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News 2004

posted Spring 2004

Commentary on '''Toward a Healthy, Active Future:Toronto Parks & Recreation Strategic Plan. A Draft for Review and Comment

[There are some other booklets quoted here too] Spring 2004.

1. Introduction.(p.3)

They ask for advice from Toronto Residents “all advice is welcome” so they can bring it all to City Council. Gives four ways to reach them: e-mail, mail, fax, or at a public meeting.

2. A Strategic plan for Toronto Parks and Rec (pp. 4-6)

a) “Wherever you go, there we are.” Invites big ideas, and presents the official big ideas the three foundations, i.e. environment, lifelong active living [note that up until the end of March this “foundation” was called Lifelong Health and Wellness for All ], and child and youth development. Also sometimes referred to as the three key priorities. Could be simplified to two goals:

1. “saving the environment”

2. “saving the citizens.”

Message: Parks and Rec is huge, and the job that needs to be done is huge. It envelops you: resistance (to this restructuring process) is futile.

b) Introduction of vocabulary: certain technical terms are highlighted, to be used in discussion. The Strategic Plan says that the city responds to “trends, forces, needs and demands by developing a wide range of plans, strategies, and policies.” In a March 19 staff input booklet Mission Possible: Getting Parks and Recreation Services Right!, the planners divide the seven “deliverables” that are meant to come out of this planning process into plans that are elements and plans that are supports, both of which will provide vital content for the end product, namely the three-year Business Plan. There is also a longer-term plan going up to 2010. That plan involves goals (what Parks and Recreation wants) and directions (how they will they get it). Lots of repetition of terms.

c) A list of “leading messages” from the (unidentified) community after the 2003 discussion paper “Goals and Directions for Toronto Parks and Recreation.”

Number one: the “three foundations” are “generally” right. They need a bit of tinkering. This section lists what other needs were identified by this unidentified community (lots), including that there’s a need for a better understanding of needs. The unidentified community uses phrases like: service delivery system, enhanced community involvement in planning and management; achieving the outcomes; enhanced customer service; partnerships need greater emphasis. Calls for training, promotion and research (e.g. “the role of parents in achieving child and youth development merits discussion”). The last point in the list of “leading messages” from the community is this: “terminology in the discussion paper is often unclear; definitions or clearer language is required.”

Discussion: urging Parks and rec planners to use clear language is not useful because

1. they can’t (see above)

2. they shouldn’t -- the language being used here is not murky, it’s a very clear demonstration of the planners’ message. Attempting to “massage” the language is likely to lead to lying.

3. A vision for Toronto (p.7) A kind of managerial fantasy of how the city and its Parks and Recreation department would be in a perfect world. Basically an ad.

4. Guiding Principles (pp.8-9) A follow-up section of magical thinking, describing 13 ways in which Parks and Recreation WILL become perfect. This section also introduces a stern and heroic tone: Parks and Recreation’s three foundations cannot and will not be pursued in isolation from one another.

5. The Three Foundations (pp.10-11) As the title suggests, this section also has a heroic tone, and uses repetition for emphasis, for example (again): The three foundations cannot and will not be strengthened in isolation from each other. By this section, Parks and Recreation’s ambitions are pretty well total: they maintain and improve both nature and culture, target the entire community, “build a base of leisure skills” into all our kids and keep shaping them from there. This section also counts all the stuff in Parks and Recreation’s domain, for example: hundreds of camps, thousands of hectares, hundreds of thousands of daily participants, millions of street trees.

Discussion: resistance is futile. Message: with tasks and responsibilities this huge, any examination of specific problems, occurring in a specific place, will be dwarfed by the big picture.

6. Strategic Goals and Directions (pp.13 – 20)

The format here is three subsections for each “foundation.” The first part is called “Parks & Recreation’s Perspective,” and it gives more details how huge the problems are, that the staff are faced with (bad air, bad water, bad weather, huge immigration, old buildings, dying wildlife, etc.). The second part reiterates the planners’ determination to perfect the department’s work, and the third part sketches the outline of a work plan.

Discussion: The work plan:

a) mirrors the work experience of the planners:

Advertising: 16 references

Measuring: 3 “

Meeting: 19 “

Analyzing: 6 “

Designing: 10 “

b) is otherwise remarkably vague on details

c) if taken literally would require a very large increase in the Parks and Recreation budget (double would be good)

d) if taken only as an ideal standard for staff performance evaluations, would drive the parks and recreation staff mad with the disconnection between their task list and what they could ever accomplish.

7. Implementing the Strategic plan (pp.21– 23) This section has an organizational chart with many arrows and solid or serrated lines, connecting various present and future plans and sub-plans, and a chart of “sample measures and targets” for the year 2010, raising the bar for how many citizens will be enrolled in programs or how many months until a tree gets “service response.”

Appendix A: service snapshots (pp.24 – 28)

Pie charts. Along the same lines as those photos one sees along the bottom or up the side of Parks and Rec powerpoint presentations.

Appendix B: A Backgrounder on the Three Foundations (pp.29 –40)

This is section presents a long list of serious problems and then offers a long list of remedies. Many of the remedies are banal: 40% of people in a nature response survey said that being in “nearby-nature areas” found they could “escape worries” while 32% said it gave them time to “let thoughts wander.” Many are grandiose: “pursuing a renewed social development agenda within the Division should generate a number of benefits…providing an opportunity for adults to develop their full and holistic potential…reduce self-destructive and anti-social behaviour, including reduced crime, racism, loneliness and alienation.”

Despite its wobbling, back and forth between the banal and the preposterous, this part of the “strategic plan” is perhaps the most worthy of close study. It provides some insight into the mystery of how the re-structuring planners’ minds work.

Numbers barrage: an infatuation with counting. Not even the Count on Sesame Street could have a greater love of numbers than the strategic planners. 240 vegetation communities are threatened. 8 out of 10; 6 out of 10; 9 out of 10 Ontario urban residents have particular opinions about the value of trees. 1000 people die prematurely because of pollution each year. 30% of the city’s children live in poverty. 85% find it restful to be near nature areas. 57% of adults are insufficiently active. In the calendar years 1996-97, some adolescents reported low levels of self-esteem. On and on and on, a veritable stew of numbers of all sorts.

Numbers massage: nonsense numbers. The strategic planners’ counting is not always trustworthy. In the 2002 Parks and Recreation booklet, “Defining our Vision, Mission, and Key Priorities,” one can read that there are 500,000 people in registered programs and 2.9 million in drop-in programs. The November 2003 Parks re-structuring manual lowered that to 400,000 people in registered programs and 2.6 million in drop-in programs. It stayed the same in the stakeholder reference booklet and also in Commissioner Halstead’s report to city council’s Economic Development and Parks Committee report last January 28. But no matter how many years these user numbers are repeated, they’re still nonsense. Who could take seriously that more than 100% of the city’s population could go to drop-in programs?

That might be why the participants’ guide for the public sessions didn’t use these particular numbers. They say that 6.4% of the population is in registered programs, which would bring us down to about 153,600. And the “drop-in” figure is shifted over to “community and sports organizations” who, with the help of 200,000 volunteers, provide “opportunities” for over 2.5 million people a year on parks property. I guess if you count Caribana, you’ve got a good chunk right there. But what’s the point?

Although the “participants’ guide” purges some of the more obvious nonsense from the parks staff material, there are still problems. The guide has a chart claiming that 28% of the city’s children are in registered P&R programs. It’s certainly NOT the case in my neighbourhood – with 6 parks and recreation community centres (no kidding) within a ten-minute drive – that over a quarter of all the local kids are registered in parks and rec programs. I’ve heard that the real number is between 5 and 7%. Why all this playing around with numbers?

Scientistic pretensions. There are examples throughout the text of statements that want to take on the mystique of science, but they’re all style without content. Two examples:

Social scientistic pretensions: (p.32) A healthy natural environment contributes strongly to neighborhood satisfaction levels. An attempt to use statistical language to persuade the reader to read this banal idea as a weighty measurement.

Physical scientistic pretensions: (p.37) …three out of five children and youth aged 5-17 are not active enough for optimal growth and development. A scientist does not purvey an “optimal” standard. What would it mean? Who would decree it?

Scientistic statements are often little, pompous phrases that pass by quickly. Cumulatively the Strategic Plan uses them a great deal. They mean to impress and convert, but often they just make the reader glaze over. And on a science test such statements would get a zero.

Why does Parks and Recreation have to try so hard to be a science?

The business model. The Strategic Plan refers to citizens as clients and consumers or, most often, customers of parks and recreation services. A ferry ticket price or a summer camp fee is a consumer product category. When a school gym is closed due to a strike, when a Hydro blackout occurs, when we’re hit with SARS or a terrorist attack, there’s a loss of customer base. Buildings more than twenty years old are aging and outdated infrastructure, which interfere with the growth of customer base.

As near as I can tell, the general product category of this business is a mixture of saving the environment and saving the people; in other words, Parks and Recreation will be in business for a long time. Their concerns run from teenage sexual troubles, to the condition of 3 million city trees, to fat citizens of all ages, to shifts in the city’s ethnicity, to the TV habits of poor kids, to the U.S. Surgeon General’s thoughts on how to “maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints.” And because the work plan of this business is so ambitious, the ongoing project of keeping track of how it’s going seems to be enormous as well. The planners feel that Parks and Rec has to “develop community profiles and undertake community needs assessments on a regular basis.” In fact, they have to monitor, analyze, measure, design, have meetings with their corporate or social service partners, and do ad campaigns pretty well continuously.

As if that didn’t keep them busy enough, they also have to engage the citizens in “infrastructure and service planning and service delivery” all along the way.

Seeing Parks and Recreation as a business means that in many parts of the Strategic Plan, the natural world is recast as a business proposition. Trees become pollution scrubbers: Trees removed a total of 997 Megagrams of pollution from the atmosphere for a total associated value of $8,565,000. Bad air hurts business: …..air pollution costs the Toronto economy at least $138 million in lost productivity . Parks and trees bring in more money, and also save money: Green space…draws in investment and promotes prosperity. It can replace a good deal of expensive infrastructure.

The natural world can also be used as an instrument, by parks and recreation staff, to fix up humans. Environmental education programs show…a decrease in socially inappropriate behaviours. For the strategic planners, the citizen is recast as a programmable learning system. This entity often sounds robotic: people can do nature appreciation, learn life-long leisure skills, take environmental education programs to get an increase in levels of social interaction.

The goods and services from Parks and Recreation that are on offer for people in the city are magically vast: providing an opportunity for adults to develop their full and holistic potential; enhancing perceived quality of life for individuals, families, and communities; reducing self-destructive and anti-social behaviour, including reduced crime, racism, isolation, loneliness and alienation; providing the catalysts that build strong and self-sufficient communities…and so on.

The strategic planners’ idea that Parks and Recreation is a business with customers helps to explain why so many of the claims in the Plan sound like an ad. There’s so much hype. Young people’s participation in physical recreation programs not only builds better muscles and bones, but also leads to better time management, protects against emotional problems, helps kids stay in school, reduces single parents’ reliance on social assistance, pays for recreation programs by reducing the use of child psychiatrists and – most astonishingly – enables children and youth with psychological disorders to achieve the same level of social, physical and academic competencies as their non-disordered peers. The same level of everything? What on earth could this mean? Probably not even the most born-again planner believes that all of this will likely happen very often, but we’ve learned to make allowances for ad-speak.

Parks and Recreation as an ad agency.

The original restructuring report from last November already read like an ad agency inspirational meeting, designed to pump up the staff’s performance by exhorting them to think big. The management staff were invited to “position themselves" to promptly analyze city-wide trends, easily identify costs and implement changes, flexibly place staff and match them to new portfolios, seamlessly accomplish change at the same time as minimizing staff change and above all, repeated on almost every page, "move the division forward." Never rest on your laurels. Devote yourselves to "a dynamic process that requires continuous evaluation and fine tuning." The more recent restructuring effort involves a Communications Staff Team which is in charge of visual identity, naming, internal and external communications, media relations and marketing and communications campaign on the value of parks and recreation. The work of this staff team must result in excitement and momentum built up around the process and a high rating of input opportunities by staff. It’s partly a “test run” in preparation for the public input phase. The staff team is also supposed to create positive “buzz” within the Division about the whole process, as well as positive feedback with the Corporation about Parks and Recreation’s key role in achieving the three foundations. This last is also called positive positioning with the Corporation and Council, and it’s a long-term task listed to the end of Dec.31.

Deliverables of this business. In February, the strategic planners put out an “Organizational Development Proposal” to Parks and Recreation staff, subtitled “OPPORTUNITY TO REPOSITION INTENTIONS.” And underlined, at the end of the “executive summary”: The process itself is as important as the outcomes

The “deliverables” called for in this proposal are seven new plans. In their March 19 staff input booklet Mission Possible: Getting Parks and Recreation Services Right!, the planners divide the seven deliverables into plans that are elements and plans that are supports, both of which will provide vital content for both the process and the end product, namely the three-year Business Plan. There is also a longer-term plan going up to 2010.

The key areas of responsibility, also called the three key priorities or the three foundations, are Environmental Stewardship, Child & Youth Development, and Lifelong Active Living Lifelong (formerly called Lifelong Health and Wellness for All). These three form the basis for goals (what Parks and Recreation wants) and directions (how they will they get it). The strategic planners actually list goals and directions in some detail in their booklet Mission Possible: Getting Parks and Recreation Services Right! But when Lea Ambros analyzed the list, she found that it was tough to get much of an idea of actions that might follow. Lea prepared a chart to sort the directions, with columns for “means a study,’ “means more training,” “means more advertising,” “might mean something specific,” and “what does this mean?” In the chart that Lea prepared, most of the “directions” are so vague that they had to be put in the last column.

So the actual products of this “business” remain a puzzle.

Staff: 3592.7 positions of which 189 are classified as management (or perhaps these are in addition – it’s not clear).

Income: In 2003, Parks and Recreation took in $152,328.70 in tax money plus $69,843.30 in fees and other income.

Expenditure: In 2003 Parks and Recreation spent between $8 and $10 million more than they took in. Staff wages and salaries are said to make up about 80% of this expenditure, with an annual increase of between 3% and 5%. Over the past six years, Parks and recreation has been asked to cut their programs by 8% to 15% every year. The full cuts never happened, however.

Stakeholders: are they like shareholders? Are they a focus group? (Brenda Librecz: “This group will be crucial in helping us determine if we are providing the right services and delivering them in a manner that reflects the community's expectations.")

Asking questions versus managing stakeholders. [This is not complete]

January 28: Joe Halstead asks the Economic Development and Parks Committee to approve a Stakeholder Reference group “comprised of 10 to 12 residents from a cross-section of the City.”

February “Organizational Development Proposal” membership of stakeholder Reference Group: “5 community representatives from across the City, 3 sporting organizations, 3 environmental areas, 2 youth representatives.”

