Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 14)
Issues of interest to CELOS, particularly Parks department restructuring 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall, October 6, 2011 , Chapter Fourteen
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.
In one way, the story of Dufferin Grove Park is particular to only one place, as is the case with any park or neighbourhood. In other ways, Dufferin Grove illustrates many of the larger issues affecting civic public spaces citywide: how city funds are spent, whether the talents of city staff are put to good use, whether “proper procedure” is ranked higher than results, how the gifts of work and talent that park users may offer can be maximized instead of being pushed away, how both staff and park users can be encouraged to try things rather than be forced to comply with an ever-expanding list of “thou shalt not’s.”
Chapter Thirteen began the story of CELOS, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space. The story continues in this chapter.
The New York conference: The year after CELOS got its start, I was invited to an international Parks conference that gave Dufferin Grove some exposure in the larger world. The conference was organized by the Project for Public Spaces, in New York City, at the end of July 2001. This was just five weeks before the twin towers came down. I had met the Project’s directors, Cathy Madden and Fred Kent, in Cleveland in March, at the only other parks conference I’ve ever been to (before or since). Cathy and Fred liked the story of the park and the ovens and the community’s renovation of the rink house, and so they put me in the line-up of the short “inspirational” presentations right at the beginning of the New York gathering.
The conference participants were from all over the U.S., Canada and a few European countries. They were ready to hear some good stories. For this first session each speaker had 15 minutes. I had a picture show and a rough outline, but I hadn’t timed my presentation in advance, and I’d never been a headliner before. I had barely got halfway through my talk when my time was up. But the incompleteness of my presentation it didn’t appear to matter much to the audience. The tale of Dufferin Grove Park amazed and pleased them. When I told about the city’s Recreation director, Mario Zanetti, climbing up on a playground picnic table in 1993 to persuade the playground opponents to let the backhoe dig the sandpit, there was a wave of appreciative laughter for this streetwise guy from City Hall. With every park story, there was more incredulous laughter – an outdoor bake-oven? Civilizing the youth at the rink with cookies? A huge park sandpit where kids had real shovels and water, to make rivers and dams all day long? Campfires under the stars, in the middle of the city?
I was surrounded, afterwards, by park employees and park activists from all over, who wanted to know – how was it that Toronto was so enlightened, so open-minded? Back where they came from, they said, there would have been a rule against almost everything I had described.
During the three days of the conference, I sometimes felt like “Exhibit A” – a woman from a delightful city where all bureaucrats had a sense of humour, all park workers knew when to look the other way, and children had wonderful adventures all day long. I didn’t want to burst the fairy-tale bubble, but I was uncomfortable.
On the morning of the last day, it was announced that there would be some special awards that afternoon, for outstanding parks. This may have been a bit of strategy to lure the Mayor of Chicago, who was in New York that weekend, to address the conference, by creating an occasion where he could become the celebrity finish. The mayor came. He stood distractedly on the stage as the four awards were given out. There was one for Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the main location of the conference; one for the multimillion-dollar renovation of the central square in Portland, Oregon; one for Mayor Daly himself, and his success in financing the necklace of parks along Chicago’s waterfront, and one for…little Dufferin Grove Park, dubbed a “Great Community Place.” So the park had joined the lineup of famous places, for fifteen minutes.
Chopping the rink season: This kind of annointing happens at conferences, but not in the real world. The next morning, we drove back home, with the framed award in the trunk of the car. Within a few weeks, Toronto City Council voted to save money by shortening the outdoor rink season from twelve weeks a year to ten. The staffing funds saved in this way were to be reallocated to hiring more ticketing officers, so that more eggs could be squeezed out of the golden goose of parking violations, to balance the city budget. Hardly a fairy-tale city.
We realized that although we had become pretty good at setting up fun park things locally in summer, winter was a very different game. All the work that rink friends and park staff had done to make the rink better in winter could be undermined in a moment by a council vote downtown. What was the use of a rink clubhouse with community kitchens and reliable scheduling if the doors were kept locked well into December and the ice wasn’t there? Year after year, a shortage of funds in the budget was given as the reason for cutting the rink season. It seemed time to get more serious about understanding where the money goes. If the City had to keep its million-dollar rinks shuttered for most of the year, where was the money going instead?
