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June 2014

Dufferin Grove Park Newsletter


June 2014 newsletter

chlorine suit

Campfires in the park

Last year there were 472 campfires in Dufferin Grove Park. The City of Toronto lists 23 other campfire areas across the city as well. Some of them are only for Scouts. Two of them – at Campbell and MacGregor Parks in Ward 18 – have no well-defined campfire area and are mainly used for recreation programs. But some are in beautiful ravine locations or on Toronto Island. It used to cost over $100 to get a permit for one of these spots. Now if there are 25 people or less, the permit-and-insurance cost is only $51.27. The city’s campfire permits allow 50 people, sometimes more, at a campfire (but over 25 people raises the price to $133.58).

Dufferin Grove campfires operate in a slightly different way. In summer, there are two campfire sites: the “main” area, in the centre of the park and surrounded by logs, with a maximum of 25 people participating, and the “cob” area beside the playground, with a maximum number of 8 people plus up to 6 more children attending. These campfires are a program, not a permit. The participants are called volunteers, because they add three important elements to the park: (1) safety (no empty park in the evenings), (2) beauty (campfires add a warm glow to public space) and (3) sociability (many people say they enjoy seeing the sociable round of the campfires as they pass by). There’s no set fee for Dufferin Grove campfires but a suggested donation of $20 to help pay for staff support. The campfire participants are covered by the City’s volunteer insurance (also used for community gardeners, and people who flood winter ice rinks). In the 20 years that the Dufferin Grove campfire program has been going, there has never been an accident of note – happily, most human beings of all ages understand that fire is hot and it’s good to be careful.

To become a “campfire volunteer” at Dufferin Grove, it’s first necessary to attend a one-time orientation session that includes the rules but also a bit of the history of how this program developed. The website has a campfire section that also has a calendar of available campfire times. But there’s the rub – by the end of May, almost all summer weekend slots and many weekdays had already been booked. There are some spaces left, but the staff have also begun sending out the link to the other city campfire sites. Recently the city increased the number of sites. In this neighbourhood, Dovercourt Park, Christie Pits and Carlton Park all have designated campfire circles surrounded by logs or armour stone. Those neighbourhood parks gain the same benefits from campfires that work well at Dufferin Grove. So – campfire lovers, spread the wealth! To find out more, contact staff at

The adventure playground sand-pit and water

For some years there has been a discussion between park friends, local program staff and city management about of making a better drainage bed for the water that’s such an important part of play at Dufferin Grove. The kids spend hours making river channels and bridges, dams and forest landscapes. It would be good to disperse the “river water” throughout the adjacent park area for irrigation instead of sending it straight down the storm sewer. In some other city parks there are more sophisticated drainage systems (e.g. Trinity, Earl Bales, Woburn Park, John Tabor Park). Dufferin Grove program staff and friends have invited management to restart the discussion here: can there be a working water-system for the park’s adventure playground?

A good water dispersion system will cost some money to build. Sadly, it’s possible that all the available “capital improvements” money in the park budget is already allocated – for building a second zamboni garage. The reason for building a second garage in addition to the one we already have is unknown -- maybe so the zamboni drivers won’t have to share the ample existing garage space with puppets and other park programs? But that’s just a guess. More information was said to be forthcoming last January but it never arrived. The cost of the garage is also undisclosed. CELOS has now written again to the Park supervisor asking him to confirm the garage plan and also the cost, and to give an idea of the feasibility of addressing the water drainage issue as well.

Playground maintenance

The main section of the present-day Dufferin Grove playground structure was bought from a Peterborough company called “Children’s Playgrounds” in the early 1980s. The company used high-quality materials, and the cheaper plastic competition eventually drove them out of business. Over the years at Dufferin Grove, so many little feet have gone up and down the wooden stairs and run along the platforms that the wood looks beautifully wavy and smooth – a bit like what you see in traditional Japanese wooden houses that are many hundreds of years old. Only the bridge that leads to the bigger slide is splintery, because cheaper wood was used to replace the jiggly bridge during the city’s last safety purge. The rest of the climber, though, is an art form.

In the past four years, the city has spent over $18 million to replace playgrounds across the city with new plastic structures, and it plans to spend another $24 million in the next four years. But at Dufferin Grove, instead of tearing down the fine older wooden playground, the city technical-services staff have been doing good maintenance. In the wave of citywide playground replacements, the Dufferin Grove playground has been spared so long that it might soon enter the Guinness Book of Records for playground preservation – and for "the most kids playing on a play structure at one time."

The strange story of Public Health and their citywide wading pool regulations

At the end of June the city’s wading pools will open – and close and re-open, close and reopen, every two hours. Since Toronto Public Health got much more involved with the wading pools a few years ago, these once well-used neighborhood play pools have become a lot less enjoyable for families.

