21 December 2012

Happy Holidays to all my readers

Safe travels.  
May the light that perpetually shines, light your way this holiday season and throughout the New Year.

19 December 2012

The Importance of Gardens: A Letter of Hope from Chicago

Here is a letter the President of the Chicago Botanic Gardens sent to her staff. I thought it was worth sharing: 
As you know, last Friday we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon together—celebrating our colleagues’ years of service and achievements.  As we left the party that day, we learned that yet another tragedy had taken place in the world.
I walked back to my desk in tears, feeling helpless and wondering what I could do to make the world a better place.  Adding this grief to my worries about climate change, feeding hungry families, and reconciling our Federal budget just felt like too much!  Perhaps you felt, or are feeling, this way too.
And that is why I wanted to write this letter to you.
Because while as individuals we cannot solve all the world’s problems, we are, as Garden staff and volunteers, doing a lot together.  When I realized how much we are doing for others, my pain began to ease.  I hope that you, too, will find solace in remembering the importance of our garden. 

Each and every day of the year, from dawn to dusk, we offer a refuge, as well as education, wellness, therapy, inspiration, and conservation of the environment.  Each and every day, as part of the intricate team it takes to run our garden, you deliver joy, healing, and inspiration. Your efforts, especially now, make a difference in so many ways. People who come into contact with your work can feel your commitment and your nurturing kindness.

Our garden is a place where hope for the future can be rekindled; where serenity and the beauty of nature can calm the spirit and the mind.  Each season and every program offers a respite from the stresses of the world.

Our garden is a place where people play, stroll, eat, laugh, and dance with friends and family, with strangers and alone, in good times and bad.  Our garden embraces people of every age and background and welcomes multi-generational families to enjoy a day together. Our garden, through its formal design, and informal programs, offers joy, beauty, fun, and peace.

Our garden helps ensure that science education reaches thousands of children and provides individuals of all ages—and from all backgrounds—with engaging classes and programs.  These opportunities enrich people’s lives, complement the education system, and, hopefully, over time, help heal the planet.

Our garden helps people get regular exercise and grow their own food.  People who walk outside move at a faster pace, perceive less exertion, and experience more positive emotions than people exercising indoors.  Together with wonderful partners, we are committed to growing and donating food, and training farmers throughout Cook and Lake Counties.

Our garden helps heal and conserve the environment.  All life depends on plants; Garden conservation scientists study what is happening to plants, the changes that can result from a loss in plants and healthy habitat, and then seek to discover ways to heal the damage.

Our garden serves veterans and people who have physical and emotional challenges.  Working with plants builds strength, relieves stress, fights depression, and increases well-being.  Just looking at a scene depicting nature activates parts of the brain associated with balance and happiness. Garden therapy programs extend beyond physical boundaries, serving schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and hospice.

Our garden is a refuge and a good value—people return over and over again and Mother Nature, aided by skilled horticulturalists, always provides something new.

If we remember that gardens are important to the physical and emotional well-being of all people, and if we honor the opportunity we have to work with wonderful colleagues in a place whose beauty changes with every hour, we will help address the world’s challenges today, and for many years to come.

Thank you for all you do for the Chicago Botanic Garden.  I am profoundly grateful to work with you and hold you and your family in my heart.

I wish you all the best for a Happy, Healthy New Year.


Sophia Siskel
President & CEO
Chicago Botanic Garden

11 December 2012

Kerrisdale community centre's legacy a model threatened by city

City hall's new 'efficient' style will erode parks and recreation system

One of Vancouver's truly interesting characteristics is its 24 neighbourhoods, distinct geographic enclaves across the city. They all have their own unique charms and challenges but it has always been thus. Kerrisdale is one of them. Originally the hub of the Point Grey municipality before the city's amalgamation in 1929, the Kerrisdale Community Centre now sits where once stood the handsome arts and craft style municipal city hall. My point is that the Village has been a vibrant business area and community since about 1905.

The diverse merchants of Kerrisdale formed a strong association decades before the Business Improvement Area schemes now in place city-wide. Actually, when Kerrisdale followed suit and formed its own BIA in 1990, this grassroots forerunner brought over $80,000 in funds into the equation. I guess you could say they were good managers of their collective money.

Kerrisdale Village's December holiday entertainment has already started with the perennial horse and carriage rides, strolling brass bands, quartets, and of course, Santa Claus. December Saturdays, between 12 to 4 p.m., near Yew and West 41st, is where you'll discover enough enthusiasm for the season putting a smile on your face while making those very important purchases be it a holiday gift, lunch or a cup of coffee.

But back to the Kerrisdale Community. Following the Second World War, the community and business leaders approached the elected Vancouver park board with a plan to build a skating arena and a community centre. They knew it would be expensive but their proposal was to put it to area voters as a special capital plan bylaw. If approved all property owners in this specific region would repay the money to the city through additional taxes over a period of time (20 years). This is how many community centres and fieldhouses (run by field sport organizations) were financed mid-century. By the late 1970s park board capital plans reflected city-wide park and recreation needs and were paid for by collective taxes.

The point to be made here is that Kerrisdale residents are very close to their community facilities. Their joint "ownership" is palpable to them. Community Centre Associations like Kerrisdale's (KCCA) have been running the programming side of park board-owned centres for over a half century and by all accounts doing a good job of it. They retain the funds from room rentals and programs to hire instructors, and they make a profit which is further invested in their centres. In this way the KCCA has contributed considerable funds to build Vancouver's first senior centre and to permanently cover one of Vancouver's original outdoor pools enabling its use year round. In addition the KCCA ensures that indigent residents are able to participate in their programs free of charge.

