Editorial: Making the Playground Safe
posted November 9
One of the things the park's research arm, CELOS, received through a freedom of information request, after a long delay, is the 1999 playground inspection records for all city parks, including our own. These inspections followed former Mayor Mel Lastman's 1998 motion that all park playgrounds should be "upgraded" to meet new 1998 standards (backed, not by the government, but by an association of mainly manufacturers, almost half of them not located Canada). The verdicts of the whirlwind inspections led to the removal of 48 entire park playground structures and the disappearance of additional playground pieces from almost every park in the city, at the cost, so far, of just over $6 million. A bit over one million seems to have gone to buying replacement playground sets, and almost seventy per cent of that went to two manufacturers, Henderson and Belair. Both of these companies have generously supported the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association's annual conference and trade shows. The association's 2004 gathering in Halifax had a banner headline on its web site "sponsorship prospectus," to attract more support from companies: "Buying Power: Municipalities in Canada spend over 2 billion dollars on products and services in the parks and recreation sector alone!" Much of this money is spent on playgrounds. (Claire Tucker Reid, the general manager of Toronto Parks and Recreation until last December, is the association's new Ontario Division director.)
It's not only in Canada that playground equipment has become a "highly competitive and fast-growing global business" [Montreal Gazette, Business section, July 2004]. In the U.S. and in many European countries, the fear of increased insurance premiums has led to the "dumbing down" of many playgrounds with new equipment advertised as being safer.
One of the interesting things about this international panic is that it seems to be based mainly on very questionable injury data. Canadian playground-related-injury statistics are one example. Maya Litman - together with some friends - has closely documented Toronto playground alterations since 2001 (you can see some of them in great detail on their web site www.playtoronto.com). Maya contacted Health Canada to find out how playground injuries could have jumped in one year from 10,000 children being hurt to 28,000. A "senior analyst" responded that the numbers were only estimates: i.e. guesses. But these guesses were quoted everywhere as fact, and they led to the removal of a whole lot more of what Maya calls "much-loved" playground pieces.
It seems that many kids have voted with their feet, and playground use is down. And here's the kicker: playground injuries requiring at least one night in hospital actually increased in Toronto playgrounds after the wave of park and schoolyard equipment removals (we're waiting for the latest hospital numbers, due to be released this month, to see if that pattern has continued).
At Dufferin Grove playground the jiggly bridge and the fireman's pole and the curved slide were removed, and the much-loved yellow climber is under threat. The entire wooden playground structure is slated for removal next year. It's hard to see, from the inspection report for our playground, what the causes for removal would be. We want to find out, so we asked technical services manager Bob Crump to send a city playground inspector meet us at the playground and go over the report. We also asked for the inspector to check the softness of the ground (softer ground cushions falls, under the monkey bars in particular, so the rink staff recently added a lot of sand under there). Since our request has still not led to the arrival of an inspector, we'll try asking Parks and Recreation director Don Boyle. We'll also set up a phone list and an e-mail list of people who want to be kept informed: call the park at 416 392-0913 to get on the list or email email@example.com.
Old Kind and New Kind...
Old Kind: Huge, complex, great for all ages. Encourages imagination and creativity. New Kind: Colourful, but boring. Tiny, unstimulating and unchallenging. (Thanks to www.playtoronto.com for the photos.)