Problems that need to be fixed:

1. Draining too often: new, non-legislated rules devised by Toronto Public Health in 2011 require children to stay out of wading pools for up to 6 times a day, 20 minutes each time, while staff do a partial or complete draining of the pool and refill it with fresh, ice-cold water. Then the pool is re-chlorinated and the kids have to wait another 20 minutes for the chlorine to even out. That can add up to a total of 40 minutes of no pool access each time – or 4 hours a day, out of only 8 hours that the wading pools are open. Public Health staff say that children could be maimed or killed if they stay in the pools while the water is slowly draining out. They quote a tragic case in the U.S. where an uncovered water-pump inlet in a shallow pool destroyed a little girl’s intestines with its powerful suction when she sat on the pump inlet. But Toronto's fill-and-drain wading pools are like bathtubs – they have no suction pumps. For many decades children have enjoyed the tickle when they sit near the anti-siphon drain covers as the water is draining. Even so, Public Health insists that draining is a critical danger – and yet that it must be done so often that the pools are off limits half the time.

2. The danger of too much chlorine: There is concern among scientists worldwide that when too much chlorine is added to pool water, it can bond with organic matter (like skin cells, sunscreen, sand) to make some toxic compounds that may be related to childhood asthma and even bladder cancer. But Toronto’s teenage wading pool staff are given inexact chlorine measurement tools - and there is no upper limit of how much chlorine is too much. Toronto Public Health doesn’t inquire into how many chemical compounds (called “Disinfection By-Products,” or DBPs) are formed in over-chlorinated wading pools.

3. Rule-bound staffing at wading pools: this has replaced the long tradition of park-friendly wading pool staff who also provided pool-side crafts or games activities for kids on cool days when the pool is not busy. Now, staff are told that even if there is no one in the pool, both staff must keep their eyes fixed on the water. Staff who try to do activities with the kids are disciplined.

Inquiries about the evidence backing the frustrating new regulations have been ignored up to now. But here’s something interesting: as of May 1, 2014, the revised Province of Ontario Public Health Standard says that Public Health officials “...shall foster community and citizen engagement in the evaluation of programs and services.” To follow up, park friends wrote a letter to the Medical officer of Health (M.O.H.) on May 19, asking to meet with a public health manager to examine the evidence for the new public health wading pool interventions and to “try out some alternatives that are safe but more program-friendly.” The letter was signed by sixteen people representing nine wading pools across the city.

Up to the beginning of June, there has been zero response to this letter by Public Health. So, as a follow-up, one parent who signed the letter started a Facebook Page called Rescue our Toronto Wading Pools. Another parent filed a freedom of information request about the number of injuries or illnesses attributed to wading pools. (In April the M.O.H. had warned about the many dangers of waterborne illnesses, physical injuries and drowning at the city’s recreational water facilities – including in wading pools. But hospital emergency room records show only two (2) attributed to wading pools in almost 1.5 million Canada-wide child injury reports over 13 years. The freedom of information request should help clarify the evidence.)

Wading pools are explicitly not included in the provincial swimming pool/spa legislation. But Public Health emphasizes their inspectors’ role: “when observing health hazards [they] are required to issue orders to operators/owners to immediately rectify the safety deficiencies and/or order the facility closed.” The list of “safety deficiencies” that public health sees in wading pools seems to be have grown a lot in the past few years.

The revised Ontario Public Health Standard says “The board of health shall engage in knowledge exchange activities with...[among others]...the public regarding factors that determine the health of the population and support effective public health practice...[and it shall]...conduct program evaluations when new interventions are developed or implemented, or when there is evidence of unexpected operational issues or program results....” It will be interesting to find out how to nudge Public Health into following their own standard in this regard. That’s this summer’s experiment in citizen action. To find out more or get involved, go to the Facebook page, Rescue our Toronto Wading Pools.

The 2014 municipal election, continued...

An interview with Alex Mazer

Alex Mazer is one of the candidates seeking election for City Council in Ward 18. We asked him about his ideas regarding parks. Here was his lead-off:

“The overriding goal of parks administration should be to get people into parks and using them. Other goals – preservation, financial sustainability, enforcement of rules and by-laws – are important but I believe they should be secondary. When people use parks, they become healthier, more active, and more engaged. The public life of our city is enriched. Community ties grow stronger, social isolation declines. People from different walks of life are more likely to meet one another.”

We asked him for specifics:

- about permit fees: “we need to make it easy for community groups to use parks. This means making the permitting process simpler and more affordable, in some cases getting rid of fees altogether. I think insurance and permit fees for volunteer groups should be scaled back or eliminated. These groups help maintain and enhance our parks and community life. They should not be seen as a source of revenue. I suspect that they actually save the city money, when the value they provide is looked at in a holistic way. I would be quite open to taking another look at fees for volunteer-run soccer groups as well. As an active soccer parent, I know the difference this kind of volunteerism makes in the lives of kids and the life of our parks.” 

