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Maxed Out: Dissecting Whistler’s new Rainbow Park connections

It might be important to recall one of council’s strategic initiatives is community consultation
Rainbow Park in Whistler.

It’s called the 3.5-per-cent rule. Derived by Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth, it’s based on a long-term study of hundreds of social change campaigns waged over the past century. It reinforces the teachings of people like Ghandi and King that non-violent protests, civil disobedience, is more effective in bringing about change than violent campaigns.

Distilling the data, the findings support the general rule that when 3.5 per cent of a country’s population actively participate in protests, political change is likely to happen.

Rules are comforting. They help establish goals. They make the difficult easier to explain. They guide commerce—think the 80/20 rule—and inform public policy.

So, exactly how is that nugget of trivia important to what’s going on in Tiny Town?

I’ll get back to that.

A very long time ago I was backpacking around Europe, killing time before embarking on a long-delayed voyage into adulthood. I had a couple of months to wander, didn’t care where I started or ended and wound up in Lisbon, Portugal, as a jumping-off point.

Hearing about an interesting little town an hour north, I hitchhiked to Estoril and spent a week sleeping on a beautiful Atlantic beach. The beach was backed by a small two-lane road. On the other side was a mix of small shops, restaurants, and beyond them, a palatial casino.

Three decades later, crewing on a yacht delivery from England to Malta, I revisited Estoril. The beach was still there, but it was more highly developed. Worse, to get to it you had to negotiate a four-lane highway. Looking, hearing, smelling the physical and aesthetic changes left me feeling like George Webber in Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. It was a bit of paradise lost, never to be regained, only fondly remembered.

I had the same feeling later in the same trip stopping over in Palma, Mallorca. The waterfront backed on to a six-lane highway. To get anywhere from the boat or beach, you had to find a safe crossing. During a visit to the Fundació Miró Mallorca, a museum dedicated to Joan Miró’s art, I gazed wistfully at a painting of Palma as it had been, when the town blended gracefully into the waterfront with no intervening raceway. Paradise lost again. Seems to be spreading.

Okay, enough digression.

Whistler’s population, as reported by the 2021 census, was just under 14,000. Round up, let’s say 15,000. In the last three weeks, almost 2,500 people have signed an online petition asking the Resort Municipality of Whistler to rethink part of the plan to upgrade Rainbow Park. Specifically, it calls into question the plan to realign the Valley Trail so that it bisects the park, leaving the expanded sand beach on one side of the paved trail and the grassy remainder on the other side.

Currently, the Valley Trail is as far removed from the lakeside as possible given the wetland and railroad tracks on its western border.

Notwithstanding the current focus of the petition on the jarring border the realigned trail would create, there is also a strong undercurrent in the comments questioning the wisdom of part of the rationale for the upgrade—accommodating expanding numbers of park users. The gist of the comments seem to ask why we want to make it easier for people to overcrowd the park in the first place.

With the renewed interest in post-pandemic overtourism, it’s a valid question. And bearing in mind the 3.5-per-cent rule, 2,500 people signing up to ask for a reconsideration should probably carry some weight within muni hall and council.

Obviously, an online petition falls far short of civil disobedience, but it’s important to bear in mind Whistler is the town that seems always to firmly ground pathetic in apathetic. Whether you consider it a lazy or polite form of civil disobedience, getting that many people worked up about anything here is impressive.

There are a lot of good reasons people seem to be able to come up with to recoil from the idea of placing a paved trail between one part of the park and another. But what we haven’t heard so far is a, the, really good reason for moving the trail closer to the water.

The section of the Valley Trail that runs through the park is busy. In summer it’s full of walkers, bikes, scooters, strollers, joggers, dogs, and those simply wandering aimlessly. In winter, you can add cross-country skiers and their dogs.

With the current alignment, the only time traffic on the trail is an issue is when someone’s crossing it to get to or from the parking lot or washrooms. With the trail bisecting the beach and grassy part of the park, conflict between trail users and park users will be inevitable and, as many commenters point out, a hazard to children who have this annoying habit of not really paying attention to things like bikes bearing down on them when they’re running from the beach to the snacks their parents have where they’ve staked a claim to a bit of grass.

Arguments for accessibility to the dock(s) for wheelchair users can undoubtedly be answered with a paved path that does not include a beachside promenade running the length of the park.

Of course, what is not addressed at all is the continued growth in the number of park users. While there seems to be some focus or at least stated concern about overtourism elsewhere, the entire plan seems to be driven by the belief we can continue to accommodate continued growth in park users.

Since that seems unrealistic, would a focus on developing and expanding some of the town’s other parks help deflect the pressure off Rainbow? New parks? After all, Alta Lake isn’t the only easily accessible lake in town.

In all communication from the RMOW, there seems to be an emphasis on the fact the nearly $5-million cost of this plan is going to be fully covered by RMI funding. Nice to know when we’re facing an 8.4-per-cent property tax increase this year, but it doesn’t answer the questions about the wisdom of changing the nature of Rainbow Park to absorb even more users.

Oh, and if, as one councillor says, it’s wasteful to go back to the drawing board with this project, it may be worth bearing in mind it’s even more wasteful to get it wrong in the first place.

It might be important to recall one of council’s strategic initiatives is community consultation. Don’t remember any of that happening until after this project was announced and ready to go to bid. Always thought consultation should happen first. Silly me.

[Editor’s Note: While the RMOW used public input from its 2021 Summer Experience Plan and Outside Voice engagement process, there has been no formal consultation on the specific plans for Rainbow Park.]