Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 27)
Introducing the idea of a parks conservancy 17-Feb-2012 
The remaking of Toronto parks.
A summer serial, continuing through the fall and winter, February 16, 2012. Chapter Twenty-seven
By: Jutta Mason
Toronto’s parks, with their field houses, outdoor rinks, playgrounds, sports fields, natural ravines, and (at least potential) gathering places, are like well-filled pantries with a lot of items hidden at the back. Making good use of what’s in each of these pantries needs a lot of different people to attend to each individual location, and it can’t be done through central control.
The city’s 51 compressor-cooled outdoor rinks have supplied some of the examples of “what’s in the pantry” in my long-running serialized story. They’re an astonishing, already-existing public resource – and Toronto is unique in having such a wealth of winter public spaces. Yet, after 16 years of rink friends negotiating with city management, many of the outdoor rinks are still used much less than they could be, and some of them continue to be badly neglected. The three compressor-cooled rinks in Ward 18 are an exception. Long collaboration between on-site rink staff and rink friends has gradually turned three sometimes-scary places into fine neighbourhood public spaces.
Remarkably, that transformation has been identified as a serious problem by Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR) management. Extraordinary resources have been directed at dismantling what has worked well, both at the rinks and summertime recreation programs in Ward 18 parks. There was a short break at the end of November, and now the push has resumed. Last week, almost all rink staff were put into new, lower wage categories with narrower job descriptions, none of which include collaboration with rink users.
The summertime looks no better. PFR management offered up our flourishing MacGregor Park wading pool, at Lansdowne and Bloor, to the Budget Committee, as one of only five wading pools to be closed across the city. They also offered to cut bake oven support by recreation staff. Both cuts were accepted by City Council, among the hundreds of other cuts that were approved with the click of a mouse. And the narrowed job descriptions, which further constrict what can happen in the Ward 18 parks, will apply in summertime too.
It’s time to get out of the game, and begin a better one.
Since I began this series, initially about the “unmaking of Dufferin Grove Park” and then broadening out to consider other Ward 18 parks and beyond, the attempts by park friends to work out the problems with various levels of management have not stopped. Our Ward 18 city councillor has met with management to alter their approach. But improvements were always short-lived. It’s clear that the strict hierarchy of the PFR bureaucracy trumps good will all the way up the line. Supervisors and the managers above them may recognize some of what works well locally, but they are pulled back from supporting our “anomalies” by the centralizing directives currently in fashion at City Hall.
When people hit a solid bureaucratic wall at City Hall, they often abandon their projects. Understandably, many park supporters say “life’s too short” to continue a game that’s this frustrating. “You can’t fight City Hall” goes the saying, and the series I’ve been writing is (somewhat) the proof of it. But maybe it’s time to try something completely different, instead of giving up.
I want to suggest that this is the right moment to begin a pilot project: the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy.
Webster’s dictionary defines conservancy as “a careful preservation and protection of something; especially....of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.” A nice definition! Parks conservancies have sprung up in various cities in the last thirty years, the most famous of them being the Central Park Conservancy in New York City. But conservancies have lately been criticized for their role in attracting a disproportionate amount of funds, both public and private, to a few large trophy parks at the expense of smaller neighbourhood spaces. And private funding carries with it the possibility that public spaces will become vanity projects for rich people and rich corporations, even if (as in Toronto) they continue to get their primary support through taxes. Parks cluttered by advertising are another possible trap. For years now Dave Meslin and the Toronto Public Space Committee have been warning about the cheap advertising available to corporations from municipalities eager for free money through “public-private partnerships.”
So an important question is: if we set up a new, more equal collaboration between the City and park users, how can we conserve and make better use of our Ward 18 parks without falling into these traps?
That’s an interesting puzzle. To give park users some talking points, here are some principles that a Ward 18 parks conservancy might adopt. They’re distilled from the many letters park friends have written (and posted) over the years, letters to city councillors, PFR management, the ombudsman, and the media. These principles also come from notes I made after various meetings and impromptu park conversations that have accompanied other park crises over the years.
If Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao’s will support the Parks Conservancy as a pilot project, neighbourhoods in other parts of the city can see how we manage, and choose to develop their own conservancies....or not.
Conservancy principles that might work well:
1. Respect for the taxpayer – this must include getting “value for money” (see page 5) but also more respect for those citizens who contribute their labour to improving their parks. At a recent “Toronto Park People” meeting, a Scarborough man and a West end man said they’re in the same boat with the city – both worked with their neighbours to raise substantial funds for a new or renovated field house, and both groups are now being charged permit fees to use the buildings for neighbourhood events. So are other local groups who had hoped to use the buildings to do community activities. Consequently, the trickle-down effect that would normally come with this kind of community project is much reduced. The possibility of such buildings (and many other park buildings across the city) becoming lively neighbourhood social centres are diminished.
Another example of disrespect for the contributions of citizens is the dilemma of the Thorncliffe Park women’s committee. They have fundraised to add a public tandoor oven to the limited amenities in their local park. They offered to prepare their traditional foods in the tandoor, as a free community program done with volunteer cooks. But the city’s new bake-oven policy requires them to pay $500 a year, plus $1000 of insurance, for donating their efforts. The committee members say they are being treated like fools – why is PFR asking them to pay for the privilege of donating their work?
The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy would not charge opportunistic fees for citizens offering to contribute their talents for free community activities, and therefore turning citizens’ contributions away. Neither would the Conservancy frustrate citizens by setting up rules so convoluted that all the joy goes out of donated park work. The aim is to respect gifts of labour and good ideas from park users. Instead of losing park contributors, the aim of the Conservancy would be to welcome and support all community efforts to add fun and beauty to the parks.
2. Respect for the workers – there is a new wave of younger PFR workers who want their union to get more involved in the way the work is done. The Conservancy would foster a climate of respect for the unionized workers, with much more worker engagement, and support for ingenuity and for work well done. That means that fewer jobs would be eliminated due to mismanagement, and fewer good employees would quit. The Conservancy would promote a less rigid hierarchy, and work toward a fair pay scale for workers often doing similar work. The conservancy would immediately remedy the recent job misclassifications of almost all the direct park program staff—errors which just reduced their already small wages by 10 to 40% in some cases.
The Conservancy would be grounded in friendly, frequent collaboration with Ward 18 park workers.
Over the past 15 years, Ward 18 park program staff have worked with park users to obtain more than $530,000 in grants from foundations and government, allowing the Ward 18 parks to make many improvements. The recent response from the city is that all grant applications should be done centrally by the city’s partnership office. Time spent by local staff to work on grant applications with park users is not considered a legitimate part of their jobs. The Conservancy would steer in a different direction: to respect and promote the various talents of staff as they develop as workers, including (but by no means limited to) their capacity to work with park users on such grants.
3. Collaboration between workers and park users – the Ward 18 Conservancy would encourage the friendly connection and receptivity between staff and park users for which staff have been sharply criticized by their supervisors and even disciplined in recent times.
The 2009 collective agreement for Board of Management community centres required the establishment of a Labour-Management Committee “to discuss topics of general and/or specific interest to the parties. Its purpose will be to provide an outlet for the exchange of ideas...” The Conservancy could include a similar committee, but augmented by the participation of the third element, the park users. Nothing would be off limits in the discussions.
PFR management currently says that the recruiting of new staff is no business of park users. But the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy would go back to the older practice of involving the community in looking for talented new workers.
4. Value for Money – this principle has six sub-categories. The basic idea is: the $270 million of the PFR budget which comes from taxes requires a return for taxpayers. For the Ward 18 Parks Conservancy, that means:
(a) No golden goose for City Hall. The operation of most Ward 18 park amenities (like the soccer fields, field houses, rinks, etc.) is fully funded by taxes. A leading principle of the Parks Conservancy would be that the City cannot opportunistically use these amenities to get extra income on top of the taxes. This means that in Ward 18 parks, fees would be eliminated for permits for “social gatherings” or community events. There would be no new land-use fees added to permit fees for community soccer, shinny hockey, public bake ovens, and farmers’ markets.
This principle is already part of the city’s own “User Fee Policy,” although ignored. The city policy says: In interpreting the distinction between fees and taxes, the courts require that a fee charged for a service or activity must bear a relationship to the cost of providing the service or activity for which the fee is charged. Ward 18 parks would no longer be available to make extra money by, in effect, adding another tax.
(b) Fewer layers of staffing. The multiple layers of staff reaching up from park programs into City Hall would be reduced, to save money and encourage collaboration between park users and the direct program staff.
