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Pints on patios, but not in parks — why drinking alcohol in public spaces is still such a big deal

You can enjoy a cocktail at home, savour sangria on a restaurant patio, down a drink on an airplane and even sip champagne while getting a pedicure in some licensed locations. So why is it such a battle to consume alcohol in a city park?

Several Canadian cities have recently dipped their toes into allowing it, under certain conditions, but not without pushback from some politicians, public health experts and concerned citizens.

Those opposed to drinking in public spaces have cited the health impacts of normalizing alcohol consumption and worries about drunk driving and dangerous and disorderly behaviour, among other concerns. 

“We have this weird relationship with alcohol where it’s part of our lives, but as soon as it goes into public we look at it as potentially problematic,” said Dan Malleck, the chair of Health Sciences at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and a medical historian specializing in drug and alcohol regulation and policy.

“In my view, a lot of the general associations we have with drinking in public are negative, like drunkenness in public, drinking and driving, like drunken hoodlums, all of these things — which make the news, but aren’t necessarily the only way people consume alcohol in public.”

WATCH | Regina might allow drinking in parks: 

pints on patios but not in parks why drinking alcohol in public spaces is still such a big deal

City of Regina wants to allow alcohol consumption in 12 public parks by end of month

10 days ago

Duration 2:24

Regina is the first Saskatchewan city to make the move, under new provincial legislation. The mayor of Saskatoon has said it’s not a priority for his city right now. As CBC’s Adam Hunter reports, Regina has left the two most well known city parks off the list.

Laws relaxing across Canada

Regina was recently poised to become the next Canadian city to allow drinking in a limited number of parks. But on Wednesday, its council voted to table the debate until their next meeting in August.

This comes after Saskatchewan gave municipal governments the power to designate outdoor public places for alcohol consumption, and Regina’s executive committee voted 6-4 to approve the policy changes, despite concerns from multiple city councillors. 

“There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of responsible fun,” Ward 2 Coun. Bob Hawkins previously told CBC Saskatchewan. 

People lay in a public park
People lounge in the sun at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach Park in May 2020. In Vancouver, drinking is allowed at 31 parks throughout the year. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Other major cities such as Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary have recently expanded similar programs to allow drinking in certain public parks. In Vancouver, drinking is allowed at 31 parks throughout the year, at 16 additional parks in July and August, at seven beaches between June and September, and at select city plazas.

In Calgary, people are allowed to drink at some parks, where they can book a public picnic table or use one on a first-come, first-serve basis. You can also drink at select large picnic sites, a few open areas within city parks and some fire pits. Earlier this year, Edmonton council voted to allow drinking in designated city parks on a permanent basis.

Montreal has a so-called picnic law that allows drinking while having a meal in a picnic area.

A Toronto pilot program is up for a vote on July 19, and if it goes forward, people might be allowed to drink in 20 city-owned parks over the summer. A city survey released in April found 44 per cent of Toronto residents supported the idea, and a third expressed “some degree of opposition.”

LISTEN | Toronto councillor discusses legalizing drinking in parks: 

Ontario Today23:59Should it be legal to drink in parks?

A committee in Toronto is considering a pilot project to look at legal drinking in 20 city parks. This isn’t the first time Toronto has tried to legalize alcohol in parks — we’ll hear from Toronto Centre Coun. Chris Moise about how support for the idea has shifted and why he argues adults should be able to (openly) crack open a cold one in a city park.

Coun. Chris Moise, who represents Toronto Centre and supports the program, recently told CBC’s Ontario Today that pilots in other Canadian cities have gone “really successfully.” He recalled his own experiences while travelling abroad, including a trip to Amsterdam, where he enjoyed a drink with friends on a park bench overlooking the water.

“We are demonizing the situation, and I think it’s really unnecessary,” Moise said, noting people are already drinking in parks. 

“People do so responsibly, all across the city throughout the year. And I don’t want to be the morality police. I think Torontonians are smart enough to make their own decisions.”

‘Public-health considerations’

In 2021, researchers at the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research released a report cautioning municipalities against allowing unsupervised drinking on public property. They cited increased risks of harm such as assault, gender-based violence and a reduced ability to enjoy shared public spaces.

In a media release at the time, the institute’s director Dr. Tim Naimi said there were “significant public-health considerations.”

“As we know, alcohol can have significant negative health effects and is responsible, even at low levels, for a wide range of diseases, including several types of cancer,” Naimi said.

“It also creates more of a sense of ‘normalization,’ that we should be consuming alcohol everywhere all the time.”

According to Statistics Canada, alcohol-related deaths in the country have been soaring.

In January, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction released its updated low-risk alcohol use guidelines, stating that no amount of alcohol is safe and recommending no more than two drinks a week for men and women.

No surveillance, no trust

Malleck, the medical historian with Brock University, says that for the last century, the notion of drinking in a public space has been that it’s fine as long as it’s in a controlled public space, such as a bar or restaurant, where someone in a position of authority knows that if rules are broken, they could lose their liquor licence. But in public, he says, there’s no consistent surveillance. 

“This idea that alcohol itself is a problem, and it is a problem waiting to happen and it can happen to anyone, is embedded in that idea that people need to have an eye kept on them,” he said.

“So it feels like, when we’re being told we can’t drink in public, that we’re being treated like children, but it’s no different than what’s been happening all along, which is that drinking has been distrusted. That people when drunk, have been distrusted.” 

A sign that says 'alcohol permitted at table only 11:00 to 21:00'.
Signs posted on picnic tables designated for drinking in Calgary parks explain the rules of the city’s alcohol in parks program. (Mike Symington)

He notes that laws around drunk driving, public intoxication, vandalism and violence all still exist. And there are still expectations about public behaviour. For example, he says, someone who chooses to drink in a park still has to get themselves home safely, just as they would if they drank in a bar.

And just because someone can drink in a public park, he says, it doesn’t mean they’re going to get drunk and cause a scene.

“People’s concerns always go to those extremes,” Malleck said. “But you’re as likely to have the book club going to the park and opening a bottle of wine.”

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