For the basics, see
- Website & Privacy Policies
- How To Get Involved
- The Role of the Park

Search options:

up to a month to index new postings
Research (CELOS)
web search

Search Research (CELOS):
local & up to date but simpler
See Search Page

Department Site Map

News 2006
(click to open)

Quick Page Table of Contents


News 2006

posted February 20, 2006

Does Anyone Have a Broom?

The City of Toronto has 49 outdoor ice rinks that are cooled by compressors. Many northern cities have one or two such rinks, usually in central plazas or major parks. We have them in neighbourhoods as well, the only city in the world to build such a large number. They're worth more than $60 million. They're supposed to be looked after by Toronto's Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division, but the system for maintaining most of those rinks is a shambles.

Of the 46 neighborhood rinks cooled by compressors, there are rinks which are lucky to get two ice maintenance visits a day, or less. It's often uncertain when the zamboni crew will show up, so skaters may have to leave the ice halfway through a scheduled skating time. Then it's not unusual for the zamboni drivers to run the machine up and down the ice twice as fast as they ought, basically adding a new layer of ice by flooding every time instead of scraping off the rough ice and getting the rink surface smooth. Hurrying up and down the ice like that means they can leave sooner. When the weather is warmer and the ice has soft slush on the top, instead of scraping the slush off the ice, zamboni drivers sit out their shift in their staff rooms. If it rains and there's extra water on the ice, instead of taking off the extra water with the zamboni, the drivers have another down-time. (Except once at Dufferin Rink, when the zamboni driver actually flooded the ice as it rained.) As a result, the ice gets thicker and thicker and the compressors have too much ice to freeze.

There are exceptions. The outdoor rinks at Nathan Phillips Square and at Harbourfront (it's not run by the City) use their zambonis to keep their ice around two inches thick. One Saturday in the middle of January, when the temperature was plus 10 degrees Celsius and the sun was out, those two rinks had good ice and were full of happy skaters. Most neighbourhood rinks, on the other hand, were slushy and closed that day. Their ice is between 4 and 7 inches thick, extending over the top of the dasher boards in many hockey rinks.

Since ice is an insulator, having it so thick also means the temperature sensors on the rink floor don't register the temperature on the coldest days, when the compressors should not be running. When the temperature dropped to minus 16 degrees Celsius in the middle of February, the temperature sensors at Dufferin Rink, covered by that amount of ice, took almost 24 hours to register that cold. Only then did the rink compressor turn itself off. That means a whole lot of energy is wasted, and power costs of running outdoor rinks increase sharply.

And the neighborhood rinks have another problem. Their zamboni drivers are scheduled to work until 10 p.m. but one rarely sees any neighborhood rink ice maintenance after 8.30 p.m.except at Dufferin Rink. There the zamboni rushes up and down the ice even faster on the last run.

That final 9 p.m. scheduled ice maintenance at Dufferin Rink has been a sore point for zamboni drivers (CUPE Local 416) all year. They often come at 8.30 and are upset when the on-site rink staff (CUPE Local 79) ask them to wait until the program is done. One of the older drivers explained it to the Local 79 staff like this: Local 416 zamboni drivers make much more money than the Local 79 rink staff. People who make more money should not be bossed around by people who make less. But the local 79 staff stood their ground, with strong support from the friends of the rink.

That didn't sit well. For years, the position of the zamboni drivers has been that both Local 79 staff and rink friends should stop interfering with Local 416 work. All the nagging about ice thickness and scheduling was making their work situation intolerable. About three weeks ago, a new rink "protocol," applying uniquely to Dufferin Rink, was handed to the on-site rink staff, followed by several revised versions as time went on. Local 79 rink staff were not to interfere with Local 416 operations, in fact, they were not even to speak to the zamboni drivers about any work-related matter. All communication was to be through the zamboni drivers' supervisor, by radio. If even one element in the "protocol" was missed, the zamboni driver had the right to get off the zamboni just where it stood, even in the middle of the ice, and leave the rink. (This drastic measure is based on a very questionable interpretation of "danger to a worker" in the Employee Occupational Health and Safety Act.) One of the "protocol" rules was that no volunteer could be involved in any part of the ice maintenance while the zamboni drivers were "on site," so that took care of the rink friends. Rink maintenance would be run according to formal orders going through the zamboni drivers' chain of command from now on, with "discipline" for "non-compliance."

Unhappily for the zamboni drivers, the schedule was still maintained. But at least there was no longer any nagging about the ice thickness. The zamboni drivers' threat of abandoning the zamboni on the ice got the rink staff and the rink friends to keep quiet when the drivers were at the rink.

The military style of this maneuver was shocking to the on-site rink staff, and they appealed to the zamboni drivers' supervisor. But he cited safety. They asked to meet with the supervisor's manager but he was unwilling. They sought support from their CUPE Local 79 union representative but up to now have been unable to get even a meeting. (CUPE Local 79, formerly the "inside workers," is the poor cousin to CUPE Local 416, formerly the "outside workers.") For my part, as a rink friend I sought help from Parks and Recreation management in this situation, all the way up to the general manager. She didn't respond to me directly but told a Star reporter that she was "offended" by my criticisms of her staff. At our public rink meeting to discuss the situation, Recreation Director Don Boyle said: "you people can't get along with anybody. Every six months I have to deal with a crisis at your park."

So it seems that management sees this issue as one of bad manners. That's certainly one element here, although not everyone agrees on whose manners could use improvement. But what is much more interesting to me is this: does the recreation director check whether the two dozen zamboni drivers on his staff might be stopping work most nights before their hours are done? Does the general manager try to find out whether the sixty million dollars of outdoor ice rinks under her jurisdiction could be scraped thinner by all those expensive zambonis the city owns? Do either of them investigate the extra energy costs of 40-odd compressor plants that rarely shut off? And is anyone at City Hall concerned about a public rink where some city employees make a "protocol" saying that the other city employees can't talk to them about their joint task, under threat of a job action? I mean, is anyone in the city management alarmed enough to say: "start over, this is not the military, it's collaboration that will make this city work"...?

My guess is that at least the Parks, Forestry and Recreation director and his general manager consider these details too trifling to take up their time. Their approach seems to be supported by the mayor. After Don Boyle made his comments about our inability to get along, I sought out Mayor Miller at the end of a public budget meeting. I told him: "there are some real problems at Parks and Recreation, but they have some solutions. Please let me come and talk to you for just half an hour about what I've learned over the past ten years."

The mayor said that he had heard "from a third party" that no City staff people want to work at Dufferin Grove Park, it's too unpleasant. As for a meeting with me, he said he had no time. "Contact my staff and talk to them instead. Then if they feel I should talk to you, they can set it up." But when I left a message with the mayor's staff, my call was not returned.

The mayor is surely a very busy person. So is the general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation. But if the mayor and his staff are unwilling or unable to attend to disturbing details in city government, and that unwillingness is passed down from general manager to director to local manager to supervisor, it's hard to know how Toronto can dig out of the trouble we're in, in the long run. The situation I describe here with the zamboni drivers is only one piece of a municipal conglomerate of doubtful function, staggering along under the weight of a crippling payroll and not enough to show for it.

The mayor has been going around to both the province and the federal government, hat in hand, saying - "we've cut everything to the bone, and still we're in the hole by half a billion dollars. It's not our fault. You're starving us of money. Toronto is the engine of the economy, and if you don't give us your surplus, that engine will fail." Toronto could certainly use more money, but there needs to be more than tax reallocation. Toronto may be an engine, but the City government is more like a house. It's time to clean house from the bottom up. Does anyone have a broom?

posted February 18, 2006


What the park costs:

Parks and Recreation Director Don Boyle said at the recent Dufferin Rink meeting that he was shocked to find out how much money was spent to staff this park in 2005, and that he intended to cut the staff back to 2004 levels.

It seems like it’s time to clear up a few things about Dufferin Grove Park and our taxes.

In 2005, the City spent $181,440 of our taxes (counting benefits) for between 6 and 14 part-time recreation staff for our “community centre without walls.” This number covered the park for seven days a week during the busy times, less at other times. In contrast, in 2004 the City spent about $81,000 to staff the park. $81,000 isn’t enough now that the park has become a destination for people from all over the city. The number of people who use Dufferin Grove Park year-round is now quite a bit higher than the number who use most Toronto community centres with walls.

Community recreation centres with walls cost at least half a million dollars to run (some quite a bit more) per year. The City has quite few such centres, and plans to build more. There are a lot of Parks, Forestry and Recreation staff – over 4000. Over half work for recreation centres. They are centrally managed. Besides the general manager, there are six directors (up from four in 2004), each of whom costs the city between $110,000 and $138,000 a year. Under these directors there are thirty-six managers. Some of these managers seem to manage management: three of them are managers of standards and innovation, five are managers of management services, one is a manager of Agenda Coordination and Service integration. The thirty-six managers cost the city between $81,000 and $117,500 a year each, before bonuses.

That’s why many community recreation centres have to charge extra for most of their activities. $212 million tax money for this year’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation operating budget is not enough, so Parks and Recreation needs to take in another $72 million from user fees.

For some years now, a few of us around the park have been wondering whether there is a cheaper way to “build strong neighborhoods” (as the City’s slogan goes) than building more $15 million community centres that cost so much to run.

A community laboratory

Dufferin Grove Park is a kind of laboratory of community. It turns out that people in this neighborhood have a talent for being neighborly. At the park, people not only act friendly, but also work out conflicts, struggle with suspicion, get over insults, or shyness, or language barriers, or fear of dogs, or fear of young people. Working out difficulties among neighbours seems to stick people together just as much as sharing celebrations does, and people at this park do both.

Some years ago, a few of us thought, if such a “park as public space laboratory” brings out people’s talents here, why not elsewhere? So a few of us went to see Don Boyle and his boss Claire Tucker Reid and said: “please designate Dufferin Grove Park a lab. See how much money the park really needs, without relying on unpaid work in any big way. Call what goes on there an experiment, a different kind of community centre – let’s be curious, see what might be applied elsewhere, see if that could actually save money in the long run and reduce the user fees.

We couldn’t get their interest then. Last year there was a new general manager, Brenda Librecz. She twice came to the park and asked to be shown around. We asked her to assign this park a budget of $200,000, and designate the park as a lab for trying things that might work in other neighbourhoods too. But Ms.Librecz is fantastically busy restructuring her vast department, and although she was friendly, there was no follow-up.

Taxes and a community centre without walls:

Late last winter, when the Friday Night Supper conversations were popping with ideas from so many people, Jutta asked Tino DeCastro, our local Recreation supervisor, whether he would let us see if we could test how much money the park actually needs to run well. Tino had some extra funds from his community centre user fees, and he said yes. Summer staff were hired who were unusually capable, we continued with our best winter staff, and the park got even better. The staff were able to respond to the heat wave that began on June 5, opening the wading pool for most of June, so that the park became a regional cooling-off centre. Musicians, artists, theatre performers, dancers, fire twirlers, shared the park with soccer, basketball and frisbee. With lots of staff support, park friend Georgie Donais mobilized five hundred pairs of hands over the whole summer to shape the cob alcove. The farmers’ market grew bigger again, and people complained that they forgot their groceries because they were so busy talking to their neighbours. The Friday Night Supper line-ups got quicker, even though the hillside around the oven was sometimes covered with people. Because it was so hot and so dry, many families with young children told us they spent the summer living in the park, instead of in their stuffy high-rise apartments where there was no air. Kids dug rivers in the sandpit late into the evening, after dark, while their parents chatted on the benches nearby. Picnics multiplied on weekends, and wonderful smells of many different foods drifted through the park at those times.

The experiment was working so well that Tino let it continue into the rink season. Dufferin Rink sometimes had more people than it could handle, so Tino allowed the Dufferin Rink staff to begin working alongside his rink staff at the other nearby rinks, Wallace and Campbell, that are under his supervision. That allowed rink staff to introduce women’s shinny hockey times, run some kids’ and youth shinny hockey tournaments, make campfires to roast hot dogs, and keep the rinks open longer hours.

Wallace Rink had a nasty blind alley with a chain link fence that cut off any quick exit from the skating area (with no visibility, no 'eyes on the park'). Volunteers made a wooden stairway and opened the chain link barrier, so that people could easily go from the rink to the parking lot. Within a day that became the main stairway to the rink, and the rink became safer.

Food and a community centre without walls:

Along with experimenting with the park budget, we tried a new approach to the park food. We put up signs: “if you don’t like these prices, pay what you want. If you want to do some park cleanup for food (especially kids) that’s fine, you can eat with no money.” The food became a medium of exchange for park help – and people who did a lot for the park in summer sometimes found that their money was not accepted even in winter, when they came to the zamboni café.

We treated the food money that came in as a pooling of neighborhood resources, and used it to augment programs, buy groceries, fix broken things. We kept every receipt for what was spent, so we know that we spent another $147,739.17 for the park last year.

The "lab result":

Our neighborhood experiment, in total, cost $329,000. But only 55% of that came from our taxes. The other 45% came from people eating good food at the park. For that we got a rich tapestry of community life that would be hard to find in city buildings that cost three times as much to operate.

That was the little experiment that became possible with Tino’s support. Parks and Recreation Director Don Boyle’s reaction when he found out was – "this has to stop." That was a shocker! We thought we had done so well, and suddenly we were in the penalty box. Don mystified Jutta by insisting to her that it costs only $250,000 a year in total to run McCormick Community Centre. (He’s not even close – the director of Toronto’s community recreation centres needs to get his details straight.) But in the days following the first response, Don was persuaded (by our City Councillor Adam Giambrone) to moderate his reaction. No one knows what will happen next. Is there support for grass-roots experimentation at Parks, Forestry and Recreation?

Community centres now

A few weeks ago, the Roncesvalles-MacDonell Residents’ Association found out that City Council had cancelled plans for building the Wabash Community Recreation Centre on land the city bought for that purpose, beside Wabash-Sorauren Park (near High Park). From the association’s web site: "We have waited 15 years for this community centre. Countless volunteer hours have been invested in getting it built. The children of many residents have grown up and missed out on the opportunities afforded by a community centre."

Some years ago the association started a movement they called "Build Wabash Now." They did all the right things. They handed out buttons with that slogan. They went to City Council and Committee meetings, they called the councillors, they had fund-raisers, got media contacts, and stood out on Roncesvalles Avenue in the winter cold getting 1,368 signatures from residents. The City bought the land, spent $1.2 million on environmental cleanup, and hired a firm of architects to do a feasibility study. There’s an old factory on the site, and the architects said it could be turned into a community centre for $12 million, or a swimming pool could be added to bring the project to $21 million.

But now it’s become clear that the money is not there. The $12 - $21 million Centre is not near getting built. Instead, City staff suggested a “clubhouse-style facility” like ours, at an estimated cost of $700,000 to $1.5 million. (Our park’s brick shoe-box cost $300,000 in 1993 - it wasn’t intended to be a clubhouse, but a three-months-of-the-year rink change room).

All that effort, all that money, and all those kids who are already grown without a shovel going into the ground. (One community centre campaigner said she was pregnant when she joined the association – now her daughter is fourteen.)

It’s time for people to talk about small buildings and responsive City staff

Maybe these hard-working folks would like to make common cause with us and with people elsewhere in the city who want to strengthen existing outdoor gathering places in their neighborhood. Small things done now in any neighborhood park can make a start. Before people keel over from years of waiting, they can put in a tetherball, some fast-growing trees, a couple of stump tables for checkers or chess, a dozen or more plain benches, and a fire site. Maybe also a sand pit with a water hose, five or six picnic tables, a few park-issue green platforms where a musician might play, and a little shed – so simple. If the City adds some grown-up on-site staff who know how to be responsive (more collaboration, less bossing and making rules), each community can collaborate with those city staff to shape the space according to what makes sense in that particular neighbourhood.

This spring we’ll be going visiting around the city, wherever we’re invited. It’s time to talk, about doing small things in parks and also about small buildings. For more information about small buildings in particular, and for some enjoyable brainstorming, contact Georgie Donais at

posted January 24, 2006

The Upside-Down World of City Rinks

For some years now, most of the City’s staff zamboni operators have been reluctant to work at Dufferin Rink. Some have not been shy to say so. They say there’s too much interference with their regular way of running rinks. The zamboni drivers seem particularly unhappy about the idea that they should match their ice maintenance visits to the rink program schedule. One particular zamboni operator recently insisted on clearing the ice before a hockey permit was finished, because, he said, that was his prerogative if he felt like it. When a rink friend argued with him, the zamboni driver and his partner left the rink without grooming the ice at all, and went home early. A few days later some of the City zamboni drivers summoned their supervisor to a health and safety meeting.

The following day the on-site rink staff were told that they must follow a new health and safety "protocol." It soon became apparent that these new rules would make it much harder to keep to our ten-year practice of letting skaters keep on skating on the pleasure-skating side while the hockey side is being cleaned by the zamboni, and vice versa. (This is another feature of our rink that has been unpopular with many City zamboni drivers.)To comply with the new rules in the evenings, on-site rink staff would either have to leave the rink house unattended for half an hour, or add another staff whose only role was to double the staff already standing guard outside by the hockey lift-gate (to prevent people from being run over by the zamboni). If the second on-site rink staff was not there, the zamboni driver would have the right to leave the work site immediately, on the grounds of employee health and safety.

This is a bit of déjà vu! The last time there was an employee health and safety complaint at the rink was a few days before Christmas 2003, when City inspectors came and said Dufferin Rink was the worst rink they had ever seen. On that occasion they ordered the new community kitchen bordering the zamboni garage to be torn out and the giant Clay and Paper Theatre puppets to be removed from high up in the rafters. They also said that no one but a licensed zamboni driver could enter the zamboni garage.

A Zamboni, as skaters know, is about the size of a small truck. It has four wheels, a scraper/flooder at the back, and a large chamber for storing the scraped-off snow at the front. As with street sweepers, snowploughs, and road repair vehicles, the driver’s visibility is less than in a car, so the driver has to take extra care. When a zamboni is standing in a garage, though, it’s no more dangerous than a parked car, and so the inspectors’ 2003 verdict did not stand. The Dufferin Rink kitchen is still there, the puppets are back, and the farmers’ market and all sorts of other events have continued.

But now it seems that once again a zamboni is being held up as a singularly dangerous vehicle from which skaters must be protected. So even if you (and your kids) know how to cross a busy road like Dufferin Street without a crossing guard, you can’t be trusted to stay back from a moving zamboni with only one rink guard to warn you off.

Back to the requirement of having an extra, otherwise unnecessary staff person at the rink in the evening. The zamboni supervisor says that there’s only one alternative: to shut all the skaters inside the rink house during the time the zamboni operator is grooming the ice. He says that Dufferin Rink has become so busy that special protections must be put in place. It’s not that there has been any accident, but that there couldbe.

So now we have a problem. The philosophy at this park is to stay away from having extra staff who have waiting-around time as part of their job description, even though that may be a common way municipal government is run. As things stand, the Dufferin Rink staff are booked to do the work that’s needed. Because the rink has become so well used by so many different people, that work includes keeping the rink house clean and arranging it as a neighbourly space, hosting community events, teaching skating, connecting with other rinks, youth counselling, court work with youth, giving citywide rink information, doing web postings, shovelling snow, helping farmers on market day, running the zamboni café, helping the zamboni operator, organizing tournaments, and more. On-site rink staff deal with all the different demands on them, more or less successfully, by helping one another and listening to rink users. They also get rock-solid support from the recreation supervisor.

The zamboni crew have chosen to stay out of this loop and to set their rules independently. That’s a puzzle. A clash of philosophies? So many City rinks still have their windowless staff room with the old couch and the all-winter card game, where the zamboni operators and the on-site rink staff and a few favourite rink users spend time between periods of ice maintenance. Sometimes the door is propped open, other times it’s locked from the inside. Is that protection from the public really so much more agreeable than running a rink that’s a friendly hub in a lively neighbourhood?

There will be some discussions now between the City zamboni operators and the Dufferin Rink on-site staff. Hopefully the two clashing philosophies will move a little closer again. If not (since we don’t like to hire waiting-around rink staff), rink users will have plenty of time to brainstorm about the upside-down world of city rinks, when they’re squashed together inside the rink house as the zamboni moves around the ice outside, all alone.

hosted by | powered by pmwiki-2.2.83. Content last modified on November 07, 2006, at 02:45 AM EST