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posted February 18, 2006

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THOUGHTS ABOUT PARKS: Doing More With Less

What the park costs (2006):

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 cob@dufferinpark.ca.


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Content last modified on May 09, 2012, at 04:40 PM EST