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A park for all to enjoy

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THE Assiniboine Park Conservancy is getting all its ducks (and bears) in a row. The plan for a massive $180-mil­lion makeover will begin on a relatively small scale with emphasis appropriately placed on serving the needs of families and children, the park’s most important and most frequent users.

Some of the first-phase ideas are so simple -- removing the fence around the duck pond so visitors can actually approach the water and feed the ducks -- that it is curious they have not been done already. One explanation may be that the park lacked a champion and was merely one asset in an inventory of city holdings. The arm's-length conservancy, created two years ago, changed that and showed what can be done when the city's business leaders take a public asset under their wings.

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The long-term plan for the zoo, a new conservatory and other amenities are also encouraging, but the emphasis is really on long term, since the government and private sector must raise about $170 million and there is no timeline on when that might be achieved. The concept of an international polar bear conservation centre and a bear rescue centre for orphaned bruins, however, is compelling and should help pry open pocket books. The conservancy says it wants the zoo to focus more on conservation and education, but it should also consider doing fewer things well, rather than many things poorly.

The long-term projects may be works in progress, but the immediate plans are more tangible and the agency is promising that $10-million of improvements will be completed by the end of next year. Until now, the park was a pretty good place to go fly a kite, or watch the ducks from behind a fence, or look at the flowers in the English Garden. It was all good, but something was missing. Actually, there was a lot missing. By 2010, however, the old duck pond will be the centre of an extensive family-recreation area, with a water-play facility, expanded playground and even a place to change clothes, buy a sandwich and use the bathroom. It will become a centre of action and activity all year round, instead of the desolate green space that it sometimes seemed. Some purists and naturalists will disagree with the plan, arguing that the purpose of an urban park is passive green space, where people can go for a walk and enjoy the outdoors in relative quiet, or marvel at the floral beauty of the gardens. In the case of Assiniboine Park, however, it will be possible to both be seekers of solitude and a noisy family. In such a big place, the two are not mutually exclusive.

In addition to its contribution to public health and happiness, the park serves as a meeting place where people of different colours and classes can meet and mix. To further that goal, the city should consider how transit service to the park can be improved, possibly with dedicated routes on weekends.

Unions were upset when the conservancy was created because of the groundless fear that it would lead to the privatization of the park. It's true that some businesses will purchase the naming rights for some facilities, which will help pay for the improvements, but that hardly constitutes a corporate takeover.

The park has been stagnant for decades. A makeover will give it new life and purpose that will strengthen the entire community.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 20, 2009 A18

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