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posted April 8, 2006

A different template for neighborhood public space

Dufferin Grove Park is a laboratory for a different approach to staffing neighbourhood public space than is the norm in Toronto. The norm is that the City hires mainly young people, often under 20, as recreation "casual staff" for neighborhood community centres and parks. Most of them are paid minimum wage or a few dollars more, and slotted into narrowly defined tasks without much direct guidance. There’s a pretty big chasm between them and the managers who are developing policies and procedures in meetings downtown.

But Dufferin Grove Park tries to provide chances for staff with a greater range of ages and gifts to try new things. Although the pay is still well below that of the park maintenance workers who cut the grass, it’s a bit closer to what a single person can live on (cheap). Supervision and collegial help are strong. What’s more, the boundary between park staff and park friends is very permeable, so that almost all park projects involve both.

Besides keeping the park in good order, a big part of this park staff’s task is to remove the barriers that stop people from trying new things in public space (like building a cob courtyard or setting up a neighborhood pick-up soccer game). At the same time, the staff have to keep a close eye and friendly hand on projects as they develop.

The other big part of their task is to address public conflict with energy and intelligence. Parks can be places of friendship, surprising beauty, and excitement, but they can also become a stage for ugly intimidation. Park staff have to subvert people who enjoy making trouble. Setting safety policies in meetings at City Hall doesn’t help the park, without experienced on-site staff paying good attention, maybe in the rink house, or in the playground, or while picking litter, or making coffee at the food cart. Trouble is addressed by park staff who are in the park day after day, until their knowledge of the park and the people there becomes very solid, and follow-up is fast and sustained.

If this Dufferin Grove "template" finds no application in Toronto’s public space (including other parks) parks will become poorer, sadder places and decreasingly useful to their neighborhoods. That’s why park friends are pretty steadfast in their resistance to dismantling what’s developed at this park.


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