For Public Public Spaces

Last night the City of Charlottetown held a public meeting about the proposed National Folk Festival in Victoria Park. The meeting was required under the Victoria Park and Promenade Bylaw:

Where the Parks and Recreation Manager, in consultation with the Parks & Recreation and Culture Committee, determines that a proposed special event is a major event, then the application for use shall be referred to Council who will by resolution approve (with or without conditions) or reject the application. Council will, before reaching a decision, hold a public meeting to receive public input as to whether or not, and if so, on what conditions the proposed major event ought to proceed.

The bylaw currently in place, last amended in 2009, is the successor of the original bylaw, passed in June of 1873, a bylaw that stated, in part:

The said lands shall be used, appropriated and set apart by the said City, at the expense of the said City, for the sole purpose of a Park, Promenade and Pleasure Ground, for the use of the citizens, the inhabitants of this Island, and all Her Majesty’s subjects.

The said City shall not, on any account whatsoever, use, or permit to be used, the said lands, for the purposes of Circuses, Shows, or Exhibitions of any kind, whatsoever, and should the same be so permitted to be used by the said City, the lands hereinbefore mentioned shall revert to and be vested in Her Majesty, her heirs and successors.

At last night’s meeting I stood up to oppose the granting of permission to use Victoria Park for a folk festival because I believe that public spaces should be free and open to the public; I believe this same spirit was reflected in the original bylaw: “for the use of the citizens, the inhabitants of this Island, and all Her Majesty’s subjects.”

There has been a disturbing trend in recent year in Charlottetown to wall off public spaces – Confederation Landing Park, Victoria Row, sections of Queen Street, and Victoria Park – for the exclusive use of ticket-buyers. The justification for these walls is most often some combination “it’s only for a weekend” or “it will bring huge tourism dollars to the city”; these rationalizations ignore the fundamental rights of all the citizens of the city, rich and poor, to benefit from public spaces.

When we put up walls in Victoria Park and say to our citizens “you can only go in this space – this space you and your ancestors have paid for and stewarded – unless you can come up with $100 for a weekend pass” we are disenfranchising many of our fellow citizens for whom such expense is simply not managable.

I’m a big supporter of the folk festivals and of folk music in general; I think the team behind the proposed National Folk Festival is top flight, and their proposal is well-considered. But I cannot conscience supporting an event that excludes some of my friends and neighbours on economic grounds. I think our ancestors understood this, and I think it’s time we did the responsible thing and update the bylaw to clearly state that public spaces are for the public, for all the public.