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Table tennis emerges as unlikely urban trend in Vancouver

Renee Miles plays on a temporary outdoor ping-pong table in Vancouver on Wednesday.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

It used to be confined to suburban recreation rooms or intensely nerdy competitions in obscure gymnasiums.

But now table tennis has become a sport for the masses – outdoors.

Table tennis aficionados of the Lower Mainland can play on stylish metal tables set up on the plaza next to the Richmond Oval, facing the Fraser River; in the cutting-edge new Slidey Slides Park beside Vancouver's iconic roller coaster in east Vancouver, on acid-green metal tables; and in the bucolic setting of the grounds outside the West Vancouver community centre.

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The game has become the hip new urban trend in Vancouver – belatedly.

"In Bratislava, where I come from, there are hundreds of tables. In Germany, thousands," says Luba Sadovska, one of a group of table-tennis enthusiasts in North Vancouver lobbying for outdoor tables there. "I just think Canada is behind, and Vancouver is just catching the running train."

The city of North Vancouver is contemplating putting in permanent tables in a couple of rapidly growing areas around lower Lonsdale. Vancouver is considering adding to the few it has in the Northeast False Creek area that is about to be developed and in its new downtown park. Richmond has some already, but is also looking at adding another one in Lang Park. There have also been tables sighted as far afield as Chilliwack and Langley, the University of British Columbia, and Vancouver's grand ceremonial street, Georgia.

One reason for the popularity is the changing nature of living in cities.

"People don't have backyards or garages any more. Our parks are like our living rooms," says Tiina Mack, the manager of parks development in Vancouver.

Another is the changing nature of what people want to do for physical activity.

"Participation in sports like tennis and golf is dropping," notes Richmond park planner Jamie Esko. "And this is ideal for urban parks, where space is limited."

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She says that for Richmond, in particular, with its large Asian population, providing more opportunities for table tennis is a natural.

"Our community centres cannot meet the demand."

Table tennis is just one of the new types of activities park planners are incorporating into 21st century parks.

Both the Richmond Oval and Vancouver's Slidey Slides Park also have beach volleyball courts. Richmond is looking at adding outdoor chess. Slidey Slides has outdoor aerobic-exercise-type machines next to the table tennis. Vancouver's park planners are also considering introducing slack lines into parks – ropes tied low between two poles or trees that people walk along – and are noticing a return in popularity of outdoor trapezes and rings.

But table tennis is seen as especially attractive because it is both social and requires little athletic ability, making it open to a wide range of people.

"It's such an easy and accessible game and it's such a cool way to create a conversation. People don't even have to speak the same language," says Renée Miles, one of a group of three young women who operate frida & frank, an organization dedicated to bringing activities to public spaces.

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The group uses funding it received from the city of Vancouver to set up pop up tables along the popular bike route at Adanac and Vernon on Wednesdays.

It's so non-competitive and social that it doesn't even matter to players (or organizers) what the weather is like.

"We've had some windy days where the ball goes all over the place, but it's not about having an Olympic-level game," Ms. Miles says. "In the end, it becomes a fun challenge to play against the weather."

One issue, though, is cost. Pop-up tables tend to be wooden, but permanent outdoor installations are made of metal or concrete so they can withstand the elements for years. Those don't come cheap.

Richmond ordered its tables from French manufacturer Cornilleau, which charges $6,000 for a metal table. Meanwhile, Ms. Sadovska and her partners at the North Shore Table Tennis Club have looked at sources for tables closer to home and received prices that range from $5,000 to $10,000 for concrete ones. They are looking for sponsors who would be willing to help cover the costs for new ones in North Vancouver parks. Some parks have resorted to moving the tables in and out of buildings to protect them from Vancouver's erratic weather and frequent rain.

And organizers have noticed that even when there isn't a single table tennis player around, park-goers are still happy to use the permanent tables in other ways.

On a brilliantly sunny day at Slidey Slides, for example, a father and his young daughter were still having a great time on the three tables: dancing.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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