Earlier today I supported a motion that changes the public space in front of City Hall. I want to share some of the history that led up to this decision as well as why I voted the way I did. Late in 2017 there was news coverage about a proposed change to the space in front of City Hall otherwise known as the Civic Precinct. What we learned is that the wading pool in front of City Hall was going to be replaced by a smaller wading pool that would be ankle-depth (15cm) instead of knee-depth (40cm). This change was sparked by a change in Provincial rules that requires any wading pool deeper than 15cm to install a fence around it or have dedicated 24 hour security. The cost difference between installing an updated wading pool at 40cm would have been $400,000 for the capital costs and approximately $24,000/year for ongoing operating costs. For the full report please view this week’s agenda (all attachments can be found on the right side once clicking on the link).
Some of the other differences between those two options include issues like year-round use particularly during the shoulder seasons and accessibility. As you may know, the current Civic Precinct is used from the May long weekend to the Labour Day weekend for the wading pool and then approximately from mid-December to mid-March. There are approximately 155 days/year where that space is not used. The 15cm pool option provides an opportunity to use that space during those shoulder seasons where there is currently no activity.
With regards to accessibility, either option would expand opportunities for those who use mobility aids. In the 15cm option, the entire space would be fully accessible from both the North and South side. As the old road at 102A Avenue will become part of the overall space, someone would have the ability to access the whole space from the the southern edge of Churchill Square all the way to the front doors of City Hall. The 40cm option would still provide accessibility. The northern edge of the wading pool would have a ramp leading into it while the South edge of the pool would be similar to what is currently in place. One difference in this option is that the surface for skating would be reduced by 10% to provide the accessibility on the north edge.
With that context, my initial reaction when I heard about the loss of the wading pool was frustration. I understood that there were new Provincial rules that would require modifications, either the fence or security, but I felt that even if we would have to spend some additional money to put in a new wading pool that it would be worth it for the many people who may rely on a free public space like this. The public response was similar and a decision was made to formally discuss this issue at a future committee meeting so Council could learn more about the rules that changed and to see what options could be explored to bring in a 40cm wading pool instead of a 15cm wading pool. Prior to this meeting, the information (ex: costs, changes to accessibility, etc.) were not yet known so my initial reaction was not including any of the information listed above.
Once I read the report which included some of the cost impacts, I was still leaning towards supporting a 40cm wading pool. As the discussion went on, my opinion started to shift to a more neutral view. There were some interesting points raised by other members of Council around whether this change would actually detract families considering how popular our splash pads along with the point that the 15cm option is still a pool and not a splash pad, albeit an obviously smaller pool. Would a 25cm change in pool size really change the overall feeling of this space? For some it might but I don’t necessarily agree and will elaborate on that below. Another point that stood out to me was around accessibility. If you have visited this space you may know that accessibility is limited. There is a ramp leading up to a side door at City Hall but there is no access to the current pool. While the 40cm option would provide an accessible access on the north edge of the pool, it would still result in a space that is not fully accessible. The perspective from those with mobility challenges was important to understanding what we could do with that space. While those points raised caused me to shift my thinking, I wasn’t convinced on either option. The report was delayed by two weeks to get some more information on the costs listed above and it also gave an opportunity to hear from the members of our Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC) on both options.
On Monday evening the AAC met and received similar information as listed in the link above. They then took time to ask questions, discuss the options, and finally decide whether they preferred the 15cm pool, the 40cm pool, or if they were indifferent. Every member of the committee in attendance except one preferred the 15cm option. The other member was indifferent. While I won’t summarize everything that was said, the common theme for supporting the 15cm option was that it would provide a fully accessible space throughout the entire year. They were less focused on the pool and looked at how that space is being used year-round.
There were a number of reasons I voted the way I did and I want to share some of those reasons with you.
First, much of this conversation was focused on the use in the summer. Not only do we need to consider the use of the space during the winter, but I believe that not using that space for 155 days/year is something that should change. Why wouldn’t we want a public space like this to be home to more activities and events that could draw more people? We do a phenomenal job with our summer and winter festivals but there aren’t nearly as many spring and fall festivals. What if we put on special events? What about using that space as an extension of the City Market between the October long weekend and whenever we can open up the rink as well as when we close the rink to the May long weekend? What about a new spring or fall festival? There are many opportunities to use a space which is usually empty for almost half of the year. The fact that this isn’t just a summer space was an important consideration for me.
Another factor was the overall use. We received interesting statistics for the current wading pool and for two of our wading pools where we track usage. For the current wading pool we saw just under 67,000 people use it in 2017. Also in 2017, the spray park in Castle Downs had 91,730 people use it while the spray park in Jackie Parker Park had 94,829 use it. Now I’m not going to suggest that those number prove that more people prefer spray parks over wading pools but I do think those numbers show that any public space with a free water play feature will be popular in the summer. While there may be some of the 67,000 people who choose to now visit a different space, I don’t believe there will be a noticeable change in total usage during those summer months.
One more point that helped shape my vote was year-round accessibility. I never assume that any of our advisory committees speak for every member of a specific group but I do think having those perspectives provides additional detail to help make an informed decision. To hear such strong support for the 15cm option was important and made me think about those who have not been able to fully enjoy that free public space. It’s something I’ve never had to consider in the past but after that meeting I now had a better idea of the benefits of creating a fully accessible public space that can be used year-round. Combining this point with the other points above are some of the main reasons I supported a 15cm wading pool.
I understand this pool has many excellent memories and that is why I’m fairly certain that a majority of people, when presented with the two options and focusing specifically on the use during those summer months, would likely support the 40cm pool. That overwhelming support for the deeper pool made it even harder to vote the way I did. As some noted on social media, I do not have children and haven’t had to raise children on a low-income and therefore would not fully appreciate the need for free access to recreation for families with children. While I believe that I have brought forward some important changes during my time on Council to expand access to recreation facilities for an additional 50,000 people, I realize that there is still a lot of work to do to ensure those who are raising families on lower incomes have access to free recreation. I believe there are a few additional actions that I will detail below that will expand the free recreation opportunities for many families.
I believe that an additional motion made today and one from a few months ago may allow us to better use the money that we would have had to spend on installing a 40cm wading pool to provide more opportunities for those both in the downtown and across the city to have free recreation activities. The subsequent motion made today would look at installing a playground or some type of child-friendly amenity on the precinct and/or Churchill Square. The $400,000 capital cost for the new wading pool could go a long way to creating an additional play space that could be used year-round. This could compliment the pool and help address a major gap in downtown recreation infrastructure. Also, there is a discussion scheduled for next week (February 21st) to look at permanently providing free access to our outdoors pools city-wide. We spent approximately $350,000 on that program last year and it more than doubled the amount of people who used our outdoor pools. It’s not quite 10% of the cost but I think a strong case could be made to use the $24,000 that we would have had to spend on the 40cm wading pool and look for opportunities in our upcoming budget deliberations to find the remaining $326,000 to make all our outdoor pools free every year. I think those actions may provide even more opportunities for those to access free recreation across the entire city and not just in the downtown core. I understand that people many may be frustrated in my decision but I hope this post provides you with a detailed explanation about why I voted the way I did. If you have any any questions or comments, please let me know. Thanks everyone.