Centre For Local Research into Public Space (CELOS)
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!
Mr.Harvey proposed five general ways of improving parks, all of them set out with enough specifics to provide plenty of talking points. The paper is a lively read.
- All five recommendations centre on one theme: that parks management and decision-makers at City Hall need to unleash the creativity of our parks staff and embrace the communities that are home to Toronto’s parks.
- assign a parks “animator” or “facilitator” to assist with and encourage the development of new “Friends of” parks groups and productive City/community relationships.
- Move from a Culture of No to a Culture of Yes. The City needs to:
• Experiment and embrace differences in parks through new pilot projects – “different is better than perfect.” • Stop insisting on the need for a citywide policy before allowing new activities in parks. Say yes to pizza and bake ovens, barbeques, and other new ideas. • Overhaul the permit system, reduce the number of activities that require permits, and make the process for obtaining permits more user-friendly.
- Toronto is a winter city – cafés, bars, and food stands could be used to draw the public into parks in the off-season and ensure key pathways in parks are cleared of snow and ice.
- Implement a practical approach to park liability issues. The City’s chief argument against community involvement and investment in parks is liability. Challenge City legal staff to work with the community and develop a reasonable solution.
- [From one of the people Mr.Harvey interviewed]... the City should scrap work on the new Parks Plan and instead agree to a two-word new strategic plan – “Say yes.”
“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.