For the basics, see
- Website & Privacy Policies
- How To Get Involved
- The Role of the Park

Search options:

up to a month to index new postings
About Us and the Park
web search

Search About Us and the Park:
local & up to date but simpler
See Search Page

Department Site Map


< Chapter Thirty-one | Stories List

Spring Story

remaking of Toronto parks:

A summer-fall-winter serial, continuing into spring, April 26, 2012 Chapter Thirty-two

By: Jutta Mason

The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy: blueprint for the first bridge

The blueprint to bridging to a Ward 18 Parks Conservancy – The Toronto model

Recap: This series began as the story of the unmaking of the “community centre without walls” that developed over 18 years at Dufferin Grove Park. Then the story branched out into other parks and the larger picture. I described how the management of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) has mapped out a radically new direction for our public spaces, increasingly carving them up into commodities offered for rental to whoever will pay. But taxpayers have already prepaid! Can Ward 18 taxpayers take an alternative direction, working with local, on-site city staff, to restore our neighbourhood parks to being the lively, open-access, all-ages community gathering-places that they were intended to be – a Ward 18 Parks Conservancy, using a “Toronto model” of shared local governance?

Ward 18 City Councillor Ana Bailao says she’s interested in the conservancy idea, but in order to talk it up to her council colleagues, she needs more specifics. This chapter is about what specifically needs to be done now, to begin bridging Ward 18 parks toward a conservancy. Two months of conversations – over cups of coffee, story-swapping with sports activists and with park friends citywide, with park maintenance staff and recreation program staff and union stewards, with small business people in the this and other neighbourhoods – yielded the first outline of the principles on which a parks conservancy could be based.

One thing seems very clear: the pendulum that swung so far in the direction of central, top-down control at PFR shows signs of beginning a swing back, all over the city. Sports volunteers are in the lead of pushing for change. They prompted City Council to cancel the steep extra fees for children and youth programs that use sports fields, an unexpected extra charge of thousands of dollars per group, issued to all children and youth sports leagues for this year. Now the sports leagues are pushing back hard on the issue of the city charging for services carried out by volunteers. Resistance was also successful on the issue of shared-use swimming pools. PFR staff’s recommendation in 2008, to pull city funding from the swimming pools jointly run by the schools and the city (thereby forcing 40 pools to close) has been whittled down to closure of 7 of the more run-down pools, with the saved pools reviving quickly under joint staff-volunteer stewardship.

Joint stewardship – on-site staff and park users together – means that a Ward 18 Parks Conservancy can jump into the game, to swing the pendulum back a little more. This is not a proposal to create a separate agency. The bridge being suggested here involves small, immediate changes (or sometimes returns to past practice), maximizing what works well within the current city system.

It seems pretty obvious by now that such a project is not viewed with favour by the current PFR management. “You can’t fight City Hall” goes the old saying, ruefully repeated by many people who’ve tried. On the other hand, there’s a tradition of civic activism in the parks here: park users in this neighbourhood have been writing letters of protest and support for years, on behalf of campfires and rinks and building projects and playground structures and trees and the watery joys of summer. Park users have also been unusually hands-on in a lot of activities, ranging from building a park cafe, to caring for park trees, to taking back a scary subway-lands parkette behind a tavern with community cookouts. Can the neighbourhood connections formed through the parks carry the day when it comes to making a case for the Conservancy? The next two months will be the test.

A list of first things that need to happen.

A conservancy can best be built on what has already been developed at Ward 18 parks over the past 10 years. The conservancy proposal is different than the usual community plans for new stuff in parks – for a new playground structure or a rink or even, in some cases, a $20 million dollar recreation centre. At its centre the conservancy is about people: how on-site city staff and park users, pulling together, can make use of what’s already there, maybe adding cheap modifications like the clubhouse kitchens in Wallace and Campbell parks, but not much more. The focus is on setting up conditions where friendships and neighbourhood loyalties can be established in the common spaces of parks, hopefully reaching outward a little distance from there.

A few people have asked – “is this ‘conservancy’ talk really a ploy, another way to get the City’s attention, a bargaining strategy to get the management to make some more limited local concessions?” No it isn’t. It’s too late for chess games. Time and energy are too valuable.

Indiana University political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who shared the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her work on “governing the commons,” says that the commons works best when people employ straightforward rather than strategic behavior. “This condition implies that individuals must reveal their evaluations honestly, must contribute to collective benefits whenever formulas exist for equitably assigning resources, and must be willing to invest time and resources in finding solutions to joint problems.” Ostrom writes that this kind of helpful behavior is somewhat rare. But that, not games of strategy and advantage, is what’s needed for the Ward 18 Conservancy.

The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy: direct, local, inexpensive, building on what we have.

1. Principle: parks support cities when they’re lively social spaces.

Application: most park events in Ward 18 ought to be free of charge, with no fee to the organizers or to park users. Exception: events that require significant extra non-program work by city staff, or that involve marketing or product promotion. Existing by-law example: permits for filming in public spaces are free to film companies, in recognition of the film industry’s stimulation of the local economy. The same principle applies to community events in parks: they stimulate local neighbourhoods. See pages 5 and 6 for upcoming Ward 18 park events that should not require a fee.

2. Principle: Ward 18 parks should be as useful as possible for their neighbourhoods. Application: park users should have free access to park clubhouses for community events, picnic tables and benches should be available in sufficient numbers, washrooms should be open, park ovens and other cooking areas should be used to the maximum, sports fields should include neighbourhood drop-in times, social gatherings should be free, community gardens should be encouraged where there’s space. See page 6 for a sample of Ward 18 park facilities.

3. Principle: The Ward 18 PFR budget should be public information. Elinor Ostrom says this is fundamental to good governance of the commons: Continuous access to detailed information: the best information available about all the issues relevant to the individual parks must be disseminated widely to increase the degree of understanding and level of cooperation among the participants.

Application: the Ward 18 PFR budget summary should be put up on a bulletin board at each park. The detailed budget breakdown should be posted on both local and City of Toronto web pages, with paper copies tacked up in park clubhouses. See page 6 for a report on what we know so far.

4. Principle: when cash donations are raised at Ward 18 parks, the funds should be used for additional materials and additional city staffing. The accounting for these donations should be continuously available to the public. Application: All donations raised during community suppers, campfires, or other events, should be used to cover Ward 18 parks program costs over and above the dedicated city budget. The funds raised and their use should be posted in the Ward 18 parks, alongside the PFR budget information.

5. Principle: Ward 18 parks should be recognised as cheap community centres without walls. Application: recreation staffing should not be confined to community centres with walls. Recreation programs should be available for all Ward 18 parks, returning to earlier practice. See pages 5 and 6 for places where staff can help, and how any extra cost can be covered.

6. Principle: There should be fewer layers of administrative staff in Ward 18 parks, to reduce costs. Application: On-site recreation staff should report to one layer of direct supervision, not two. The unique roles of Ward 18 part-time staff should be set out in new job categories, called for in the Kaplan report. Hiring of new part-time staff should be done with the active participation of existing on-site staff, with the goal of finding the best new part-time workers, always with some workers local and some older . Collaborative work relationships should be seen as desirable, in preference to a work structure that focuses on lines of command. Union agreements should not be re-jigged by management to exclude the different and unique talents of the mix of workers.

7. Principle: Ward 18 parks should have direct communication between all the onsite workers. Application: Unlike now, the regular schedules of Ward 18 park maintenance workers, technical services workers (e.g. plumbers, carpenters), and recreation workers should be posted at the Ward 18 parks for all to see. As well, unlike now, all on-site staff should be able to talk directly to each other by radio phone, about unexpected issues of common concern.

8. Principle: Ward 18 park users should have a continuous say in programming. Application: park users should know that they can take their program ideas directly to onsite park staff. If park users wish, staff can help them set up a public meeting to discuss the details of a new community-generated program. However, at the discretion of on-site staff, small-scale suggestions can also be tried out without a prior meeting.

9. Principle: Fast turnaround to address Ward 18 park problems, as they come up. This adapts Elinor Ostrom’s “governing the commons” rule: park users and park staff must have rapid access to low-cost forums to resolve problems or conflicts affecting park users. Application: On-site staff should be easy to track down, and park users should have confidence that any problems they raise will get attention from the on-site staff right away. When more input is needed, the issue or problem should be discussed more broadly, as soon as possible. This could mean contacting other interested park users through e-mail or other social media, or calling a quick meeting of those concerned. At this step, if all parties agree that the problem is solved, no further action is needed. If the problem remains, the recreation supervisor can join the discussion, and/or there can be a larger public meeting involving the city councillor or her staff.


Park events and programs: by the city’s estimate, administrative costs add around 40% , or sometimes as much as 60%, to the direct cost of running a program or a special event. Using the Ward 18 example of the park campfire program: the direct staffing cost for campfires at five designated Ward 18 parks is covered by a $20 donation by the campfire group. When campfire permits are issued by the PFR Permits Section, the cost is at least $70 fir each fire, not counting outside insurance for another $50. (Outside insurance is added because recreation staff are not involved, and so the city’s existing insurance doesn’t apply.) Restricting campfires to the more costly central PFR permit requirements does not mean that the city gets more money – just that the parks get fewer campfires (and therefore, fewer eyes on the park during the dark, low-usage times). Making permits easier and cheaper increases income, as the city’s swimming pool supporters recently told City Councillors. When shared-use pool permit fees were cut in half last year, the citywide shared-use pool permit income doubled from $500,000 to $1 million.

At the moment, PFR management appears to want all campfires to be booked centrally, as though they were private parties. There’s resistance to this all over the city, including from other city councillors whose constituents want community campfires for neighbourhood sociability and park safety. Those councillors are looking at Ward 18 campfires to bolster their case to PFR management. Good! But PFR management must stop trying to hobble the campfires in Ward 18. Neighbours of Carlton Park, up along the railway tracks along the northern edge of Ward 18, were recently told that they can’t get a designated campfire area for their park, but could use one of the other already-designated parks. One of the friends of Carlton Park wrote to the local Parks supervisor: “I respect that there are 4 parks in Ward 18 with fire pits, but Carlton Park is the one closest to me, and has a very committed community of neighbours surrounding it, who would like to use the park more for community gatherings....Having a permanent fire location and active programming encourages use of parks by those around it. That is great, and it certainly matches Toronto's slogan "City within a park", and the seven guiding principles of Toronto Parks such as Community Engagement and Partnerships, Nature in the City, Place Making, and importantly, Supporting a Diversity of Uses.”

Indeed. Under the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy, community campfires will be booked wherever there are recreation staff to support them, and this direct staff support will be cheaper and easier than any central permit. In the case of special events that use local talents or enthusiasms, the “free film permits” principle can be applied with minimal cost to the PFR budget. Film permits are free to film companies because local film production boosts the economy. Park events boost the neighbourhood. In the coming month at Dufferin Grove, there’s a skateboard festival to collect funds for the ongoing skateboard ramp repair that the skateboarders do themselves; there’s a Jewish Barley Harvest Festival at the main campfire site, with everyone welcome; there’s a “Birth Fire” for the sharing of birth stories; there’s the tenth annual “clothing swap” in the rink house, with a neighbourhood seamstress on-site to do quick alterations; there’s the eighth annual “Norwegian National Day” festival, with speeches in Norwegian and wonderful costumes for everyone to admire; there’s the Canadian Hearing Society’s fundraiser scavenger hunt; the Toronto Soccer Club resumes its kids’ soccer program; and the outdoor Friday Night Suppers resume for the season, around the outdoor ovens. The Hearing Society event and the kids’ soccer program have central permits – all the others are set up through local staff. This mix is exactly right, and under the Conservancy, on-site staff will be able to continue to sift through community events and program proposals, using their discretion to send some to the Permits section and keep most of them direct, local, cheap, or free.

Use of Ward 18 park facilities.

Thanks to the assignment of some Section 37 and Park Levies funds, City Councillor Ana Bailao was able to get plumbing and wiring installed by city plumbers and electricians for two park clubhouse/rink house kitchens at Campbell Park and Wallace Rink. The park’s program staff used a private donation from rink friend David Rothberg to buy second-hand industrial sinks, fridges, shelving and kitchen equipment at bankruptcy auctions. The clubhouse kitchens intensified winter use of both rinks. Under the current rules, these kitchens must be used only by permit in the summer, with a steep fee. Under the Conservancy, community use of the kitchens is free, and suppers can be set up that will generate more donations to cover city-staff cooks and dishwashers. This means more neighbourhood sociability, supported by Recreation staff, with minimal administration costs. MacGregor Park got a stimulus-grants-funded field house upgrade in 2010. Perth Park has a washroom building with additional unused possibilities, but no picnic tables to sit at. Carlton Park has a perfect place for a campfire, but no permission. Symington Park has a popular play area with only one bench. Under the conservancy, and with minimal funds but on-site staff help, improvements can be made fast, and the parks’ usefulness will increase.

Openness about money.

A recent freedom of information request for PFR’s Ward 18 budget details got as its first response “we don’t allocate funds by Ward.” A previous request had already turned up the information “we don’t allocate funds by park.” So we changed our request again, asking to see the budget line items that the PFR supervisors see. If the answer is, “the supervisors have no way of knowing how much is spent in Ward 18,” that’s the signal to go to the media. In order to know how our taxes are allocated in Ward 18 parks (and if there’s room for changes), we need to know the details. A Conservancy means knowing as much as possible, including how the budget is spent.

Next steps

Budget: Councillor Bailao has agreed to follow up with PFR management to see whether they intend to make the Ward 18 parks budget information available. Up to the date of printing this chapter, she’s been unable to reach the directors.

Recreation Director Janie Romoff previously told Councillor Bailao that no progress can be made on the Conservancy until the issue of donated cash can be addressed. Meantime, the off-site supervisory staff told park program staff that donated funds (about $33,000 from food and skate lending to the end of March) cannot be credited to the Ward 18 parks where they were raised but must go into general revenue. However, the current fundraising campaign for the High Park Zoo, and other local fundraising activities, don’t follow this rule. Meantime, the on-site Ward 18 park program staff budget counts as “far over,” with the official total that’s available still left a mystery.

It’s a big city, with many conflicting rules. Glen Synowicki, the area Recreation supervisor who is above the off-site supervisor, may be contacting CELOS directly about the budget riddles. If the Catch-22 persists, park user may have to express their opinions to Councillor Bailao directly.

Getting the word out: Park users can help. There’s periodic update e-list, for people who are interested in how a Conservancy might be brought about and what it would look like. E-mail me to get on it: mail@publiccommons, and tell your neighbours and your friends and your media contacts. All invitations for a cup of tea and a conversation are welcome!

Consultation: the first one is coming up very soon, sponsored by the city councillor:

Councillor Ana Bailao’s “Ward 18 Parks Summit.” Saturday May 5, 1 - 5 pm at the Dovercourt Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Dovercourt Park. Followed by Saturday Night Supper at Dufferin Grove Park, 5.30 to 7 pm.

An everyone-welcome neighborhood conversation for everything relating to the parks in Ward 18, including the Park Conservancy.” Information:

Spring Story (2012) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), To read this story online:

Illustrations by Jane LowBeer

< Chapter Thirty-one | Stories List

hosted by | powered by pmwiki-2.2.83. Content last modified on April 28, 2012, at 05:05 PM EST