Program aims to increase focus on Saanich parks

Gorge Park will be the pilot for new Park Watch program

Sgt. Andy Stuart is part of the Saanich Police community engagement division launching a new program with Saanich called Park Watch. The first sign is up in Gorge Park with more to come.

Members of Saanich Police and Parks and Recreation have combined their efforts and are leading a new program to help residents take back their parks.

Gorge Park is the focus of the pilot project for the new Park Watch program, with up to a dozen more slated for the next two years. And if there’s one thing Saanichites take pride in, it’s their 171 municipal parks.

The goal of Park Watch is simply to make the parks more inviting to all users, said Sgt. Andy Stuart.

“There are people who use the parks regularly, and the idea is the police can use them to be our eyes and ears for anything out of the ordinary or out of place,” Stuart said.

The Park Watch program is modelled on Block Watch, which is highly successful in Saanich.

There are more than 10,000 homes registered in Saanich’s Block Watch program, one of the highest participation numbers per capita in the province, said Block Watch co-ordinator Ian Gibbs.

Leading Park Watch are Stuart and Const. Lisa Bruschetta, who constitute half of the Saanich Police community engagement division’s four-person bicycle patrol team. In addition to regular visits though Saanich’s most visited parks, the officers are on friendly terms, or try to be, with everyone.

They’re hoping the Park Watch program can have as much of an impact as Block Watch.

“The idea is for regular users to take ownership of the parks,” Bruschetta said. “Just being alert at all times [is helpful].”

The proactive part of the Park Watch program is the creation of an email list for each park. Regular users can sign up for it and receive updates and topics of concern.

Stuart said Gorge Park was chosen as the first park for good reason. The Gorge Tillicum Community Association’s new community garden there has been a big hit and the ongoing issue of campers has been minimized by the removal of dense brush. But there will still be unwanted behaviour in the park that make some people uncomfortable.

The park also had a decent share of the police’s call volume compared to other parks, Stuart said.

The death of Dave Armitage in Gorge Park earlier this month brought the spotlight of homelessness to the area but it’s not the issue that it has been, Stuart added.

“There’s still the odd camper but they’re quite respectful and move along,” he said.

Bruschetta credits Saanich Parks as a key stakeholder in the Park Watch program. It was in collaboration with them that the signs were created and posted.

The next sites for Park Watch, in no particular order, include Cuthbert Holmes, Gyro, Mount Douglas, Brydon and Mount Tolmie. Brydon is a convergence of numerous trails in Royal Oak and has a high interest from its neighbours, while Mount Tolmie has one of the higher call volumes, Stuart said.

“Really we’re just starting to get the info out there and the biggest thing is getting in touch with the neighbourhood associations,” Bruschetta said. “GTCA is excited about it, they’re very on board with this.”

The recent cold snap was yet another good reason for park watch, she added.

“If you know someone’s in the park [during harsh weather] then check on them, or call us,” Bruschetta said. “If it’s cold, we’ll let them know where they can go.”