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The Metcalf Foundation, which has been helpful to Dufferin Grove Park and many other public spaces, this year gave David Harvey a “Metcalf Innovation Fellowship.” His project was to take a close look at Toronto’s parks, to talk to lots of park users and park staff, and propose remedies for problems, if any. Mr. Harvey was most recently a policy advisor to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and he knows the ropes of government.
The report, Fertile Ground for New Thinking: Improving Toronto's Parks, when it came out on September 30, created a stir. Mr.Harvey wrote that the city’s parks management is perceived by many of the people he interviewed as having “a culture of no.” He called for a loosening of permit restrictions on picnics and neighbourhood park activities, and much greater local collaboration between park staff and park users. Music to our ears!
“Improving Toronto’s Parks” has lots of suggestions, including some that we’d like to argue with. For example, the paper proposes corporate sponsorships as a way to get more funds for parks. But in our observation, that has not always worked well for parks or their neighborhoods. The paper repeats the City Auditor’s suggestion of selling naming rights (“Tim Horton Dufferin Park”?). But it seems to us that corporate donations often give the false impression of great corporate largesse when most of the financial support continues to come through taxes (Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment is a good example). Such “partnerships” are held up as a remedy for the sky-high cost estimate of the city’s often-cited backlog of repairs. But that backlog needs much closer examination before MacDonald’s and Telus get a multi-year cheap-advertising deal. Is it really true that community centres built only forty years ago are on the critical list? Must all wooden playgrounds over 15 years old be demolished and replaced by plastic? And corporate donours are given lots of choice how they’d like their money to be used. They can shape the landscape of a neighborhood, not always with good results.
The disagreements bound to arise from David Harvey’s strongly worded proposals can help to spark some really interesting discussions. He says that’s what he’s hoping for. So are we. We want to take part in the discussions that David Harvey’s paper invites – how can our parks be livelier public spaces? What specific approaches works better than “one size fits all”? How can park users draft front-line parks-and-recreation staff into collaborating on rinks and gardens and cafés and small open-air concerts? Can park uses join their voices to persuade councillors that management’s centralizing, policy-bound approach needs to be re-routed? What are the most promising alternatives?
“Fertile Ground for New Thinking: Improving Toronto’s Parks” is so helpful because it's full of strong starting points for public discussion.
Let the conversation begin.