Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 6)
Development of community commons, and core staff 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial August 11, 2011, Chapter Six
Recap: Chapter One: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things all wrong, says the current management of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). The way it is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” So a new supervisor has been placed there, whose job it is to return the park to the core activities that the City has traditionally run. This summer, she’s dissecting out the traditional activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.”
If the “anomalies” are going to be eliminated, sanitized, or commercialized, it’s time to write down the story of how they grew up in the first place. Memory is short. Maybe if there’s a record of how the trial-and-error approach shaped Dufferin Grove Park in its current form, then – as these “anomalies” fade away – future park users will have a reference. Down the road, some readers may want to use this story to pick up the thread and continue, if a time comes when a new wind blows from neighbourhoods into City Hall.
Chapter Five told the story of the bake ovens and the rink house renovations. After the first oven was built, park friends took down two interior walls in the rink house to make a community room (no charge to the City – and no written permission, either). Then we fund-raised to get better lighting and an oven and a woodstove for the skaters, and the City put in eye-level windows and two little kitchens, and a railing around the woodstove for the skaters and tobogganers to dry their wet mittens. Chapter Six tells a bit about the consequences of those changes, and it also introduces a new thread: the culture of cooperation between park staff and the community. To tell how that culture was built up, I’ll have to jump ahead a bit, continuing almost to the present.
In the 15 years since the rink house walls gave way to one 50 by 60 feet community room, the whole of Dufferin Grove Park has gradually grown into a community “commons.” There are many days when hundreds of people are in the park...
...and that’s just a rough sketch. The park gradually became a community centre, but one without walls, for a fraction of the cost of building and running a regular community centre.
The effects weren’t confined to the park, though. They radiated outward. In this neighbourhood, if you ask friends where they first met, many people say, “in the park.” Now they go other places together. As the “money story” on page 7 will show, there’s an economic boost for local businesses, that was a side effect of the many layers of new park activities. And the skills acquired by people who worked at the park, helping all these layers to flourish, were often used by them as a springboard to get better-paying jobs. (Having Dufferin Grove Park on your resumé became a bit of a hot ticket. One park worker who went back to school and became a family lawyer told us that the interview team for her future law firm mainly wanted to talk about her work at the park, not her law school experience.) Youth who worked at the park, even some of the at-risk youth who were often in trouble, have come back to visit the park years later, to recall the start they got under the watchful eyes of the older staff, and now to show off their own kids and tell us about their plumbing or renovation business and their house in the suburbs.
A board-of-education alternative school, calling itself the Grove School, had their first organizational meetings in the park. The school still uses the park as its outdoor classroom and its focus for celebrations. Real estate agents like the park because it raised the property values of the houses nearby. This secondary effect has its downside, though—as in other parts of Toronto, when houses come to cost so much, the mix of people who can afford to buy is considerably narrowed. Anything that reduces the mix in a neighbourhood makes it less varied and interesting. Happily, the good supply of affordable rental apartments near the park still bring the gifts of many different people into the park, including many hundreds of newcomers.
Compositely, all these secondary effects are lumped under the name of “social capital.” Capital accumulates in a compound way. So the park has sometimes been so filled with people that the immediate park neighbours have said – enough! We can’t get much peace and quiet.
They’ve got a point. Parks are meant to be places of quiet enjoyment at least part of the time. Moreover, when the park becomes a destination from across the city, the “local” aspect is diminished.
The fact is, lots of people who come from a distance would love their own neighbourhood park to be more interesting and more of a meeting place, so they could walk there whenever they feel like it and not have to trek clear across town. That’s why, for about ten years now, we’ve tried to support people who are seeking to make their nearby parks work better. What happened is a subject for another chapter.
Meantime, the liveliness of Dufferin Grove Park – despite its drawbacks – has been a pleasure for many people in this neighbourhood. That development was far from a sure thing, even after the first few steps were taken. At the end of the last chapter, after describing the first bake oven and the “community renovation” of the rink house walls, I wrote:
One way that all this liveliness would have been stopped before it started is if the City had charged a permit fee for people to use the building, or for programs offered there. But the rink house was an orphan at the start. Nobody (including our little group) thought that the free availability of the space would layer so many activities and encounters on top of each other. It happened because we had more or less unencumbered use of public space: essential for that sociability and new friendships to begin.
This statement is true as far as it goes, but it leaves out the other half of the reason for the park’s awakening. An unencumbered space could just as well have stayed empty, even deserted. Dufferin Grove became well used because of the introduction of good food, more places to sit with friends, absorbing things for children to do, a hope of surprise or spectacle – even an occasional bracing encounter with conflict, balanced by help available nearby. These elements grew because of the work of the part-time city staff, who co-operated with park friends to find out what works well for people and build on that.
Could these good things have happened with only volunteers (like me) and no on-site staff? Unlikely. Here’s why:
The Nobel-Prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom calls this the “sucker” effect. She means that when some people in a community take what she calls a “free ride” while others are labouring for some common good that all can enjoy, the volunteer feels like a sucker, a dope. Such an unbalanced relationship can’t last, and so the volunteers leave. Elinor Ostrom has become one of our teachers on the subject of governance of common resources. Last November, seven of us (two from CELOS, five park staff) made the 12-hour drive in two cars to Indiana to meet with her. We brought along a list of ten principles of governance we got from her book “Governing the Commons,” and had a travelling seminar in the cars on the trip down. These principles are posted on the CELOS website. They resonate with many of the experiences at the park over the past 18 years, and they’ll come up again in future chapters.
The “free ride” problem which Ostrom pointed out is only one item in her governance list. But it’s the problem that can extinguish good efforts in public spaces everywhere. Everyone knows of some community group which subdivided into five or six committees with great ideas, then dwindled to a few people with far more on their task list than they had time for -- and finally the group disappeared. There were not enough volunteers motivated to do all that unpaid work.
And why should there be? In the case of public spaces, we have a tax-supported civil service. We pool our money to pay municipal staff to make parks work well, among other things. Parks and Recreation employs about 10,000 part-time staff over the course of any given year, to care for parks and run recreation programs of many different kinds. It was some of these city staff, working closely with the people using the park, who turned Dufferin Grove Park into such a good place.
Friendly, interested staff don’t fall from the sky. Nor do they pop out, ready to go, from a central training office, fully formed by the expanding mandatory training sessions that city management adds to every year. In the case of Dufferin Grove, the rink staff in 1994 were so uninterested in making improvements that the Recreation Director switched the park to a different manager, with an entirely new set of staff. The new manager was Tino DeCastro. But the city’s youth staff culture is so limited that Tino had a hard time finding young staff who were willing to work alongside the artists funded by the Dufferin Mall donation in summer. The city’s part-time staff have a big turnover, and new ones are being hired every season. The more promising applicants for city positions often disappeared into better-paying jobs, though, as soon as they could find any.
Eventually Tino asked a couple of park friends to take part in Dufferin Grove summer staff interviews, as an experiment. There was a precedent for this. Herb Pirk, the Parks and Recreation Commissioner before amalgamation, strongly believed in public participation in the selection and promotion of staff. Park activists were often invited to contribute their views at such interviews, even for higher level positions. So Tino followed his lead.
When Tino invited a couple of highly-involved park users to be present at the interviews for summer playground/wading pool staff applicants, and later for the winter rink staff interviews as well, the new staff got the idea. Right off that they were connected to the community as well as the bureaucracy. And for the first few years, Tino sometimes sent over his better staff from other locations as well (he ran other parks and two community centres). As some of these new part-time staff people got more involved and took more responsibility at Dufferin Grove, they began to recommend other good people. Tino listened. One good staff brought in another, and so the rather feeble culture of wading pool and rink staff, still so evident nowadays all over the City, began to shift.
By early 2002, enough donations had begun to come into the park through the various food programs that it became possible to add a new approach for finding staff. People were given the chance to try working at the increasingly diverse and unusual Dufferin Grove programs for a few days or weeks, until they were sure they wanted such a job. They were given short-term external contracts. If the work suited them, they would follow up by applying to the City.
The City’s pay rates for part time recreation work were still far out of line with other skilled work – even with the work of part time staff in other city jobs. Park litter pickers, for instance, then as now, made more than twice the hourly wage of part-time recreation staff whose job was working with families and youth. But even so, job applicants for City jobs at Dufferin Grove kept getting better and better. The work was interesting, and – very importantly – the low wages were partly compensated by the flexibility of part-time work schedules. University students, both undergraduate and graduate, began to apply, as well as actors, dancers, cooks, yoga teachers, translators, and neighbourhood mothers of young children. The advantages of flexible hours, and the friendly and adventuresome culture of the Dufferin Grove work crew, were an incentive for them to apply for a City part-time worker’s job despite the low wages. Some of the staff returned to working at the park for many seasons, in between their other work or study commitments.
That meant that staff turnover came to be much lower than normal for city part-time workers. With more experienced staff, used to working closely with park users, the park programs became steadily more ambitious. The little food cart at the playground expanded into the community-built summer cob café. Connections with at-risk park youth became more trusting, even involving court visits. Tino recognized the range of the staff’s abilities, and so, to a degree, did Tino’s bosses. When staff suggested a weekly community supper to draw in more families, they were encouraged to try it. Staff learned how to write funding proposals and helped park friends get the grants needed for the two park kitchens. Staff worked with rink friends to set up a skate lending system that had the effect of multiplying the number of newcomer skaters. As the park got busier, staff learned how to monitor the city’s accounting system to make sure they knew how much the park was spending. Longer-term staff taught newer staff how to handle the cash that came in through the food donations, how to administer work orders so that repairs got done, how to deal with fights on the ice rink, how to follow up injuries, how to support needy kids through the park’s odd jobs program, and how to avoid being duped by thieves at the snack bar. “Each one teach one” worked better than generic training.
The list of what the park staff did to enliven Dufferin Grove, and later some other parks and rinks in Ward 18 as well, is very long and will come up again in greater detail in various chapters of the Summer Story. But for a moment I want to skip ahead to the park’s current troubles.
These first showed up as clouds on the horizon about five years ago, when Parks, Forestry and Recreation management restructured the Division’s staff into what they called a “functional model.” The recreation supervisors, previously the first point of contact for citizens in the neighbourhoods where they worked, were assigned to citywide portfolios like “active living” and “aquatics” and “instructional sports” and “arts and crafts.” The local effect was that there were now 13 different supervisors each in his/her own silo, who had some narrow role to play at Dufferin Grove Park. Tino was no longer the effective go-between for park friends and the city. His specific responsibility for the recreation staff diminished and his motto “let’s make it work” grew fainter in the face of ever more vigorous application of uniform central policies. A former recreation director, at the rink for a meeting, caught a rink guard baking cookies, and told him to stop, that was not his job. Silos again.
The park’s program staff began to get in trouble for their long-established relationships with park friends, and with CELOS. New words and concepts made their appearance. “Conflict of interest” was at the top of the list. Rink coordinator Sarah Cormier was warned that her attempts to reorganize the dysfunctional Wallace Rink schedule were a conflict of interest if that got her any additional shifts. (It didn’t.) Staff told the friends of Campbell Park that they’d be happy to help them do a community supper. The staff’s enthusiasm was identified as another conflict of interest, since they might get a contract payment from CELOS. When we invited a city audit director to visit the rink and explain the city’s concerns about staff handling money (donations), we offered him a muffin. He couldn’t accept it – for fear of conflict of interest.
It became clear that a new vocabulary accompanied the “functional model” of staffing public spaces. In next week’s chapter, before I return to the early stories, I’ll make a list of the main words in this vocabulary, and its effects.
Post script: the money story
There’s an economic boost for local businesses that came along with the many layers of new park activities. Over the 17 years since park book-keeping began in earnest in 1995:
$581,000 was spent at local grocery stores and the farmers’ market to provision the park. The farmers’ have also donated a lot of produce and taken park bread in trade.
$362,000 was spent at local hardware stores, sports stores and toy stores to buy supplies that the city didn’t cover.
$18,200 went to honoraria for youth and newcomers in the early days, who did small projects in the park including park furniture maintenance (repairing, fixing) that the city couldn’t cover.
$779,624 went as contract payments for various park programs. Many of the contracts went to people who were post-secondary-school students, using the money to pay for school. Others were single parents formerly involved as park volunteers, now using the money to pay for basic necessities for their children. And much was accomplished in the park, through these contracts.
When policies become more important than making programs work, none of these extra, unintended good effects can be put in play. That’s one more reason why unencumbered public space is worth defending. Some discouraged park friends, watching the dismantling of the park, have said that here is one more reason why they’ve lost faith in good sense. They say they want to get out of this town. Park friends, please don’t go! Read the letters your neighbours have been writing (posted on the park bulletin boards and on the dufferinpark.ca website) and you’ll feel more hopeful. They’re wonderful letters, and Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao seems to be starting to take them to heart. As more people contribute to public discussion, alternative approaches will begin to take shape. The coming budget upheaval in September will provide another chance for good sense to appear at Dufferin Grove Park. It’s not easy, not at all. But it’s not over, either.
Summer Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.