more protective of Vancouver parks, and less inclined to sell assets, than Sim and an ABC city council. This may explain the current rift and fallout within ABC. A wide coalition might be welcome, but it will also be led by politicians who likely oppose our long-term goals. Movements should not shy away from directly confronting the threat of privatization and austerity, and continue fighting for a just future – a future which should start, in the here and now, by ending the daily displacements of people living in poverty. 

Notes

1 Ken Sim speaking on CBC News (December 6, 2023): “you have parents and kids that play at Trout Lake Little League, who have literally raised their own money so they can improve the playing field for their kids and they’re being stopped by the Parks Board.” 

2 For an account of evictions of Indigenous residents from Stanley Park by the Vancouver Park Board, see Sean Kheraj, Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013) p. 86; See also Alexandra Flynn, “Parks as Persons: Legal Innovation or Colonial Appropriation?,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1 (2022), pp. 1-25. 

3 Donald Luxton and Associates, Langara Gardens Statement of Significance (April 2016), p. 3.

4 Jesse Donaldson, Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate (Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2019), p. 41.

5 Utopie Group, “The Logic of Urbanism” (1967) in Utopie: Texts and Projects, 1967–1978 (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011), pp. 115-116.