(c) Using what we have. Existing facilities would provide maximum access for their neighbourhoods. So for example, the outdoor rinks would open earlier, and close for the season when the sun gets too strong. Zamboni schedules would be set up to give good ice, no excuses. This would mean the end of frustration such as that expressed by a Campbell Rink permit group, which recently wrote to City Councillor Ana Bailao: “This winter, when we have gotten onto Campbell at 9 p.m., for our permit ice, the ice has been rutted, rough and dangerous. Lots of people have wiped out. It just seems that if we pay our taxes and our permit we should get decent ice.”
As concerns summer facilities, all the Ward 18 wading pools would be kept in reasonable repair and would be open to neighbourhood children until the end of their useful life (in the case of MacGregor wading pool, at least another fifty years).
The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy would make the best possible use of all parks buildings and have no “orphan” public buildings that are kept locked for most or all of the year (there are many such buildings elsewhere in the city).
(d) Minimal borrowing for new facilities when existing ones can be used. No new facilities would be added with borrowed financing until existing facilities are being used to their fullest. The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy would not repeat the mistakes, for example, that led to the building of a permits-only white elephant at Queensway park in Etobicoke, a field house that cost $1.54 million and has not yet been used, more than a year after it was built. Spending so much for so little is not defensible, and neither is the reduction of program funds in favour of paying interest on new loans.
(e) Full cost accounting. The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy would use “full cost accounting,” as requested by the City’s accounting section. That means finding out the real costs associated with every activity – not only the guy on the zamboni, but also the costs of scheduling him, issuing his cheques, supervising his work, devising rink policies at City Hall, ensuring compliance, and so on. The last two costs in particular are rising very rapidly.
Full cost accounting is dependent on transparency by the City (see page 7). The whole city government will be required to use this approach, but PFR said they may not be ready until 2013. The Parks Conservancy would want to be first out of the gate, calculating and publishing those numbers much sooner. One aim is to see whether well-used all-season parks are actually more economical to run than indoor community centres. PFR management has shown a worrisome interest in contracting out new community centres, such as Warden-Hilltop in Scarborough, because each new indoor centre costs $1 million a year (or more) to operate. If parks can be run as “community centres without walls” more cheaply, and get more use than indoor centres, they might not fall victim to being transferred to private park-operating companies. The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy would work to keep our tax-funded assets public.
(f) Local scheduling and collaboration with maintenance staff. When staff are scheduled centrally, problems arise. For example, at the moment in Ward 18 parks there are five different park garbage categories, collected by different staff. Solid Waste crews want to have the trash containers located for their pick-up convenience, whereas park staff want the trash containers where people congregate. So the bins are moved back and forth by different crews. The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy would have fewer maintenance staff, who would be locally based and would collaborate well with park program staff. That would give better value for money, both in park maintenance and rink maintenance.
5. Transparency. The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy would want to stop having to go through Freedom of Information to find out financial or policy details about the Ward 18 parks. There are far too many secrets in how decisions are made at City Hall about matters that affect neighbourhoods. No more secrets would be the new motto, so that park users could help develop plans based on good information.
6. Respect for public spaces. The Ward 18 Parks Conservancy would open the door wide to local community events, welcoming the talents and gifts of park users for adding beauty and interest and sociability. At the same time, the Parks Conservancy would seek out contacts with park user groups elsewhere in the city, swapping ideas, learning from the experiences of others.
The next step:
The next chapter of this serial will look at the potholes in this road. How can a locally-based Ward 18 Parks Conservancy be set up so that neighbours don’t get angry and fight with each other? Bureaucracies are a very handy thing to blame for all problems – but what would happen if that excuse is no longer available? How would decisions be made on the best use of our taxes in the parks? How could the park staff be supported to maximize their abilities? How would new projects be worked out?
With so many questions, it’s helpful to consult experience. CELOS is going into its final months of a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which includes a study of Nobel Prize political scientist Elinor Ostrom’s work on Governing the Commons. My next chapter will try to apply those principles to our situation. This is not a matter of finding the right model from somewhere else. To conserve our Ward 18 parks, we need to work out the Toronto Model of governing the commons, with as much help as we can get from one another and from others, like Elinor Ostrom, who have gone over the same ground. It won’t be easy but it could be really interesting. And it could result in the conserving of our public commons – which are otherwise well on the way to being transformed beyond recognition.
Winter Story (2012) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer