How can Yellowknife stop this playground being vandalized?

Last modified: June 13, 2022 at 9:19am


It doesn’t take long to spot the damage. From spinning blocks streaked with black spray paint to profanity scribbled on climbing structures, few surfaces are untouched.

As first reported by NNSL, the inclusive Jumpstart playground at Yellowknife’s Somba K’e Park – created to be accessible to children of all abilities – has been the target of repeated vandalism.

“Everybody needs to show up and say stop,” said Jason Butorac, an owner of Yellowknife’s Canadian Tire. He and wife Karen invested their own money to help fund the playground, which opened last year

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“We built a park with handicapped children in mind,” he said. “My wife and I spent our own money, and we’re letting people trash it? I’m so mad.”

A photo of graffiti on the accessible playground in Yellowknife's Somba K'e Park on June 8, 2022.
Explicit graffiti on the accessible playground in Yellowknife’s Somba K’e Park on June 8, 2022. Amelia Eqbal/Cabin Radio

This isn’t the first time the playground has been vandalized in the nine months since it opened to the public. 

In its first few days, someone wrote “Treaty 8” across some areas in spray paint. Canadian Tire sent staff to try to clean up the playground, but ultimate responsibility for park maintenance lies with the city.

Johanna Elliot, facilities manager for the City of Yellowknife, says her team has been working to repair the recent damage.

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“We are trying to mitigate and clean the graffiti as soon as possible so that it’s not there to encourage more,” she said.

By Friday evening, some of the graffiti had been removed.

On a typical day, Elliot said, city staff take turns visiting the playground to see what’s going on, as do municipal enforcement officers patrolling the area.

While these rotations and patrols run late into the evening and begin early in the morning, there isn’t anyone stationed at the park around the clock.

A photo of graffiti on the accessible playground in Yellowknife's Somba K'e Park on June 8, 2022.
The accessible playground in Yellowknife’s Somba K’e Park on June 8, 2022. Amelia Eqbal/Cabin Radio

“Graffiti is somewhat of a problem throughout the city but just in the last month, this has been more specifically in the downtown area,” Elliot said. 

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She encourages residents to report graffiti they find using the city’s Click and Fix app.

“We’re just trying to be aware of where it is and to clean it up as soon as possible, hoping that that presence and reporting will help,” she said. “We love that people are so engaged in trying to help.” 

What do other cities do?

How can Yellowknife and its residents deter and prevent damage to the playground? Experts say there are some options. 

Daryl Halloch is the director of public works at the City of Elliot Lake, Ontario, which lies north of Lake Huron and has about half the population of Yellowknife.

Elliot Lake has tried to combat park vandalism using brighter lighting around playgrounds, an increased presence of bylaw officers and Ontario Provincial Police patrols in affected areas, and cameras.

“A lot of the facilities in the parks now have LED lighting, which really brightens it up and deters anybody from being seen and doing that,” Halloch said, “and then we split up our bylaw officers so that they are coming after hours and on weekends, too. We prioritize the parks that we know it’s happening more often.”

Halloch said he has tried to treat video surveillance as a last resort, but it’s becoming more likely with each incident.

“We hope not to do it because we don’t want to be looking at everybody and their privacy,” he said, “but when you consider that we’re investing so much money, and getting funded by certain people, and the amount of work that goes into doing these things, and the people that enjoy them? We’re going to go after the ones that are ruining it for the others.”

Halloch also recommends engaging directly with youth in the community. He said Elliot Lake’s recreation department began running more programming for young people in the area and spoke with them directly about the issue, to explain how acts of vandalism can mean they lose out on playgrounds and other public recreation areas altogether. 

After implementing this collaborative, community-based approach, he said the city has been on a “good spell” for a while.

“We put something on social media asking people to be a little bit more vigilant. It’s just all working together, just trying to stay ahead of the game,” he said. “We still deal with the odd spray-painting thing here and there, and damage, but it’s been way better. ”

Scott Funk is the superintendent of public works for the City of Chilliwack, BC, 100 km east of Vancouver and about four times Yellowknife’s size.

Funk said not much can be done beyond lightening up the area and trimming neighbouring trees and shrubs to reduce opportunities for cover.

“I don’t think there’s a really good answer to stop vandalism or graffiti,” he said. “We’ve got security guards going around to all our parks in different areas, 24/7. But, as soon as they leave, people can come and do what they do.” 

Paint and picnics

Keith Reynolds, founder of the charity Playground Builders, echoed these sentiments. His organization builds playgrounds for children in war-torn areas.

“We put our playgrounds near schools or at schools, or sometimes they’re contained with a watchman, somebody who’s on site all the time,” he said. “That would be the best, but it is difficult in public areas.”

The kind of damage Reynolds sees is more often overage youth pushing the limits of equipment than graffiti, but he says he has noticed the difference a simple coat of paint can make.

“We send the renewal crew out and they repaint everything every year or every two years,” he said. “There’s nothing better than a new paint job on a playground. It just brightens it right up.”

When facing a problem like this one, Reynolds said time is of the essence.

“I would think it would be very important to paint that graffiti right away,” he said.

Sonya Wilson works for Habitat Systems, a provider of playground equipment. She agrees that regular maintenance and thoughtful design are paramount.

“Location of a playground is important. Installing structures in populated areas in communities, so people would be more likely to see things going on at the playground, will assist,” Wilson said. 

She said designing the playground so it gets a lot of use from the community can help. 

“Including picnic areas and amenities – so the park is used day and evening – means more users, which equals fewer opportunities for vandals,” she continued.

Wilson recommended regular inspections to quickly repair equipment and said including the community in the installation of a playground has been shown to reduce vandalism.

What’s Yellowknife doing?

Asked about the City of Yellowknife’s own longer-term solutions, Elliot said the municipality is examining what worked at other Jumpstart parks. 

“It is up in the air, but we’re looking at something that’s sustainable and more proactive than just fixing things,” Elliot said.

“We’re really hoping that between the patrols and the public letting us know… we’re hoping that it will improve with more knowledge about it.”

Elliot said there has so far been no recent communications strategy or renewed push for vigilance among the community.

Butorac feels the current approach isn’t good enough.

“My wife and I have been there personally, cleaning the park ourselves. Not the mayor. Not anyone else,” said Butorac. “No one in this town, no one in the city has done anything about it, and it drives me crazy.”

He said he wants to see a fence installed and dedicated personnel supervise the site, though the city has yet to respond to his suggestion.

“I told them I will give any amount of money to make sure the park is clean. It’s a park for handicapped children,” he said.

“We’re trying to do all the things we can do, and what does the city do? Nothing, and I mean nothing.”

(After this article was first published, Butorac called to say his initial assessment that the city was doing nothing had not been fair, adding his anger about the vandalism had the better of him at the time of the interview. He maintains, though, that the city is not doing enough.)