- about information: “I’m a strong advocate for open data and open government – when the city is transparent about its operations, budgeting, and decision making, it improves accountability and creates more opportunity for community participation. That’s why I helped start Better Budget TO (, which champions a more accessible, visionary, and participatory budget for Toronto.”

- about local control: “I think park administration and regulation needs to encourage local innovation and creativity. We need to be careful about imposing top-down frameworks on parks when the character and community of each park is different. The better that park staff know the particular communities they are serving, the better that they know the local volunteers, the better positioned they will be to encourage use of the park and support proactive outreach and community engagement efforts.”

Alex Mazer links: and  

Mayoral candidates’ ideas about parks:

Of the mayoral candidates, only one, David Soknacki, has so far issued a specific position paper about parks.* He did this after visiting parks all over the city, including Dufferin Grove, and talking to park users. In his introduction he writes: “The best way to improve our parks service is to open parks to more community leadership, more community participation, and more community action. Park space is public space, not government space.”

Here are some of his specific plans if elected:

- Access to information: “By year-end 2015, signage in every park will identify a specific contact in the public service who is responsible for that park. The Parks, Forestry and Recreation budget will also include annual open data disclosures of park-specific budgets by 2016.....[W]ith this data, we can support participatory budgeting at the level of the individual park, and even create conservancies for key parks or park networks.”

- Liability: “Liability risks have been exaggerated, onerous rules put in place, and barriers built to keep the government in and volunteers out.”

- Permits: “we will adopt policies to completely eliminate any future call for costly special permits for volunteers working through registered “Friends of” parks groups, and to eliminate any remaining insurance barriers for volunteers working to improve Toronto’s parks.”

- A Toronto Parks Board: “as Mayor, I will support the creation of a Toronto Parks Board to lead an “Our Space” strategy for our Parks. The Board would be modeled on the Toronto Library Board, with a few differences. As its primary goal, the Parks Board would provide leadership to help refresh our existing parks network, especially in priority neighborhoods across Toronto. It will lead the process of identifying and eliminating “park deserts,” and it will work with City Hall, other governments and other agencies to identify alternative park opportunities. It will also work with the public service to ensure that other goals – like clearer lines of accountability for individual parks – are met swiftly.”

- Parks conservancies: “The Parks Board would be charged with designing a process to negotiate conservancy agreements no later than year-end 2015; citizens and stakeholders would be consulted in this process. From that point forward, the Board would lead assessments and negotiate with individual “Friends of” groups seeking to operate a conservancy on a priority basis.”

David Soknacki links: and

*CELOS has recently contacted the other candidates to ask them about their park ideas.

The cob cafe

The cob courtyard and outdoor kitchen beside the playground has been getting its yearly overhaul. New shingles, wall fixes, counters repaired, new plaster and lime wash. The cob courtyard cafe will be ready in time for summer. The next step is to keep children off the shingles. Walking on the shingles breaks them. Parents and caregivers: you probably don’t allow your kids to walk on your roof at home. Same goes for the cob shingles. If you see any child (not necessarily your own) climbing on the cob wall, tell them to get down right away. It takes a village to raise a child, and in the case of the cob courtyard cafe, everybody can help keep it from being damaged by kids climbing on it.

How summer programs used to be run in Toronto:

From Cawthra Park friend Shirley Bell: “When my kids were little (they're 33 and 27 now) there used to be "trainers" (what we called the park staff) in the parks from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm - yes, 9:00 pm! - during the summer. There were three staff who worked staggered hours and switched their days around, so it wasn't like anyone was working a 12-hour day. The wading pools were open, if I remember correctly, from around 10:00 (it took time to fill) till 6:00. (They started draining it around 5:45 or so). "My" park was a tiny one but was it ever busy, both during the day and in the evenings! The trainers played board games with the kids and taught them how to make gimp bracelets. Pails and shovels and muckers (?) - a kind of ring toss game - were supplied by the City. I loved it especially in the evenings because all the parents who worked outside the home would take their kids to the park after supper. It made for such a wonderful feeling of community. We all had the opportunity to get to know each other, and the trainers, too. Every year there was a potluck supper with entertainment (the trainers worked hard with the kids, rehearsing skits, songs, and dances, to put on the show) and a special guest, e.g. Blinky the talking police car or a fire truck from the local fire hall. It was such a wonderful win-win-win situation - for kids, parents, and students - and a way to generate a sense of community for all. *Sigh* Those were the days!”

In those days (the 1990s) Toronto’s parks and recreation budget was considerably lower than today, yet all programs were free. Free programs meant that recreation staff’s time was not taken over by finance-related data entry as it is now, but was spent working with children and families. Fewer managers were needed. Something to learn from, when thinking about how to help our parks work better!


Newsletter prepared by: Jutta Mason

Illustrations: Jane LowBeer

Web sites: Aseel Al Najim,

Park phone: 416 392-0913

Park web site:


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