Along comes a new style of management at city hall which under the guise of corporate efficiencies instructs the park board to amalgamate its park and recreation staff with city hall, pruning off positions left right and centre. Some of these changes may in fact be efficient, such as in accounting and information technology, but general erosion in expertise is inevitable. Now they are looking to alter joint operating agreements (JOAs) with these vital neighbourhood associations in order to be in charge of all the funds generated by them. The word on the street is that community centre associations generate over $17 million a year which presently is plowed back into each respective community and allocated as they deign. Under the new plan, those funds would go to city coffers and be allocated back to centres. The city says this is "fairer" and more "equitable" to those community centres which have generated less. I would purport it is a money grab by city staff who are funding a host of initiatives not approved by voters and at the expense of communities.

The attitude at city hall these days is that we have to run the city like a business and this includes park and recreation services. I disagree. Taxpayers do not mind their money subsidizing a swim or a skate for the greater good. That's why they pay taxes. A Vancouver Sun newspaper columnist recently asserted that Canada's only elected park board is arcane in this day and age and that community associations are some sort of hold-out from a past Vancouver need not recognize anymore. The way I see it we are all being set up for the park board to be eliminated and I'll just make an observation.

What does every visitor to the city say? This is a green paradise ringed by beaches and one of the most beautiful seawalls in the world, where there are recreation centres and parks mere blocks from residents. This happened not by accident but because Vancouver has a separately elected park board whose mandate is specific under the Vancouver Charter. City hall may hold the purse strings but they do not have the power to sell off parkland or indeed make any decisions relating to the park board mandate.

The power rests with the park board to deny and defy city hall managers and their new plans. Instead of wielding that power, the park board is being usurped. Power not taken is power lost. I would say 80 per cent of people voting for park commissioners and city councillors are not familiar with the candidates when they cast their ballots. Usually once elected these politicians rise up to their responsibilities and engage in a balancing act of separately elected offices. That has not happened over the past four years.

About 20 years ago the park commissioner from New York City visited Vancouver. His was an appointed position serving at the will of the mayor. While we drove him around the city visiting various park board facilities, he marvelled at our system. What he wouldn't give to have a Sunset nursery again where staff grow their own plants for parks and gardens. But he was most impressed with the elected board itself which is mandated to advocate for parks and recreation despite being placed in an adversarial position with city hall at times. "What I wouldn't give for that kind of power to protect parks," he said.

Should city hall get involved with the operations at grassroots, neighbourhood community centres? Should the park board be eliminated bit by bit while no one is watching? Should developers be allowed to forestall community amenity contributions because the city deems they are providing affordable housing? By the way, define affordable in the context of livable. Hmmm. I wonder.

Terri Clark is a Kerrisdale resident and former park board communications officer.

02 December 2012

Park board wants control of community centres


The Vancouver park board is considering a plan would change the 40-year-old service model that alllows each city of Vancouver community centre to operate semi-independently. Critics fear this could change local programming. 

Photograph by: Les Bazso, Vancouver Sun


The Vancouver park board is planning to take control of all community centre revenues in a move that some critics say could significantly change local programming and dampen community fundraising efforts. The park board plan would change the 40-year-old service model that alllows each city of Vancouver community centre to operate semi-independently.

Under the change, revenue surpluses from programs and room rentals would flow to the park board. The park board would decide how to spend such surpluses, not the community associations that run each centre.

In a statement, park board general manager Malcolm Bromley said the point updating the agreement is to provide a more equitable distribution of funds among centres in the city. “A key focus will be to ensure that all citizens, regardless of socio-economic status, have fair access to community centre programs in Vancouver — something that is the norm across the city’s ice rinks and swimming pools, but not the case across all fitness centres and other programs in our community centres.”

Several community centre associations are seeking legal advice and suggest the proposal is a thinly disguised cash-grab by an indebted park board trying to cover its own shortfalls.

Earlier this year, the park board announced it faced a $2.4 million shortfall for its $104-million operating budget for 2012, which had it considering various cost-cutting measures. A park board power point explains the community centre plan includes shifting the development of programming to the park board, and away from individual community centres.

Christopher Richardson, president of the Mount Pleasant Community Centre Association said the move could seriously affect community centres’ ability to fundraise, to maintain community-based volunteer staff and to provide programs that are of direct interest to the communities each centre serves.

Some core programs, like swimming and ice skating differ from those that are market-driven, and might be offered by individual teachers with specialized skills, such as cedar basket-weaving or guitar, explained Richardson.

“I have a board of volunteers that live in the neighbourhood and represent the community. It is necessary for us to move quickly to address the needs of the community. A centralized system will not allow us to do that.”

Bromley said the Park Board “would like our public to have access to any and all community centre programs without having to take out separate memberships at each centre. This will ensure our citizens have access to the full network of community centres and all the programs they provide.”
At issue in particular are some programs, such as fitness centres, which vary in access and quality across the city.

The Kerrisdale community centre, for example, does not accept the city-wide community centre flexipass because their updated gym was funded largely through private donations, and is run separately from the community centre.

Richardson questions the Park Board’s motivations and is concerned about a lack of public debate. “This is the most major change by the park board and they haven’t (held an) open debate or considered the alternatives.”
Kate Perkins, Grandview Community Centre Association president said that the CCAs are putting together a counter proposal. “We’ve had a 60-year relationship with the Park Board. We are putting forward a counter-proposal and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

with files from Brian Morton