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< Chapter Twenty-nine | Stories List | Chapter Thirty-one >

Spring Story

The remaking of Toronto parks:

A summer-fall-winter serial, continuing into spring. March 29, 2012. Chapter Thirty

The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy: a workbook

By Jutta Mason

The remaking of Toronto parks – The 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 ?

The project could be fun, but it won’t be easy. PFR management has taken this unfortunate new direction because they have a very real problem. In the past ten years, the PFR operating budget has increased by almost 50%, from $220 million to $377 million. How do they get the budget under control?

Some of that increase is really just an internal administrative reshuffling. In 2005-06 an unspecified amount of additional staffing costs came from a “corporate transfer of positions from the Social Development, Finance and Administration Division.”

Some of the increase is from the opening of new community centres – big mall-style community centres are very expensive to staff, and each of the newer ones costs at least $1 million a year to operate.

A big chunk of the budget increase seems to come from the cost of living adjustments to wages and salaries, but it’s not easy to tell for sure. For example, in one recent year, 2008, these wage-related increases added almost $9 million to the PFR budget, but in other years, including the 2012 budget, there is no specific reference to this cost category. The cost of living increases for the front-line recreation program staff don’t mount up very quickly, since most of the program staff are part-time workers with very low hourly wage rates and few benefits (their income was made even stingier by the city’s recent “harmonization” recalculations). The cost of living increases for the permanent recreation staff – most of them nowadays doing book-keeping, policy-setting, or administration – have more of an impact. The upper management salaries are compounded very quickly. Almost 40 PFR staff are on the “Sunshine List” (i.e. they earn more than $100,000 a year). By now, two managers cost more than the entire yearly program budget for Dufferin Grove.

Proposal #1 for the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy: fewer layers of management.

1. Fewer layers of management staff: what it means.

Saving money is one good reason for fewer layers of management staff in Ward 18 parks. But that’s not the only reason to cut down on the many layers sandwiched in between the people who pick up litter or lace up kids’ skates, and the director where the buck stops. Another problem is that the PFR staff directory lists 14 different supervisors who have some “functional responsibility” for one or several elements of Dufferin Grove Park.

This makes silos, because there are too many staff for each supervisor to talk to. It also squeezes out the park’s community:
– the people who use the park and
– the park’s front line staff, those people who actually work there.

The most recent major PFR restructuring in 2005 led to the abandonment of place-based staffing (“form”) in favour of task-based staffing (“function”). Fourteen “functional supervisors,” or even half that number, have little chance of getting to know what local park users want, because those supervisors are running all over the city following their Blackberry messages. So what kind of an alternative could a “Ward 18 Parks Conservancy” work out?

Elinor Ostrom: “collective choice arrangements.”

In December 2009, political scientist Elinor Ostrom travelled from her home in Bloomington, Indiana, to Stockholm, to accept the Nobel Prize in Economics for her life’s work on “Governing the Commons.” In October 2010 the Ontario Trillium Foundation funded the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS) to find ways of adapting Ostrom’s work to various Toronto parks. On November 1, 2010, seven Ward 18 park friends got into two cars and drove the twelve hours to Bloomington, to the University of Indiana’s “Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.” At the time of our initial appointment with Professor Ostrom, she came into the building with two bags of groceries that she first had to stow in the fridge. Then she sat down with us and told us that she felt herself to be half Canadian. She and her husband built a cabin on Manitoulin Island when they were young, and they had written many of their books up there. They liked to build furniture, too, and that’s why they had named their Indiana institute a “workshop” – a good name for the careful crafting it takes to build good governance.

During the two days we spent there, we were charmed by the hospitality of Professor Ostrom and her colleagues, and also by their plain speaking. Ostrom emphasized the need for what she calls “collective choice arrangements,” along with this requirement (adapted to parks): “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.”

2. Who gets to participate in the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy Project?

Elinor Ostrom says that the extent to which people can participate in shaping each park should depend 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 meet their neighbours or 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.

Proposal #2 for the Conservancy: instead of layers of management, the parks are directly shaped by their users.

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.”

If park users are to shape their parks well, they need to know a lot. Of course, anybody who uses a park over and over already knows quite a bit more about that park than managers or planners who mainly make circles on maps, or who highlight items on spreadsheets. And any city staff person who works at the same park day after day knows a lot. But there’s more for park users and park workers to find out than what they can observe on the spot, and in order for the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy to work well, none of the managers’ and planners’ information should be hidden.

