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posted September 6, 2006

EDITORIAL: DAVID AND GOLIATH

(1) DAVID:

Fenced in: the toilet project is isolated by the City

The small fellow in this fable is Georgie Donais. Last year she asked the Parks staff if they might bring in some sand, gravel, later a plumber and an electrician. She went to a local construction company and begged some clay, bought some tarps, and asked park users if they’d like to build a very old-style wall around the public health sinks that were needed for the summer food cart.

It turned out that lots of people, little and big, wanted to learn how to build using the ancient adobe method called “cob.” As the wall rose, little by little, built by so many hands of so many different sizes, the wall became a story magnet too. It seems that there’s hardly any culture that doesn’t have such buildings. People brought their photo albums from home, showing buildings in Yemen that are seven hundred years old and still inhabited, round adobe buildings in North Africa, thick-walled cob houses with thatched roofs in English villages. What a lot of joyful community talk and action! Georgie’s dad was a carpenter, and she admired his craft, but she wanted a form of building that was quiet enough for talking (not all that loud hammering). She was right. The wall went up one cob at a time, conversations led to friendships – and respect and admiration grew, day by day, for those people all over the world who developed this way of building. Georgie shaped and directed all this activity for free, and people freely came and went between the playground and the wall. Building was part of a day at the park.

At the end of September the “cob party” for people who helped was huge, and the cob courtyard has become a familiar, loved (and useful) landmark in the park.


National Park composting toilet

People kept telling Georgie that one small thing was still missing: a toilet in the playground. Parents and caregivers have asked, every year, for a nearby toilet ever since the current playground went in (in the eighties). But a plumbed toilet would cost $100,000 or more and there is no such money allocated for this park.

A composting toilet, on the other hand, would be much cheaper, and it could be a little (pilot-project) step to getting a part of the park off the sewage system that pollutes our lake.

Georgie researched the newer composting toilets at national parks, which are low-maintenance, non-smelly, and very efficient. An anonymous donour – inspired by last summer’s cob wall – said he would buy one for the park ($9000). Georgie applied for funding to create a community-built shelter for the toilet, and the Toronto Arts Council gave her $10,000 (on the strength of last year’s cob wall achievement). The Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation gave her another $2000 for materials and for the living roof (like the living roof on the end of the cob wall, full of flowers and native grasses). Georgie put the word out, and by the beginning of June, work was ready to begin.

(2) GOLIATH:

kids at last year's cob project

That’s Big Bureaucracy, in this fable. The composting toilet Georgie bought was the same as the one that’s been used for at least seven years in many national parks in Ontario and across Canada. The Class one composting toilet and its tiny surround are exempt from building permit requirements. But because this community art project has some attributes in common with a conventional construction site, the situation becomes muddied. The Goliath of bureaucracy paints reality in big, bold strokes: any building site is a safety hazard, whether it’s the new ROM or a little cob housing built around a single playground toilet. At construction sites, unless there’s a big fence to keep them out, people can break their necks, or be killed plunging down four-story holes. They can lose eyes and limbs. If a provincial inspector comes and finds a parent helping a kid apply clay to shape a little wall, and one or both of them are not wearing regulation steel-toed boots, the Park supervisor could be personally fined $15,000, or $50,000, under the Health and Safety Act, and he’d have to re-mortgage his house.

And then there are the environmental hazards. Just because the toilet is a state-of-the-art model used in national parks doesn’t mean the urban Goliath accepts it. An engineer is necessary to re-certify its design (at a price of more than half the toilet). And perhaps there needs to be an environmental assessment: what if this little seasonal toilet would spread pollution? What if the kids’ little bums were to contaminate the ground so widely that the poison would leach into the wading pool? What if a composting toilet poisoned the groundwater for the neighbouring houses? Will the City’s insurance cover that? (Eeeek!)

“David and Goliath” is a fable. If the fable is true, the good sense of the community might be the pebble that knocks Goliath out of the way of this little composting toilet. We’ll see how the story unfolds, at the September 12 community meeting. The nicest outcome would be if the “Davids” of the bureaucracy (those exist too) and the “Davids” of the community could work together to support the gifts that Georgie brings to the park. Then next year it would be safe to step near the playground trees again (i.e., the current frequently-used “toilets”), and parents and caregivers could relax when their little ones say, for the third time in an hour: “Daddy, I need to pee!”

Jutta Mason


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