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< Chapter Thirty | Stories List | Chapter Thirty-two >

Spring Story

The remaking of Toronto parks:
A summer-fall-winter serial, continuing into spring, April 12, 2012. Chapter Thirty-one

By: Jutta Mason

The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy: a workbook – 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 ?

In the middle of the last chapter, I suggested that it’s necessary to put existing Ward 18 park resources under community protection (the Conservancy). The city’s plan to mothball lively MacGregor Park wading pool, at Lansdowne north of College, was the final prompt. Two days later, City Councillor Ana Bailao called with some good news: she’s been talking to some of the other councillors and she feels that there’s support across the city for all the wading pools to stay open.

Interesting! Even more so because the city has some wading pools without any shade and in odd locations in little-used parkettes, where the teenage staff who sit there all summer are lucky if they see three kids in the pool all day. These are wading pools that ought to be shut down at least for a few years, until some shade trees can be planted and more people begin to come. The city needs to be thrifty: since 2006, the operating budget for PFR has increased by over $90 million! There are ways to reduce spending, but the choices have to be smart, and well-informed. Closing down resources by running a cursor over a map at city hall (and landing on a lively wading pool in a park with many assets) won’t work well. On the other hand, calling for no economies at all won’t work either.

This where we turn to our new friend, Nobel Prize political scientist Elinor Ostrom. From her book Governing the Commons: “Instead of there being a single solution to a single problem, I argue that many solutions exist to cope with many different problems. Instead of presuming that optimal institutional solutions can be designed easily and imposed at low cost by external authorities, I argue that ‘getting the institutions right’ is a difficult, time-consuming, conflict-invoking process.”

Finding many different solutions to the many different problems is difficult, but worth the effort. And all over the city, there are people reminding the city government that, as Professor Ostrom’s work shows, local collaboration with park users works best. “Most of the people affected by the rules must be able to participate in modifying the operational rules.”

The most recent example of public pressure in this direction is the debate about sports field fees for children and youth.

Collaboration about sports fields

Twenty years ago, the city’s recreation staff ran house leagues for many sports. Recreation workers were paid to work with children and youth. About ten years ago, PFR management downloaded almost all of that work (without the wages) to local leagues, who were better at it anyway. In this 2012 budget year, PFR snuck in a surprise permit charge for these leagues. Joe Silva, who heads the Soccer Club of Toronto (SCT, formerly the Toronto Eagles), was pretty mad. He says that in Ward 18, kids’ soccer got a bill of $35,000, for unexpected permit fees for this year. Only a few years ago, he said, the club raised $12,000 for an irrigation system for Campbell Park field. The club’s volunteers do most of the daily field maintenance for any of the soccer fields they use, so Joe asks:
“what are the new fees for?”

Joe says that many of the parents – especially those with more than one child playing soccer – couldn’t afford to pay more than they were already paying. And when they heard about the new fees, some of the volunteer coaches who Joe recruits began to talk about pulling out.

The story was the same all over the city. At a citywide meeting on March 22, Parks management was challenged to explain why they had put in the extra fees without ever consulting the leagues. “We’re the experts, but you ignored us!” Meeting participants asked for operating budget details. When Parks staff said they were sorry but they didn’t have the numbers with them, the volunteer coaches and parents began to sound like angry bees. “My dog gets better city notice for the renewal of his dog licence than the kids’ sports’ leagues got for this fee increase.”

“How can the City say they’re charging us for services when we do most of the service ourselves?”

Three city councillors set up another public meeting, in the council chamber, on April 3. Twelve other councillors attended. A new offer from the City got a frosty reception: to let the clubs pay in instalments, or to let some clubs pay less if they couldn’t afford the fee. The fee was seen as wrong and unjust.