Freedom of Information: The city’s website reported the broad outlines of the budget. But the big picture was not detailed enough, and the detailed breakdown was not publicly available. So we began to submit freedom of information (FOI) requests. We were guessing, about what to look for. There was the strange story, told in Chapter Thirteen, about the city hiring a consulting firm with a mandate to show why rinks should be closed. When the consultant didn’t deliver the “close the rinks” verdict, the report was shelved. Was Park and Recreation maybe wasting money, we wondered, on other consultants’ reports that nobody read? That’s what some of the newspapers said. So we asked for a list of all the Parks and Recreation consultant contracts since amalgamation.
There were a lot. We went through got page after page of tables from FOI. We didn’t know what to make of them – there were so many acronyms and abbreviations that we didn’t understand. Some of the consultant contracts had been completed, some were in progress, and some were only proposed. We were swimming in details without any points of orientation.
Eventually, though, the picture began to gain some focus. We found that a firm called WGA Wong Gregerson was listed for doing a “facilities audit” of all Parks and Recreation facilities in 2001, for $400,000. We applied to Freedom of Information again to look at the audit’s “state of good repair” outdoor rink recommendations for Dufferin Rink. The report ran to ten pages. By 2003, none of the audit’s recommendations for the rink had been carried out and not one of the things that did in fact go wrong with Dufferin Rink in the course of those years had been predicted by the audit. Parks and Recreation management proposed following up with a more detailed audit of the same facilities that Wong Gregerson had reported on, using a firm called Accent Building Sciences. City Council voted another $803,000 to do the larger report. I asked the park’s electricians and plumbers if the audits were helpful. They said, not very. “We know what needs to be fixed, and when we report the problems, we’re told that there’s no money for repairs. That’s because all the money is spent on these damn inventories.”
CELOS branched out from rinks into playgrounds, asking for more details through Freedom of Information. Millions were being spent to demolish park playground structures and replace them with new structures that were certified by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), a group made up of primarily manufacturers. Did the City really have to spend so much of its budget on destruction? CELOS asked the city for injury data, and insurance claims data. We were told that the city didn’t have to show us those. We tried to find out whether the same playground manufacturers who devised the CSA playground standards had also benefited from the playground replacement contracts. The City said they were sorry, but they didn’t have a breakdown of where the playground funds had been spent.
CELOS appealed that rejection to the provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner, saying that the information must exist, and that it was in the public interest for CELOS to see it. Our appeals were winding their slow way through the formal appeals process, when we began to be distracted by a new problem coming out of City Hall.
Re-structuring (2003): In early 2003 there began to be rumours of a major restructuring “exercise” (as it was called) for Parks and Recreation. A “strategic plan” was being devised. Many of the old jobs would disappear and people would have to apply for the new jobs, wherever they could fit themselves in.
No one seemed to know much more. The municipal elections were coming up in November. When the new Council was elected, it would have to decide whether to throw all the pieces up in the air and see where they landed. Lots of people were dubious. What good could it do, to unsettle everybody, change all the rules at once, break all the ties between neighbourhoods and their local park staff? Rumours multiplied, but there were few concrete details. The city elections in November 2003 brought in a new mayor and a new political mix in council. Excitement was in the air. But after any election there is always a three-week hiatus before the swearing-in of the new council. At the end of the second week of this interregnum between the old Council and the new one, I got a call from the Dufferin Grove staff. A thick brown envelope with my name on it had been found on the café counter when the staff opened the building in the morning. It must have been delivered by someone with a building key. There was no sender name on the envelope, and it was sealed. That made me very nosey, and I came right down to the park to see what was in it.
The envelope contained a document entitled Renewing our focus - Moving forward with Structural Change in Parks and Recreation. November 2003. Each individual page was stamped with the words DRAFT – do not reproduce. There was also a letter exhorting senior staff to embrace the changes and to see the abolition of their existing jobs as an exciting opportunity. But there was no evidence of who might have wanted us to read this.
