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< Chapter Twenty-seven | Stories List | Chapter Twenty-nine >

Winter Story

The remaking of Toronto parks:

A summer serial, continuing through the fall and winter,
"The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy: a workbook".
March 1, 2012. Chapter Twenty-eight

By: Jutta Mason

The last chapter of this serialized Winter Story concluded this way:

It’s time to get out of the game, and begin a better one.

The new game involves the creation of a “Ward 18 Parks Conservancy.” Today’s chapter carries that project a few steps further.

On Monday February 27, I sent an e-mail letter to Ward 18 City Councillor Ana Bailao. It said:
Dear Councillor Bailao: Last week it became obvious that the current Parks and Recreation approach to public space does not have room in it for some important elements of Ward 18 parks. Could I meet with you sometime this later week to put out the first feelers for public discussion of an alternative, a "Ward 18 Parks Conservancy"?

In response to my first neighbourhood e-mail query on the previous Friday afternoon, 114 people asked to have their names listed on the letter to Councillor Bailao. The people on that first list are as varied as the neighbourhood – mental health and probation workers, new mothers, shinny hockey players, union officers, lawyers, film-makers, playwrights, child minders, dog walkers, teachers from kindergarten to universities, chefs....and quite a few people who grew up in the area and “remember how things used to be,” when the parks had lots of children’s activities, and the rinks, apparently, had lots of romances (“that’s where I met my wife!”).

The councillor responded on Tuesday February 28: I am completely booked this week and early next week with Council. Nic will work something out with you for after that. Nic is Nicholas Gallant, the councillor’s new assistant.

Councillor Bailao is preoccupied with very large questions: how will the TTC find $4 billion to build subway or LRT’s to get people to work? How will TCHC find $650 million to repair subsidized housing? Meanwhile, the capacity of parks to gather people and foster neighbourhood connections is at the other end of the spectrum: the small details instead of the high level. The councillor is too busy to pay much attention. She needs the on-the-ground help of park friends.

“The devil is in the details”: why Ward 18 could use a parks conservancy.

The previous chapter in this series gave Webster’s Dictionary definition of conservancy as “a careful preservation and protection of something; especially...of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.”

Exploitation: Matt Price on Gladstone Avenue says that the City is treating the parks like a golden goose. Charging permit fees for every activity, he says, is greedy, like pulling out too many feathers. The City has to stop pulling out more and more handfuls of feathers or the goose will weaken and die (i.e. people will stop trying to do things with their neighbours in public spaces). New, locally focused guidelines are needed for park events, to strike a better balance.

Destruction: Kristen Fahrig has been artist-in-residence at MacGregor Park (at Lansdowne just north of College) for four years. Kristen worked with recreation staff, other artists, and community members to pull together bits of funding from all the different levels of government. Together, they put on inexpensive, ingenious festivals, set up clubs for local kids, and worked with the city to restore the solid old field house to being a community clubhouse. All this work is now on the chopping block, since PFR management put MacGregor’s much-loved wading pool on City Council’s list to be closed (and Council voted yes.).

A conservancy can do better, Kristen says. Instead of destroying flourishing public spaces, the conservancy should be based on:
(1) local guidance and involvement in all planning and activities;
(2) collaboration and borrowing each other’s ideas;
(3) small thrifty fix-ups – in place of expensive projects that stand underused or even empty, as city staff try in vain to recoup the expense by charging substantial perrnit fees. (See chapter 26).

Neglect: Parks left to themselves without staff will suffer from neglect. Looking after the wading pools and rinks and park buildings is a lot of work – just look at how the park staff have to run on those busy days. Park volunteers can’t be expected to take care of it all. But if staff collaborate with park users and everybody pulls together, the results can be wonderful.

That’s not just a theory, of course, but long-time Ward 18 experience already – first at Dufferin Grove, then at MacGregor, Campbell, and Wallace parks. So in some ways, the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy is already well started, and what comes next can be partly built on local experience: the “Toronto model.”

Details: The website.

In November 2010, the little research group that began at Dufferin Grove Park (called the “Centre for Local Research into Public Space” – CELOS) got a two-year grant of $100,000 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The grant was for two main activities: (1) expanding our “public commons” website to give more information about the laws, regulations, policies, and rules that help or hinder public spaces; and (2) CELOS, together with part-time recreation staff, testing whether the work of the Indiana-based Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom can be applied in Toronto parks.

Professor Ostrom’s lifelong preoccupation is with “governing the commons.” CELOS wanted to apply her writings to parks and public spaces to test their practicality. That project has been moving along, in various small park locations across the city, with win-some-lose-some results, since the Trillium project began. During the same period, the centralizing efforts of the PFR bureaucracy intensified. So we now have a new, bigger test for Ostrom’s work and for the expanded website as well. An interesting challenge!

PFR management made it quite clear (three weeks ago) that the “approved positions” in its $377 million 2012 operating budget do NOT include the staff side of the long-running Ward 18 Parks collaboration. The fact that CELOS was already working on this public commons project means that some of the groundwork for looking at an alternative approach – a Parks Conservancy – was already in place. Starting in the last week of February, the ' website added a new folder, called “Ward 18 Parks Conservancy”. This folder has a map of Ward 18, a little introductory essay, and six new virtual bulletin boards.

Bulletin Board #1. “conversations” – logging various cups of coffee or tea with park friends all over the ward. There are some good stories out there, about Railpath bike riders, Perth Park gatherings, Carlton Park benches, Campbell Park campfires, Active 18 (West Queen West) park construction, MacGregor Park strawberries -- These chats have just begun, and if any reader wants to talk, please get in touch!

Bulletin Board #2. “Conservancy links” – linking other parks conservancies that we find, and commenting on them. The Central Park Conservatory in New York City tends to come up first. The Golden Gate Conservatory in San Francisco is all over Google as well. We’re starting to come across smaller Canadian examples: the Hastings Park Conservatory in Vancouver, with its race track, and the Lansdowne Park Conservatory in Ottawa, with its football stadium (its motto: “Continuing 150 years of Public Trust”). These conservancies have diverse legal arrangements that may help us.

Bulletin Board #3, “Policies affecting us” – this will have a lot of links. One of the links concerns Toronto’s Board of Management community centres, of which there are eight. These less centralized community centres go back to a popular revolt against the Parks and Recreation Department that heated up at the end of the 1970’s. The former Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, Herb Pirk, told me in an interview in 1994 that dissatisfaction with Parks and Recreation had already begun to bubble when he was hired right out of university in 1973. He said:

The Department of Parks and Recreation was very insular, city-hall controlled. They sent me out to meet with the community and be kind of the front person. And so I got hammered from the community and I’d come back here to City Hall, and they’d say, “well, you’ve got to hold the line” and I’d say, “wait a second, you can’t, this is not going to go well here.” My job was to represent the Department’s views. So when Scadding Court developed – they wanted an independent board of management – my job was to pull that back. Similarly with the 519 Church Centre. They wanted to be independent, less bureaucratic, more an expression of the community. In 1980-81 city council created a task force to review the neighbourhood social and recreational services of the city. This task force was to see if there were ways to remove some of the central control from City Hall and put it into communities. The intent of that was really to have most of the community centres run by boards of management.

There’s more to learn about that development, and what happened to it. Whatever we learn, will be posted.

Bulletin board #4, “Community comments.” There’s a lot of material already that can be posted, and soon will be, with plenty more comments to come.

Bulletin board #5, “Ward 18 budget links.”

A conservancy needs an operating budget. But what is the existing budget for Ward 18 parks, trees, and recreation centres? The roughest calculation would be to divide the entire 2012 PFR operating budget, $377 million, by 44 wards. If all the wards got the same amount, Ward 18 would be entitled to $8,568, 181. By the city’s budget formula, about 10% of that would have to be earned back as revenue, leaving an actual tax allocation of $7,711,363 a year to run two community recreation centres, three outdoor ice rinks, ten small-to-medium-size parks, and a handful of “parkettes.” The care of street trees and park trees would also come under that budget, as would part of the upkeep of McCormick Arena, run by a Board of Management.

For that amount of tax money, what would we expect to see in Ward 18 parks? The list would include sufficient picnic tables and benches, and trash cans, and drinking fountains in good condition, wading pools within walking distance, outdoor rinks with clubhouses and good ice, appropriately-sized park events, well-shaded, interesting playgrounds, trees, lawns and flower gardens, well-maintained sports fields and courts, and a lively social mix of all sorts of people.

If half of the available Ward 18 operating budget was available to provide all these things, that would mean there was $3,855,681 available a year. But in the real world of bureaucracy, budgeting is not that simple. Just finding out what labour and materials actually cost can be a very slippery task. Over the years, CELOS has sent many Freedom of Information requests to the city’s Corporate Access and Privacy Office. “How much does it cost to run an ice rink?” is a question that needs breaking down into the cost of zamboni drivers, of vehicle maintenance, of injury claims against the city, of gas and electrical charges. After a while the details start to seem overwhelming. It’s hard to make out the shape of the whole.

The “budget bulletin board” will be the posting site of all the cost-information we’ve gathered over the past decade. That way, we hope to be able to draw on the expertise of rink users who are good at connecting government line items (if you’re such a person, reading this, please let us know!).

The City’s accounting department is promoting a similar project, on an even more daunting scale, called “full cost accounting.” In future, they want each city division to itemize the real costs associated with every activity – not only the guy on the zamboni, but also the costs of scheduling him, issuing his cheques, supervising his work, devising rink policies at City Hall, ensuring compliance, and so on. There’s a common suspicion that in a bureaucracy at least half of the budget is taken up to maintain the cycle of meetings about meetings, a hall of mirrors in which the original activity (supplying good ice for plenty of skaters, for instance) can shrink to being a pretty small part of the budget. But a suspicion needs proving or disproving, and the “budget bulletin board” will supply the numbers that can help.

It may be that a clear look at the way taxes are spent in Ward 18 will show that it would be cheaper to return to the pre-amalgamation model of mostly free activities run by city staff. Collecting and administering a fee-based system has hidden costs—but exactly what are those amounts? We hope to track them down.

We know that the more the part-time Ward 18 park staff are prevented from organizing and running the programs as they used to do, the higher the cost of running the same programs with added layers of hierarchy. In the most recent period of chaos, during February, when part-time recreation jobs all over the city were reclassified in ill-fitting ways, PFR only ended up saving about 7.5 % of the part-time wage cost in Ward 18, while spending the equivalent of at least one full-time staff person trying to straighten out the errors. This approach has an old English name: penny-wise and pound-foolish. The “budget bulletin board” will try to shine a light on the real costs of running the parks, ultimately to answer the question: ''could a conservancy return Ward 18 parks to having most activities wholly tax-supported without extra fees?

Bulletin Board #6: “Park events.”

Neighbourhood parks are meant for peaceful reflection, joyful games, and the liveliness of neighbourhood sociability. This last element is officially referred to as “events,” a category ranging from extended-family birthday parties to open-air theatre performances to larger acts (for instance the annual September pow wow at Dufferin Grove Park). The City, in its urgent quest for more revenue, has added permit charges to almost all park activities, including a fee for a new category called “social gatherings.” A new city bake oven policy includes a fee and a $2 million insurance requirement for baking. Tax-funded support for recreation staff to help with community events at the bake ovens has been cancelled.

This sixth bulletin board on the website will chronicle the resistance to charging fees for community events. There’s a crossover to the budget bulletin board – how much extra does it actually cost PFR to host mid-sized events like the “Not far from the Tree” maple syrup festival in March, the aboriginal storytellers on June 21, David Anderson’s Day of Delight or Night of Dread parade, the Cooking Fire Theatre Festival, the Pet Adoptathon, the musical bikes, the bikes on ice, the Women of Winter shinny tourney? How much extra does the city spend to allow little show-and-tell music sessions by local musicians, and small local workshops about bees and bio-diesel? Would it work just as well to ask for voluntary donations for pizza days, school visits, birthday parties, campfires – instead of mobilizing the expensive administrative structure of formal-sounding paperwork, full of warnings about not breaking the multiple rules?

The events bulletin board will ask the question: can PFR afford to charge Torontonians for making their parks lively? Does the PFR approach to user fees lead to an alarming shrinkage in public use, in favour of private use of tax-supported public space?

Is it even legal? There’s an interesting excerpt from the city’s most recent user fee policy:
In interpreting the distinction between fees and taxes, the courts require that a fee charged for a service or activity must bear a relationship to the cost of providing the service or activity for which the fee is charged. That seems a good guide for setting fees, easy to monitor. But the user fee policy then slips out of the strict definition into a much broader one: Subsection 259(2) of CoTA provides that the costs included in a user fee may include costs incurred for administration, enforcement and the establishment, acquisition and replacement of capital assets. In other words, PFR can set fees to recover exactly the same costs for which taxes are already being collected.

The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy project can take a detailed look at such double-dipping relating to community events in public spaces, and can test alternatives that are more fair – and more successful in making parks well-used instead of lonely places.

Ostrom: Governing the Commons

There won’t be a separate Ostrom bulletin board on the Parks Conservancy web section because Ostrom’s work applies all over the place. It will appear again and again throughout our inquiry, and it also helps with the basic question of “who is inquiring?” Who is entitled to participate in the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy Project? Ostrom emphasized the need for what she calls “collective choice arrangements,” along with this requirement (adapted to the Parks Conservancy): “most of the people affected by the rules must be able to participate in modifying the operational rules. This includes the onsite staff who work at the park.” The extent to which people can participate depends on the extent of their park use. So people who live nearby but rarely use the parks would have less influence than people who come there often to run their dog or play shinny. And staff who work at the parks most days to pick litter, or help school children cook, would have more influence than staff who mainly set up training courses at City Hall.

Anyone who wants to help the parks work well is entitled to what Ostrom calls “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.”

Hence the bulletin boards. Those people who are most involved with the conservancy project are also the most responsible for making sure that they don’t hoard or hide information. That means making all the news available on real park bulletin boards as well as virtual web boards, and on Facebook. Some of the park staff suggested posting sound recordings of meetings – why not? Or even offering video excerpts?

Ouch: how much information can park users stand? There’s so much communication noise out there already.

The idea becomes more fun, though, when it’s rephrased in this way: How much can a neighbourhood learn about building up small-scale local democracy? Not all of it will be pretty. People will get mad at each other, and when people are strangers to each other – as most big-city residents are – their anger may lack the restraints that loyalty brings. And yet – this project may bring some pleasant surprises, maybe even some new friendships. Everyone’s help is welcome, to any extent that they want – ranging from reading a bulletin occasionally, all the way to helping out with the deep numbers of the city budget and the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy:

Winter Story (2012) is published by the 'Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS),

Illustrations by Jane LowBeer

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