On April 4, after that second angry meeting about sports field permits, I wrote to the chair of the Parks Committee, Norm Kelly. “Last November, our public bake oven group objected to paying extra city permit fees to use bake ovens, which volunteers built and paid for. You told us that people using sports fields also raise money, to improve the fields, but that they’re happy to pay the city’s permit fees on top....Hindsight is often clearer. May I request that the issue of using permit fees as an extra tax be added to your agenda for the April 20 Parks Committee meeting?” No answer yet. However, on April 10, City Council unanimously voted to cancel the extra kids’ sports fee altogether. For this year.

Collaboration about bake ovens.

Collaboration is a funny word. It gets pulled in for so many uses that it can get stretched right out of shape. When the public bake-oven users went to the Parks Committee – to object to the proposed new bake oven policy and the permit fees that volunteer bakers would have to pay if they wanted to bake for community dinners – they had to listen to Councillor Kelly’s homily about happy, compliant sports field users. Why didn’t oven users just stop whining? Long-time park-oven baker Anna Bekerman tried to explain how public oven programs actually work, but deputy city manager Brenda Patterson whispered to Councillor Kelly that Anna is a part-time recreation staff, and therefore not allowed to speak at Parks Committee meetings. The councillor all but accused Anna of fraud, and prevented her from saying another word. Then the bake oven policy was passed, over the strong objections of everyone who has ever baked in the handful of public ovens which exist in Toronto. Remarkably, Parks management took some trouble, later, to assert that the new bake oven policy had been developed in collaboration with bake oven users.

But it wasn’t collaboration. And the policy is as messy and contradictory as the sports field policy. It turns out that the bake oven policy conflicts with the city’s “one-size-fits-all” special events policy, so the fees don’t match up. Suddenly the baking fee climbs from $11.53 per baking to $75.53, with still-to-be-settled insurance fees on top. The fees are supposed to go toward oven maintenance and repair, but they don’t. Oven users maintain the ovens themselves, and arrange for their repair, just as the sports field users mark out the boundary lines, pick up trash and harrow the ground.

Repairs: In mid-April, income from bread donations will pay for Gabe Thompson to re-shingle the bigger of the two Dufferin Grove ovens. Gabe is handy with shingles. He’s also the grandson of Tommy Thompson, who was the first commissioner of Metro Parks, a big booster of sandpit adventure play (our inspiration), and the man who directed his staff to put up signs in Toronto parks in the 1950’s – “please walk on the grass.” For Tommy Thompson’s grandson to fix the shingles on the park oven’s roof – poetic justice!

Collaboration among park users.

Last February it became clear that Ward 18 parks need to be put under community protection, and that a “Ward 18 Parks Conservancy” might be the best – even the only – way to approach the task. We knew from Elinor Ostrom, and from our own experience, that getting it right would take time and steady effort. One of the first things was to talk to as many people as possible – to find other park friends, and ask them for their advice. So the last two months have been filled with conversations – and they’re just the beginning.

One recent conversation was with Howard Birnie, whom I first met on April 3 at city hall. Howard stood up in the council chamber and said he’d been volunteering for the Leaside Baseball Association for fifty years, and that he couldn’t remember being so mad about anything during that whole time, as he was now about the city’s sudden levy of fees for kids’ sports.

Fifty years! After the meeting I asked if I could talk to him about his relationship with parks, and he invited me for a cup of coffee at a little strip mall at the corner of Bayview and Eglinton.

The park with the baseball field is right across from the coffee shop. Howard said that when he first got involved, there used to be two “park keepers” during baseball season, one for the day shift and one in the evening, grooming the two diamonds, looking after the washrooms, keeping the park tidy and in good order. Then there was one park keeper, and then – now – there are only roving crews that come by infrequently. For years, the baseball volunteers have been grooming the field themselves with a small Parks tractor. They schedule all the teams. They have the key to the lights, and to the public washrooms, which they open and close and clean themselves. They pick the litter, and last year they raised $20,000 to buy new surfacing material for the ball diamonds. Howard’s sons worked as part-time park keepers while they were in college. The Leaside Baseball Association is a member of Toronto Baseball and Ontario Baseball. Everybody knows each other.

And yet, said Howard Birnie, it took this fee crisis for them to realize they hadn’t been talking to each other enough. The same sentiment is coming up everywhere. So the dark cloud of the sports field fee crisis had a silver lining, making people realize that as busy as they are, they need to keep talking to each other, and to monitor the actions of PFR in our shared public spaces.

Good monitors make it their business to find out what they need to know. Howard Birnie said the sports associations and clubs intend to find out much more about how operating funds are spent on the sports fields. Similarly, to get a “baseline” for the Ward 18 conservancy budget, we need to know the details of how our tax funds are spent in our local parks. When direct inquiries hit a wall, Freedom of Information offers a way around. So on April 10, CELOS submitted F.O.I. requests for the detailed PFR operating budget for all of Ward 18. The answer is due on May 17.

Open-ness and getting the word out.

Of the “many solutions to many park problems” that we need to find through the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy, one solution is getting detailed information, and another is getting conversations started all over the place, about protecting our public spaces. So we’ve registered to do a “Jane’s Walk” on Sunday May 6, at 3 pm. On that weekend, people go on “Jane’s Walks” all over the city (and in many other cities) to follow Jane Jacobs’ exhortation: “No one can find out what will work for our cities by looking at garden suburbs, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.”

In the decade before she died, Jane Jacobs sometimes liked to hear stories about Dufferin Grove and the bake ovens and the kids’ sandpit and the other odd things that went on there. She said that she read “Cooking with Fire in Public Space” from cover to cover. She would have liked the parks conservancy idea, being a big fan of local and from-the-ground-up. She would have approved of the title of our “Jane’s Walk” this year in particular: “Why cheap parks are more fun.” Jane Jacobs was no fan of glitzy design projects or “dream big” urban planning.

From our “Cheap parks” posting on the Jane’s Walk website:\\ This walk is all-ages, with neat stuff for kids both at the beginning and the end. The two parks at the beginning and the end will show what can happen when public space is put under neighbourhood protection through a ‘parks conservancy.’ From 2 pm on, MacGregor Park will have a cooking fire with roasted potatoes, and a kids/adults art activity: making finger labyrinths, led by the park’s artist-in-residence Kristen Fahrig, and by former Spiral Garden director Jan Mackie. The recently renovated 1930’s-era clubhouse will be open, with a little exhibition of the Irish history of the area and of the more recent flourishing of arts in the park. The walk will go north up Lansdowne Avenue, with show-and-tell of various kinds: the divisive street-narrowing, the local murder mysteries (censored for the kids), the houses of questionable repute… then, at the Lansdowne/Bloor intersection, a 360-degree turn looking toward the busy railway tracks (and the ‘Railpath Park’) to the west and then the wonderfully mixed ethnic food shops/starving-artist-galleries/pawnshops/vintage clothing shops to the east.

Then the walk will carry on northward to Campbell Park for the destination campfire. Part-time city staff Marina DeLuca Howard and Michelle Webb will be there in costume, with campfire treats and kids’ games from another era. They want to showcase the long history of the park as a lively gathering place for working class and immigrant families.

At both campfires, beginning and end, there will be a chance to talk about applying Jane Jacobs’ central insight: building on what we already have. At issue is our shared public space: must the city government rent it back to the citizens for ever higher fees, or is there another, cheaper, friendlier, more local way to shape parks for everybody to enjoy?

Why “cheap parks”?

Because we can. Neighbourhood parks in Toronto are plentiful and many of them already have some shady trees, maybe a wading pool, maybe some monkey bars, maybe a sports field. Many have solidly-built field houses (most of them underused or even kept locked year-round – but with lots of potential). Why is a cheap park more fun? Because it builds on what we already have for a fraction of the cost of starting from scratch. And that means that taxes can cover open access to cheap parks without the need to impose a lot of extra fees. “Fix it up and they will come” – for free....or at least, for cheap.

One of the “many problems requiring many solutions” is how to turn PFR management’s orientation in a different direction. In that sense, Ward 18 parks have been on the conservancy project for some years already. Four underused field houses and one rink change room have been turned in lively clubhouses: two at Dufferin Grove, then the field house at MacGregor Park, then the Campbell Park rink house, then the Wallace Rink change room. This was done for a fraction of the cost of building one new field house, for example at Queensway Park in Etobicoke, which was built in 2010 for $1.5 million and is still unused more than a year after completion.

One of the many cheap ways to enliven a park is with a campfire. Find a bit of well-situated flat ground, surround it with a few benches, set down a grill or make a circle of rocks, pile up some sticks and firewood, get the recreation staff to bring over a shovel and two pails of water plus two pails of sand, light a match, and – presto! A bright circle for sociability. If it’s done in the evening, it’s also a wonderfully effective warning for people who want to make mischief in the park – find something better to do, because there are eyes on this park, even after dark.

Recently, a neighbour of Carlton Park, at the north border of Ward 18, asked the Parks supervisor to have Carlton Park added to the list of parks where such campfires are allowed. She wanted to have a campfire with her neighbours. The city supervisor must have checked all the way up the hierarchy, because his response was even cc’d to the citywide Parks Director. He wrote:
Thank you for your interest in Carlton Park. Unfortunately, I am unable to authorize a fire permit in the requested park. There is currently no approved fire pit located in the park and I do not foresee one being installed in the near future.

There are currently 4 parks in Ward 18 that have approved fire pits. These locations are actively used and supported by volunteer groups and City Recreation Staff who obtain regular permits. Parks is not able to install a fire pit for a "one off" event. This could lead to unauthorized, unsafe usage in the future which would create a health and safety hazard for other park users and local residents.

At the same time, the recreation supervisor warned the recreation program staff for the other four parks that they should hold off before they book more permits for those parks. He wrote: I asked Anna to hold the spring/summer requests until Parks staff have had an opportunity to review with Customer Service staff on how to proceed in light of the new policy.

The new policy, presumably worked out in a back office of the Permits Department, would put an end to cheap community campfires once it’s applied in Ward 18. So I put out the call to previous campfire users (there are actually five approved sites):
You're getting this e-mail because sometime in the past 15 years you had a campfire at Dufferin Grove Park, or Susan Tibaldi Park, or Wallace Emerson Rink, or MacGregor Park, or Campbell Park. Do you have a photo or two you'd be willing to send us?

WHY we want your photos: to make a nice power point. We've heard rumours that parks management got City Council to pass a new campfire policy, which will make these Ward 18 campfires cost at least $110 each. Too bad! In the past 12 months there have been about 180 evenings with cheap campfires at Dufferin Grove, with over $3500 in $10 to $20 donations going back to the city, and wonderful results for park safety (Jane Jacobs: "eyes on the park.")

We got many letters and photos, and our slide show will be beautiful (we’ll show it at Campbell Park clubhouse at the end of the Jane’s Walk). Campfire user Renee Pilgrim sent in a good reason why the community campfires must continue, and should be allowed at Carlton Park too:
I'm from small-town Newfoundland. And though Toronto is a big city, I still found pockets I could feel very much like home in, and one pocket was Dufferin Grove Park. Perhaps I wandered through one evening and as I often did as a child followed the smell of smoke to a crowd that had gathered at the fire pit. I cannot tell you now how exactly I stumbled upon it, as I have been there so many times over the last 11 years that my memories, like flames, all dance mixed together....The gift of park fires carry through the spirit of Toronto more than most will ever see. My grandmother was always so scared of me here alone in the big city, but it was because of the fire in the middle of a city park that I could convince her that it was actually ok here. It was warm and safe and friendly and many opportunities to meet and share life with friends and strangers.

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

Illustrations by Jane LowBeer

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