April: the group met for the first time, “with representation from approximately 30 organizations” for example the Toronto Community Garden Network, Swim Ontario, John Innes Advisory Council, Centennial College Recreation Leadership Program, Native Child and Family Centre, East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club, Disabilities Issues Committee, Rouge Park Alliance, Toronto Regional Conservation Authority, Toronto Board of Education and Laidlaw Foundation.

posted Spring 2004

REALITY CHECK

There’s a wide gap between many of the suggestions that come out of the planners’ meeting rooms, and the day-to-day parks and recreation work. Take the idea of the planners wanting Parks and Recreation to be seen as a business, with consumer products, satisfied customers, and (at the heart of its structure!) a three-year business plan. Many of us wince at that approach, it seems so nutty. But if we were to take them at their word, how’s it going after six years of this business fantasy? (Remember, the business language came into fashion right after amalgamation).

A few examples: In 2003 this business was unable to collect a large amount of its accounts receivable:

From the Toronto Star, May 12: “City won't see $1M in rec fees, auditor estimates Users owe $4.5M for city programs, councillors told. Parks commissioner advises against harsh crackdown.”

Balancing the budget: In 2003 this business spent between $8 and $10 million more than it had. What’s more, the accounting system is such that the size of this disparity was not anticipated until late in the year.

From P.L.A.Y. Toronto: Since 1999, this business has spent $6.5 million destroying parks playground equipment and replacing it with dumbed-down playground equipment. The reason: an edict attributed to the Canadian Standards Association, a trade group that’s over 90 % manufacturers and barely half Canadian. In the process, Parks and Recreation broke its own rules for public consultation, and its crews removed equipment that the CSA didn’t ask for anyway.

Advertising and promotion, detailed examples from the city’s 51 outdoor artificial ice rinks:

1. This business has a rink “hot line” that only carries recorded messages and that leads the caller into constant dead ends when seeking information about ice conditions.

2. The telephone book’s blue pages rink listings have had all the individual rink numbers removed because this business has a policy saying that skaters must not have phone access to rink staff.

3. For most of the past rink season, individual rinks were not allowed to photocopy their skating schedule to give to users because of a division-wide edict to save money.

And the city web site has gaps: some sizeable parks are left off the park listings altogether. Information is often out of date. (To be fair, that’s not only the fault of this business. The corporation of the City of Toronto as a whole has a web site with over 20,000 static pages and no functioning search engine.)

Timely maintenance of facilities and equipment: this business has no-one assigned to check on state of good repair in the parks day-to-day. Examples from Dufferin Grove Park: in the case of park benches and tables, their staff often wait until the bench or the table collapses, and then take it away in the trash. In the case of our outdoor artificial ice rink, this business denied their rink users’ (customers?) request that the numerous cracks in the concrete slab (skating surface) be investigated now by concrete engineers. Instead they plan a general city-wide rink survey later on.

Tools: this spring, this business was not able to supply its park workers, not its park volunteers, with compost, fence posts, or wood chips, to take care of its park garden beds. This is on a budget of $160 million.

Allocation of resources:

Example #1: Dufferin Grove Park is crossed by two unpaved, rutted walkways, which get heavy use from residents walking through the park. This business has no money to pave them. Wheelchair users and people with strollers cannot use these rutted tracks in bad weather. Meantime, this business continues to spend $50,000 a year on the “Garrison Creek Project,” building “entrance features” into parts of city parks that lead to nowhere.

Example #2: A very popular indoor skateboard program in an inner-city recreation centre applied for funding to get better equipment. This business denied that request in favour of giving $70,000 to a consulting company to write a Parks and Recreation staff safety manual. The last Parks and Recreation safety manual done by this business is less than 10 years old and is used internationally.

Example #3: this business spends upwards of $2 million a year paying its planners to think up things in meetings, have training sessions, and do campaigns advertising the value of Parks and Recreation. If that same $2 million was used getting these same planners out into the parks and the recreation centres so they could actually learn the business by getting their hands dirty (some for the first time), there might be a net increase in the planners understanding their business.


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Content last modified on May 22, 2009, at 02:08 PM EST