Covid-19 Pandemic Reinforces the Importance of Spatial Equity approach for Communities

By Kurt Culbertson, CEO of Design Workshop and Katherine Howard,  Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation for

With COVID-19 changing our way of life, we are being told to stay at home, don’t travel too far from your neighborhood and try to enjoy being outside.  What if you don’t have a park nearby, if your home is tiny with no outdoor space and limited light, or what if your community is the people you meet through sport or at your local community center?

Lock downs and stay at home orders are highlighting the value of green open spaces in crowded cities, and also the inequities in spatial distribution of that space. Spatial equity is a complex concept which considers whether access to opportunities and freedom from risks (such as pollution or traffic) are equitable in their distribution. It’s important to note that ‘equity’ (fairness) is quite different to ‘equality’ (everyone has the same). Consideration goes beyond pure amount of park space available and should also consider how welcome people feel, the quality of that space and the quality of access to it (safe routes to parks, safe routes to school, parks that are accessible by public transit and bikeways).It is critical the planners and city builders focus effort on reducing those inequalities both through recovery efforts and in long-term planning policy.

Parks and open spaces are in more demand than ever – British Columbia’s parks are seeing more visitors than ever before – according to Google mobility data it’s an average of 40-50% more people in parks than would be typical at this time of year.

The spot light is on parks, in a way that it really has never been before. It’s time for parks and recreation to step up, provide people with critical services to keep us happy and healthy, and also to rebuild better in recovery.

One method of supporting this pursuit is the identification of priority areas or zones, those neighborhoods where planners should look first to locate new amenities, park space and provide services. By prioritizing these areas, over time and with deeper conversations, resource delivery can become more equitable. It’s also possible that this tool becomes useful in guiding quick responses to emergencies.  Cities including New York, San Francisco and Boston have mapping like this.

The Commissioners and leadership of the City of Vancouver’s Board of Parks and Recreation where certain that equity in provision of parks and recreation should be the core value of its new comprehensive city-wide master plan – VanPlay.

The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation is unique because it’s the only elected body of its kind in Canada. Its role as advocates for the provision, preservation and advocacy for parks, nature and recreation amenities is a special opportunity for leadership.

Like many North American cities, Vancouver faces challenges including increasing demand from growing and diversifying populations, aging infrastructure, impacts of climate change to ecosystem health and budgets that can’t fully tackle the needed improvements to parks and recreation infrastructure. Most notably, and again like most cities, some parts of the city have been provided less over the course of the city’s development for various reasons (politics, prejudice, land use patterns etc.). With more than 1,000 acres of park space, the City of Vancouver needed more cohesiveness, more connection within its park system and a way to prioritize effort in a way that enabled work towards equity to become a part of every-day decision making.

In 2016, the City brought in the Design Workshop, an international landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm, to guide the Vancouver Park Board Commissioners, and staff in a master planning process to determine what’s important to the city, to create a bold long-term vision and to develop tools to make it happen. Approved in late 2019, the completed plan created tools which equipped decision makers to prioritize equity, access and reconciliation.

It was clear, through mapping analysis, that patterns of privilege and power aligned with areas of the city that had more park space, and more private open space. As previously mentioned, this is fairly typical for cities, especially those with any kind of industrial or port history. Areas that would have been historically on the fringe, subject to poor air and water quality are the least desirable. Over time and with the ongoing systemic impacts of political decision making favoring those with a voice and power, patterns emerge and are reinforced.

The VanPlay Equity Initiative Zones map, one of three “Strategic Bold Moves” in the plan, shows areas of the city that have historically been under-served (or marginalized) in provision of park space, recreation opportunity and green, leafy living environments. It is a map showing areas of the city that should be prioritized when making decisions regarding where to focus effort, direct resources or dive into for further investigation.


While geographic tools like this are not uncommon Vancouver’s is unique as it is centered on access to parks and recreation provision, and is structured around the acknowledgement that some parts of the city have been provided less over the course of the city’s development for various reasons (politics, prejudice, land use patterns etc.). This inequity is systemic prejudice, and contributes directly to the provision of opportunities and has impacts on health and well-being, social capital and economic development.

While “equity” is a deep and complex concept which has no easy or simple answers, acknowledging these patterns goes a long way in causing a shift and preventing continuation of damaging activity. The spatial equity tool introduced in VanPlay is powerful in its simplicity.

It’s helpful right now because it shows so clearly where priority needs to be. The areas of the city with low park space per person, that are less green, and that are calling out for more recreation opportunities (through low barrier recreation program registration) are the places where there are people living in small apartments, who don’t have private outdoor space like a backyard to quarantine in.

It’s transparent, it’s logical, it’s approved policy and it’s ready to be used to prioritize response to the pandemic.

Having VanPlay in place has meant that the Vancouver Park Board is ready to run – this vision for the parks and recreation system of the future which serves Vancouverites in an equitable way, which connects ecosystems, allows for robust flows of water through the city, helps people integrate recreation and physical activity into their daily lives, and which is supported by a comprehensive provision of amenities like courts, pools, and swings.

Having the vision is important because when asked to amp it up in response to a crisis the agency knows what we can do to make a big difference. As recovery funding flows in, as pilot quick responses like opening streets, and efforts to prioritize limited government spending it’s absolutely critical to be “shovel ready” and driven by transparent processes and well-articulated values.

Identifying amenity needs, prioritizing funding to areas of the city which have received less in the past and working to keep amenities open and available using an equitable model – are all ways that VanPlay, the master plan for parks and recreation for the City of Vancouver, is helping provide critical access to green space during this crisis.




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