The plan said that there was to be one less director and 18 fewer area-managers and neighbourhood supervisors. The remaining staff were to be assigned to very large sections of the city, to float according to a list of “functions” rather than being connected to any specific neighborhood. The main steps to dismantling the existing neighbourhood-based Parks and Recreation Division, and replacing it with a much more centralized structure, were to be taken on Tuesday and Wednesday of the following week.
I took the envelope home and spent the weekend talking to park friends about it. I had a few contacts among management staff, but none of them admitted to leaving the envelope for me. One of them said it could have been anybody – staff were very unhappy with the proposal and CELOS was known to be a critic of City Hall.
So I wrote a CELOS analysis of the report. But for who? I had an idea. Mayor-elect David Miller had announced right after his election that he was setting up an advisory panel to help with the transition. They included two people whom I knew a little – former Toronto mayor David Crombie, and Jane Jacobs. I looked up David Crombie’s address in the phone book, and I already knew where Jane Jacobs lived. I made up two big envelopes with the CELOS report and a copy of the city’s draft, and wrote a note on the outside of the envelope. “I plan to give this report to the mayor on Monday. Please read it and let the mayor know if you agree that this plan should be suspended until the new council meets.” On Sunday night I drove to both their houses and stuck the envelopes in their mailboxes. I didn’t get up the nerve to knock on their doors, but I crossed my fingers that they would find them in the morning.
On Monday morning I went to City Hall to drop off the mayor’s envelope. He was standing near the front doors, having his picture taken with a broom, the symbol of his campaign. He was surrounded by smiling people, so I gave the envelope to an assistant.
Later on I heard from an acquaintance at City Hall that, before the Monday afternoon meeting of the advisory panel, Jane Jacobs had followed David Miller down the hallway, waving the CELOS restructuring critique and urging him to read it. My source overheard Jacobs reading this part aloud to Miller:
This is a very bad blow for neighbourhoods. In our area, if this change goes through, our very active ‘park friends’ group will have to work with 21 different supervisors and 6 managers – we currently work with three supervisors and one manager. The relationships we slowly built up after the last big upheaval when the megacity was created, will disappear in one stroke. And the story will be the same for park friends and advisory councils all over the city.
Jacobs told the mayor that the plan was the kind of approach she had been fighting against all her life. Other councillors said they were dubious too. So Mayor Miller ordered the plan to be suspended, until there could be more community and staff input.
Most of the upper management staff were angry at this development. After months of meetings, their new plan had been ready to go, and now they were to be mired in more meetings. They saw no choice but to roll up their sleeves and go to work, making stakeholder lists and scheduling meetings and focus groups to sell the merits of the original plan to the citizens. CELOS was not invited to these consultations.
Restructuring (2004): It took us a while to grasp what was happening. In May 2004, when we still thought that CELOS might be able to alter the plan’s approach, we published a report called A MAP OF STRATEGIC PLANNERS' MINDS: RE-STRUCTURING TORONTO PARKS AND RECREATION. It listed all the staff and consultant reports done about the restructuring to date: 1. Defining Our Vision, Mission, and Key Priorities: A Discussion Paper for the Toronto Parks and Recreation Strategic Plans ( November 2002). 2. Toronto Parks and Recreation Strategic Plan, Goals and Directions for Toronto Parks and Recreation (May 2003). 3. Renewing our focus - Moving forward with Structural Change in Parks and Recreation (November 2003). 4. Organizational Development Proposal: Aligning Strategic Goals and Public Expectations with Organizational Plans (February 2004). 5. Mission Possible: Getting Parks and Recreation Services Right! Work in Progress (March 19, 2004). 6. Toward a Healthy, Active Future: Toronto Parks & Recreation Strategic Plan. A Draft for Review and Comment (Spring 2004). 6. “Participants' Guide," ReActivate TO!, for May-June public consultation sessions (May 2004).
CELOS published our analysis of these documents on the web site and sent it to the staff. Some of the peaks and valleys of this “map” will be in the next chapter, coming out on October 27.
The dictionary page
A new vocabulary has grown up within the City bureaucracy to accompany the “functional model” used for the two most recent restructurings of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). These are its characteristics: (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 we have grammar as well as vocabulary. I’ll quote from the 2004 CELOS report, A MAP OF STRATEGIC PLANNERS' MINDS. There we described some peculiar grammatical techniques used by the planners who wrote the city’s reports.
All the plans and reports use certain words repeatedly. In the case of technical terms, they are repeated in adjoining sentences, to show their importance in discussion. This technique is presumably used to encourage the reader into the strategic planners' way of looking at things, by requiring the reader to use the correct planning language, e.g. the city responds to trends, forces, needs and demands by developing a wide range of plans, strategies, and policies. These terms are most often repeated in adjoining sentences.
Other terms are used so often that they form a matrix for thought in the same way that the "f" word forms a matrix for the speech of many teenagers in our neighbourhood. The word "alignment" gets more play than in a chiropractor's office (alignment of strategy, of process, of operational framework, of directions, of divisions, of business plans). There are phrases like "opportunity to reposition intentions," or "perform a communication role within sector organizations" or "begin to measure and monitor service outcomes,"' that seem like technical code.
It's hard for an outside reader, or perhaps for an inside reader, or anyone at all, to find the meaning in such phrases. People are often referred to as communication conduits, and if lots of city staff or park users come to a meeting, they're measured by volume, e.g. a meeting had a high volume of participation. All these terms compare people with tools or material. There are certain verbs that get a lot of play: ensure, emphasize, promote, strengthen, value, involve, develop, challenge, expand awareness, define, increase. These verbs seem to be a call for action, but what exact action is not clear from the verb (nor, often, from the sentence they're in).
The Money Story
Forensic accountants: In this chapter, I’ve written about some early attempts by our little research group (CELOS) to find out the on-the-ground details about where money is spent. We often had to go through Freedom of Information, and even then we sometimes came up empty. This problem is shared by others. CUPE Local 417 president Mark Ferguson said at a recent meeting of Toronto Park People that CUPE feels the KPMG study of the city budget is very flawed. CUPE has hired the forensic accounting company Rosen and Associates to take a deeper look at the budget details. Forensic accountants don’t only track criminals. They also try to untangle financial webs that have become impenetrable to shareholders or – in this case – to taxpayers, some of whom are also city workers. We look forward to seeing the results of the Rosen accountants’ inquiry.
The bigger the bureaucracy, the harder it is to keep the accounts accessible to taxpayers. For example, the answer to what seems like a simple question for Recreation manager Kelvin Seow – what are the week-by-week City staffing costs for Dufferin Grove Park? – continues to drag along in delays. Mr.Seow and his colleagues have too many other questions to attend to. That’s another reason why it’s good for Dufferin Grove to be run by local staff who talk to park users every day. This is a question of scale, of being the right size (small). When CELOS wanted to tell City management how much park users have donated through food and campfires, we were able to run the numbers fast. We told them that the campfire donations from May to September were $2212.05. And for September, the food donations left over after groceries and supplies were covered were $9055.18. Those funds all went back into the city’s account, to help cover the extra program staff for the park.
A break in the story: Chapter Fifteen will not appear until October 27. That is, unless I send it from Freiburg, Germany, where I’ll be spending some time with a group of historians. My historical project while I’m there is to read through a partial collection of community letters concerning the park, from 2003 to the present: 145 pages of them, spiral bound for me to take along. I want to explore what the leading ideas are, the ideas that have prompted park friends to write to the City Councillor, or the ombudsman, or the PFR general manager, or the mayor. I’m hoping that my historian friends will be interested in this kind of “textual analysis,” and will help me. There are so many eloquent letters. What do they reveal about our shared or conflicting assumptions about public space, in this neighbourhood? I’m hoping that the answers will fill up a couple of the chapters in this little serial.
Fall Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer