Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 13)
Theory of governance; CELOS gets involved 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall, September 29, 2011, Chapter Thirteen
By: Jutta Mason
Recap: 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 was placed there. One of her tasks in 2011 is to dissect 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. I’m writing a record of how the trial-and-error approach shaped Dufferin Grove Park, up until it ran into PFR’s most recent “functional restructuring.” If the anomalies fade away, park users will still have a reference. When the time comes for a new wind to blow from neighbourhoods into City Hall, park users may want to pick up the thread and continue.
The last two chapters were about money. Chapter Thirteen will begin the story of CELOS, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space. But first, a short story about a popular theory of governance.
Near the end of August, Gil Penalosa, the former Parks Commissioner of Bogota, Colombia, came to visit Dufferin Grove Park with two of his staff, Amanda O’Rourke and Emily Munroe. They have a Toronto-based NGO called “8-80: Walking, Cycling, Public Places for All.” All three of them cycled to the park. Gil was a little late because he had just got off an overnight flight from South America and had to get home first to pick up his bike. During a lively two-hour conversation, Gil told us enthusiastic stories from parks and public places he had recently visited, all over the world. He also told us bits and pieces of various theories of public space and governance, to put his international stories in context. He mentioned a theory about separating “rowing” from “steering” in public services. Running programs was rowing; devising policies was steering.
My immediate image was of galley slaves straining at their oars while their overseers set the course, but Gil said that was not the intended meaning, not at all. Later I came across the same expression again in a September article by University of Toronto Public Policy Professor Tony Dean, in the Literary Review of Canada (LRC), entitled “Is Public Service Obsolete?” Professor Dean’s article referenced a 1992 book by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, called Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is transforming the Public Sector. It was a “game changer,” Prof. Dean wrote, influencing both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton. The “steering” and “rowing” metaphor (famous in public policy circles but unknown to me, until now) came from that book. Since its publication, wrote Dean, “It has been estimated that by 2003 several trillions of dollars in spending on public services had shifted to the private sector.”
That’s a lot of bang for a book. Dufferin Grove staff Michael Monastyrskyj went online and ordered the book from the public library, and brought it to me at the park. So far, I’ve only read to page 95, but there’s no warm-up: the authors come out swinging right from the start. They say it’s a big mistake to think that “….the only way to cut spending is to cut programs, agencies, and employees…as if we could simply go into a bureaucracy with a scalpel and cut out waste, fraud, and abuse. But waste in government does not come tied up in neat packages. It is marbled throughout our bureaucracies. It is embedded in the very way we do business. It is employees on idle, working at half speed – or barely working at all. It is people working hard at tasks that aren’t worth doing, following regulations that should never have been written, filling out forms that should never have been printed….Waste in government is staggering, but we cannot get at it by wading through budgets and cutting line items. As one observer put it, our governments are like fat people who must lose weight, They need to eat less and exercise more; instead, when money is tight they cut off a few fingers and toes.” (p.22)
That certainly fits with some of our experiences with parks. There are lots of other energetic descriptions of bureaucracy in the book that resonate with local problems. Then on page 35, the authors propose a remedy for poor governance – the separation of “steering” from “rowing,” a theory of public management that seems to separate brains from brawn:
“Steering requires people who see the entire universe of issues and possibilities and can balance competing demands for resources. Rowing requires people who focus intently on one mission and perform it well. Steering organizations need to find the best method to achieve their goals.”
Oh dear! This passage looks a lot like the unmaking part of Dufferin Grove, where management helicopters in from time to time and restructures the “rowing” of local programs to fit the “steering” of one-size-fits-all, centrally-devised policies. And that brings me to the story of CELOS.
The foundational idea of CELOS, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space, is pretty well the opposite. CELOS (pronounced “see-loss”) is an odd acronym to make our group sound similar to the organization that inspired it, called CIDOC. That stands for the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion, a study centre in Cuernevaca, Mexico, run by historian and social critic Ivan Illich, who died in 2002. Illich wrote quite a few books. In one of them, Shadow Work, he put forward the idea of “research by people,” that is, research that isn’t contracted out to professionals in institutions. Illich said that ordinary people could do “careful, methodical and disciplined” locally-grounded research about their own problems and about the remedies that might help. “Research by people” was not meant to prevent consultation with academics and civil servants, but it didn’t outsource the “steering” to them.
That approach seems a lot more grounded to me than people’s actions being steered from City Hall, the universities, or the pop-sociology speakers’ circuit.