Proposal #3 for the Conservancy: People involved with the conservancy project have to make sure nobody hoards or hides information.

3. The problem with information from central management.

Information can be hidden intentionally, or it might simply be unknown to people who are supposed to know it. Here’s one example of intentional hiding: for the past nine months, recreation management has been reluctant, or has completely refused, to share park staffing costs with the front-line program staff, who are low-status, low-paid part-time workers. Such knowledge, management said, is only meant for full-time staff. This meant that local staff no longer had a way of keeping a careful watch on staying within their spending ceiling. That was intentional hiding of knowledge. It was compounded by unintentional lack of knowledge. Since almost all full-time PFR staff have been reassigned from doing any direct programs, they often don’t know anymore how to run programs. So the local, part-time program staff, kept blind-folded about wage spending, find their timesheets full of errors and the programs overspent. Everybody’s tense and unhappy.

City councillors are supposed to know all the information they need to vote well. But they often don’t know nearly enough. Another example of wrong information based on not knowing rather than hiding is City Council’s recent decision to close MacGregor playground wading pool in Ward 18, which is on Lansdowne a block north of College.

Council voted to close five City wading pools, on the basis of PFR management’s recommendation. One of these was MacGregor. The reason why the councillors voted this way is plainly available on the city’s website, in the 2012 budget submitted to Council by city staff. On page 44 of the PFR operating budget, the five wading pools were recommended for closing for two reasons: “low usage and capital cost avoidance.” The councillors were given the information that the city planned to replace wading pools with splash pads anyway, because they would be cheaper – no wading pool staff would be needed, only minor technical maintenance. A straightforward cost-cutting opportunity.

Not. First off, MacGregor Park wading pool is the second most-popular wading pool in Ward 18. That’s because the park has had a renaissance in the last five years, with excellent children’s programs and a nicely renovated field house with washrooms and an art space, just finished two years ago at a cost of $140,000. So “low usage” was wrong. As for the lure of “capital cost avoidance” – suggesting that MacGregor pool and all other city wading pools ought to be switched eventually to splash pads – that’s what’s called a red herring. (“Red herring” is a label for a plausible-sounding illusion). PFR’s technical services staff have often groaned about the number of times the city’s splash pad mechanisms break down. CELOS checked the operating costs of the two types of water play, through a Freedom of Information request. There were three interesting parts to the response. First, on the basis of the maintenance cost numbers the technical services people could find, splash pads are considerably more expensive to maintain than wading pools. No surprise, since wading pools are really just big concrete bowls with one tap and two drains, instead of timer-dependent multiple-outlet splash pads with individual on-off buttons. Second, the repair information was so sketchy that the technical services staff ended up just guessing about small fixes. Third, they left out most significant repair costs because those are allocated to “Capital Projects” under a category called “State of Good Repair.” So for example a typical splash pad in Leaside had to be rebuilt for $80,000 thirteen years after it was first opened, whereas wading pools can go for fifty years with only minor plumbing repairs. The money saved on taking staff away from playgrounds is lost in paying for major splash pad repairs.

CELOS has gone back to Freedom of Information to ask them to factor in all repairs, not just a handful of small receipts and a bucketful of guesses. This can be a win-win – justifying the continued use of MacGregor wading pool and at the same time providing PFR management with better information when – or if – they ask Council to vote on closing the other city wading pools.

4. The solution: information from park users (local monitoring).

City councillors should not have to make up their minds on issues when the information they have, as in the case of wading pools, is based on guesses from regional staff. At the very least, the staff should make it clear when they’re guessing, and on what basis. When PFR staff don’t make this clear, city councillors are left high and dry – and as councillors keep saying, they have nowhere near the office-staff resources to fill in the blanks on their own.

Proposal #4 for the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy: park users and local staff will fill in the blanks of information.

Elinor Ostrom, in her list of principles for good governance of the commons, has this one near the top: “Monitoring: monitors, who actively audit park conditions and appropriate behaviour, must be accountable to the park users or must be the park users.”

When the seven of us were talking about “monitoring” on the long ride down to Indiana (five park staff and two from CELOS), we thought mostly about the kind of watchfulness for good behaviour that gradually turned the three Ward 18 rinks around – first Dufferin Rink, then Wallace and Campbell rinks. But the MacGregor Wading Pool story makes Professor Ostrom’s principle much wider. Monitoring turns out to also mean checking information, to make sure it’s as complete as possible, and monitoring waste of our public assets.

Mothballing a solidly-built, lively wading pool like MacGregor Pool is just plain wasteful.

One of the many people who agreed to come and talk to us in the last three weeks, about how a “Toronto model” parks conservancy might look, was David Crombie. Mr. Crombie, as most people know, was three times elected Mayor of Toronto, then a Conservative cabinet minister, and more recently a champion of water rights for Torontonians – lake access and then school swimming pool access. He told us that when he began going to the swimming pool meetings, people asked him what his overall plan was for access to swimming pools. He said he had no overall plan. He just didn’t like to see those good, already-existing swimming pools wasted by being shut down when kids could be swimming in them.

Monitoring an existing wading pool – MacGregor – is the same thing. The point of the monitoring is to protect an existing resource that is cheap and easy to run, in this neighbourhood. Monitoring is not watching the pool be shut down, but filling in the information on how to keep it.

Proposal #5 for the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy: put existing park resources like MacGregor Wading Pool under community protection.

MacGregor Park has two particular champions who contributed to its renaissance, artist-in-residence Kristin Fahrig and park neighbour Anna Galati. Anna was a MacGregor Park-booster well before she became a part-time recreation staff for the city, and she’s never stopped finding friends for the park. Now it turns out that MacGregor has another booster: Ward 18 City Councillor Ana Bailao. When the councillor heard the wading pool plan, she immediately pledged her support.

5. Steps to keep MacGregor Wading Pool accessible for neighbourhood families this summer:
1. Get the support of the City Councillor. Done.
2. Find some money to get the pool plumbing started up and the first week staffed. Done.\\ Park friend David Rothberg has okayed the diversion of $1000 of his November 2011 donation to CELOS, to fund the city’s start-up of MacGregor wading pool instead.
3. Raise funds throughout the summer to cost-share the following eight weeks with the PFR.
City Council can be requested to fix its larger mistake, based on the new information about the high maintenance/repair costs connected with splash pads, in time for the 2013 budget. Meantime, it would be nice if PFR accepted responsibility for its misinformation to City Council, by allocating some wading pool funds to staff MacGregor this summer. Councillor Bailao says she’d like to help with a fundraiser to raise all or some of the remainder (the total cost to run a wading pool as well-used as MacGregor, for a whole summer, is about $10,000). Perhaps the union, CUPE Local 79, might help out a bit too.

If the city doesn’t weigh in, collecting from the neighborhood will be a week-to-week cliff-hanger all summer long, but it should lead to some good conservancy discussions – throughout Ward 18 and beyond, about making the best possible use what we already have.

6. Next Steps: using what we have

A recent east-end presentation sponsored by the Downtown East Community Association was an inspiration. Australian Marcus Westbury described his approach to “using what we have,” which in his case was a glut of empty storefronts in a struggling former steel town called Newcastle, near Sydney. He showed how sensible, simple arrangements with local artists and craftspeople filled up the downtown and got them the Lonely Planet guide’s recommendation as “one of the ten best cities to visit, in the world.” Mr.Westbury said he coined an odd word for the kind of people he and his collaborators had to be: “initiativists.” See page 8 for his definition.

An “initiativist,” Marcus Westbury said, is “a person who takes creative initiative to explore, experiment, and try new things. Antonym: bureaucrat.” That got a big laugh from his enthusiastic local-business audience. The power-point presentation was often interrupted by applause, and even though it was almost 40 minutes long, it was engrossing. That inspired CELOS to work on a similar power-point about the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy, with good pictures, video clips, and zoom-ins to illustrate what’s been accomplished already and to set up talking points. The presentation is about half done, and it’s ready to show to park friends, to solicit changes and additions.

What we have already:

- Park friends who are video, animations and film artists, and who are helping with the conservancy presentation

- researchers who are poring over the PFR finances to understand them better

- a web librarian who is searching through and organizing years of CELOS budget research and Freedom of Information responses, for posting

- a web developer whose recent improvements to our database allow us to easily index and link information about local and international conservancy-related efforts

- a large number of musicians and theatre artists who live in the neighbourhood and who are keen to set up performances in support of the Parks Conservancy pilot

- local park staff who understand collaboration and friendship with park users

- a long and growing list of neighborhood residents ready to share their ideas and grow their parks

- a supportive city councillor

Coming up:
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. More information:

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

Illustrations by Jane LowBeer

< Chapter Twenty-nine | Stories List | Chapter Thirty-one >

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