The idea of such a practical research group circulated among park friends and park program staff for a few years. What finally nudged CELOS into existence in December of 2000 was the increasingly frustrating problem of overcrowding at Dufferin Rink. The problem was created after the rink change room became a kind of neighbourhood clubhouse. Word got out, and the rink became a draw for people all over the city. Sometimes it was so crowded that the rink wasn’t fun anymore, and it wasn’t local either. We asked the people who came from across town, isn’t there an outdoor rink nearer to your house? Toronto has more outdoor compressor-cooled rinks than any city in the world (51 by now), so the answer was usually some version of, “yes, there’s a rink right in my neighbourhood, but it’s so unpleasant that we never go there.”
It seemed more and more obvious that if we wanted Dufferin Rink to go back to being a neighbourhood meeting place, we’d have to get involved in helping rink users make their local rinks nicer. Rinks and neighbourhoods are different from each other, and we had no interest in cloning Dufferin Rink. It seemed like the right time to do some “research by people,” trading knowledge among rink users in different parts of the city to see what might make other rinks more enjoyable. And so CELOS was born, signifying an intention to follow up practical problems extending beyond Dufferin Grove. We wanted to record workable approaches that rink friends and rink program staff might – collectively – discover.
We didn’t want to stick only to rinks, either. In March 2001, CELOS released its first publication. It was about picnics, campfires, and bake ovens. Since the first bake oven had been built, in 1995, people had been coming from other parts of the city to try it out. Many of them asked how it got built and how it worked. So I wrote a sixty-page booklet called Cooking with fire in public space: what happens in a neighbourhood when you light a fire. We bought a spiral binding machine, to make it easy to print a few copies at a time. The inside front page said: copyright: CELOS. 2001. That sounded a bit grand for our tiny outfit, but you have to start somewhere.
The introduction included an Illich-style warning:
Cooking fires are a strong tonic for introducing neighbourliness into parks. They hearten people and help them enjoy one another. The details of how this happens will vary utterly from one place to another, according to who makes the fires, who comes to them, and what they want to do. But here’s a warning: although, as a secondary effect, activities of this sort in public space will raise neighbourhood real estate values, cooking fires are as resistant as any other beautiful thing to being turned into a formula. They won’t work out for long if they’re used as a “community development tool,” with a certified cooking-fire specialist to teach people how to be neighbourly. Wherever that happens, the fires I’m talking about will sputter and die. Neither can a bake-oven be added into a park design as “a village concept,” as a planner proposed to me last year. He was thinking of a kitchen backdrop, put up like a movie set, near the playground, with an oven nearby. It sounded to me like a kind of Disney feature, to give people a warm feeling.
A German friend told me about a beautiful park in her city, which was lavishly redesigned about fifteen years ago. The plans called for an attractive old-fashioned bake-oven, stucco with a very nice ironwork door. It was built, and it stands unused to this day. This booklet will not be helpful in devising such plans. It’s about the piecemeal, eccentric doings of ordinary people when they cook over fire in a park. What happens when people are not prevented from cooking and being together in this way, is as powerful as a law of physics. It can be midwife’d, but it can’t be planned.
One of the positions of CELOS from the very beginning was a disinclination for drawing up plans beforehand. We wanted to be led – in small increments – by our everyday experience. This desire was helped by the extremely slow progress of our projects. The day-to-day at the park was quite absorbing for both the park staff and park friends, and since we had resolved to stop twisting ourselves into a pretzel to fit in with the fluctuating enthusiasms of funders, we had very little extra funding for special projects. We were starting to get donations for our food programs, but in small enough amounts that we didn’t have to make great efforts to spend them. We had some time to reflect, and to have conversations. After we published the Cooking with Fire booklet I passed by Jane Jacobs’ house and dropped a copy into her mailbox – and was gratified when she called two days later to say that she had read it from cover to cover. It was clear that she “got” the everyday stories in the booklet, about ordinary, likeable people who showed up in the park looking for fire and for bread.
We worked out the aims of our interdisciplinary group (park staff and park friends), and posted them on the new celos.ca website:
1. To conduct both practical and theoretical research on issues concerning parks and public commons.
2. To build a library of resource materials for, researchers, governments, and particularly members of the public who are interested in structuring parks/ public commons so that they contribute to the enjoyment of their communities.
3.To provide a forum at Dufferin Grove Park and elsewhere where people can come together to discuss issues relating to parks and public commons.
The “practical” research was our main hobby. We loved experimenting. One example:
The City had a rink information line which only gave recorded schedules. Dufferin Rink staff asked the City’s rink manager whether they could try to run a real rink hot line, with accurate information about which rinks were closed because of a snowstorm or mechanical failure, and when these closed rinks had re-opened. We figured that if skaters could be sure their local rink was open, they might be tempted to use it rather than come across town to Dufferin Rink, resulting in less crowding. So the City’s main rink information line recording was changed to direct callers to the Dufferin Rink number. From the February 23, 2003 Dufferin Grove newsletter:
The rink hot line is getting lots of calls. It's fun for the staff because people are both incredulous when they get through to someone (“wow, a real person”) and appreciative. But apparently some of the other rinks don’t like it when we give out their phone number and they get calls from skaters in their neighbourhood. They believe that it’s “not part of their job,” to answer the phone, unless it’s their girlfriend calling. The manager in charge of rinks says he’s told them that talking to skaters is definitely part of their job.
A few of us had begun visiting other outdoor rinks, talking to people who worked there or skated there, about what might bring in more skaters. The suggestions were not rocket science: people wanted the rink to be open and resurfaced during the posted open hours; they wanted the staff to be friendly and to enforce the schedule, especially during little kids’ shinny hockey times; they wanted a bench to sit and change their skates; they wanted the rink change rooms to be clean and to have windows so that they could look out to the rink and not feel shut up in a cement box; and if they had ever been to Dufferin Rink, they wanted their rink to have some snacks available, “like at Dufferin.” The list was longer, but none of it was extravagant and most of it could have been brought about very quickly. We passed on the suggestions to the local rink supervisors, but for the first few years we saw very little change.
We began to get a bit of a reputation as rink enthusiasts, though. One day in March 2003 I got a call from a man who said he was a keen shinny hockey player, and he had heard about CELOS. He was also an occasional researcher for a consulting company. In 2001, he said, that company had been hired by the City to study the outdoor rinks. He wasn’t allowed to show me the company’s report, but he wanted to warn me. The City, as far as he could figure out, seemed to want to shut down most of the compressor-cooled outdoor rinks. The consultant had been encouraged to write a pessimistic report about the future of outdoor rinks. But their report had been too optimistic, when it was delivered to the City in January 2002. So the report had been shelved.
I thanked the caller and said goodbye. Then I filed a Freedom of Information Request. That was the “theoretical” component of CELOS’ research. Two months later I got the report. The company had been paid over $80,000 for a report that, through no fault of the consultant, was full of gaps and omissions. On page 75, re ice rink operations: “It should be noted that information was not readily available concerning the municipal operational approach and as a result it was not possible to undertake a more thorough discussion of current municipal operational approaches and practices.” On page 78: “Comprehensive data concerning the operational expenditures and revenues associated with municipal outdoor ice rinks was not available. The cost to provide the current level of municipal outdoor ice rink service could not be identified for either the City as a whole or on a district basis.”
In 2001, during the period when the consulting company couldn’t get the most basic information about rink operations from the City that had commissioned them to study the rinks, City Council voted to cut back the rink season to ten weeks (from the original fifteen weeks the rinks used to run). Some city councillors insisted that ten weeks was the normal rink season. Then in February 2003, City Council considered cutting all the rinks back to eight weeks a year. CELOS sent the 5-year rink season history to every council member. We asked skaters all over the city to write e-mails and call their councillors, and they did. There was no cutback to eight weeks, and no rinks in the downtown area were closed despite the warnings we got from our secret caller.
Meantime, attendance at Dufferin Rink broke all previous records. It was crowded a lot of the time, but there were not so many complaints now. Some of the skaters were flattered. The kids bragged to each other that their neighbourhood rink was the most famous. Apparently, Dufferin Rink was getting to be the “it” place for outdoor winter skating. But at the same time, CELOS was making enemies, for being pushy. In the next chapter I’ll continue that part of the story.
The dictionary page
A new vocabulary has grown up within the City bureaucracy to accompany the “functional model” used for the most recent restructuring of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). (1) There are institutional ways of bending common words like “action,” (2) there are words which have one meaning in the community letters to Councillor Bailao but a very different meaning when used by PFR management, like “food,” and (3) there are other words, like “compliance” and “authorization” which are almost never used in ordinary talk. But they can act as sticks to whack people with. There are so many of these words that although I used up the whole of Chapter Seven for the dictionary, I only got to the beginning of the “F” words. Since then I’ve been adding one dictionary page for every chapter. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to get through the alphabet.
This week there is some catch-up to do with a few of the earlier letters of the alphabet. As an exception, these definitions are not new words, or even old words used in a new way. They are terms referring to the political structure of City Hall, affecting the park. Today’s two definitions describe some of the scaffolding of the public forum where decisions are made, a forum that can leave a citizen as thoroughly silenced as a non-professional participant in a courtroom trial.
Committee structure: At the beginning of each new term of City Council, city councillors are assigned to a certain number of standing committees of Council. The committees of greatest concern to us here are two: the Parks and Environment Committee, and the Community Development and Recreation Committee. These two committees deal with different sections of the Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) Division. Each of these committees has six councillor members. They are supposed to make recommendations to meetings of City Council as a whole – about everything to do with PFR, particularly about budget cuts and new policies.
Because city councillors are voted in only by the residents in their own wards, that’s where most of their attention goes. The broader issues addressed at Committee meetings are often imperfectly understood by the committee members: issues like bake oven policies, for example, and outdoor ice rink operations. (Many members of these two committees have no experience with either, in their own wards.) PFR resource staff are always at these meetings, to answer councillor’s questions. But because these staff are the most senior managers, their on-the-ground knowledge is inevitably restricted and their answers are not always well-informed.
Deputation: This is a technical term to describe the time (usually five minutes) citizens get to address the members of the standing committees. When a lot of people want to speak, the time for deputations is often cut down to three minutes, or even two, as we saw recently at the deputations about budget cuts. But even when a deputant gets a full five minutes to explain a problem about a motion before the committee, deputations are often frustrating. If no councillors ask the deputant any questions, there is no chance to clarify any misunderstandings. The citizen is obliged to listen to comments that may be quite wrong, without permission to speak up. For that reason, public committee meetings are not good places to address civic problems.
The Money Story
Now that CELOS has started its weekly reporting of the park’s donation spending (posted on the CELOS financial page), we thought that it would be helpful to ask PFR for the weekly Dufferin Grove Park costs to the City. I wrote to the recreation manager: What I need to know is the weekly count of city spending for 2011 so far. I'm guessing you can readily get that through SAP. It should be broken down into direct vs admin costs, so that we can also compare the last few years' weekly tally (some of which we have, from when part time staff were still allowed to monitor the park spending) with this year's weeks, for continuity.
SAP is the city’s payroll accounting program. Although it spits out payroll totals very quickly, the Recreation manager was reluctant to make that information public. It seemed that, once again, CELOS would have to go through Freedom of Information. However, the manager has now agreed to give us the basics. He said that PRF is not yet ready to apply the costing method referred to in the city's new (draft) user fee policy. But when the User fee policy is approved by Council, there will be some interesting new information: “The Full Costing Model developed by Accounting Services is recommended for the costing of City services. Major elements comprising the Full Costing Model include the following: Direct costs / expenditures attributed to the delivery of the service; for example salaries (wages and benefits), materials, supplies and purchase of services. Indirect costs / expenditures that cannot be identified and charged directly to a specific program but are related to the resources dedicated to support it; for example support staff within a Cluster, costs that are administered centrally on behalf of the different divisions and insurance costs.”
Meantime, the Recreation manager’s first meeting with CELOS and with local rink staff, concerning the re-structuring of Ward 18 rinks, is scheduled for Thursday September 29. Cash handling is the issue that will determine whether the new rink house café areas added last summer (with the councillor’s help) will be put to use this winter. Both Campbell Rink clubhouse and Wallace Rink clubhouse are set up much better than last season, with sinks and steel counters. Rink coordinator Mayssan Shuja got the counters and sinks at a restaurant bankruptcy sale, using Wallace and Campbell snack donation funds. The drains and new wiring were installed by City plumbers at the request of Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao. Recreation manager Kelvin Seow says he wants to use Wallace and Campbell Rinks as the pilot project for integrating the CELOS skate lending and snacks with normal city operations. Pilot projects are sometimes tricky, but still a good thing to try. Success will depend on using the talents of the Wallace and Campbell Rink staff (the ones who are still with the City), on openness about finances, and on good collaboration between staff and rink users. The summer was difficult and much was lost. It may be that the more centralized structure also made the costs go up. But that may not be the end of the story – we’ll see what winter brings.
Fall Story (2011) is published by the 'Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer