Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 21)
Letters to Park management about outdoor rinks 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall and winter, December 8, 2011, Chapter Twenty-one
By Jutta Mason
Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things that don’t fit the city’s policies, says the current management of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR). According to a staff report obtained through Freedom of Information, the way the park is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.”
From last May until a few weeks ago, a new recreation supervisor was tasked with dissecting out the traditional recreation activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.” Most of the anomalies involve CELOS, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space. (Chapter 14 and 15 were about this little research group, which began at Dufferin Grove but now extends beyond it.) Despite the ongoing management effort to radically shrink the Dufferin Grove anomalies, they are still stubbornly clinging to life.
As this account continues into the winter, it’s evident that the story is longer than the five or six chapters that I originally intended. That’s partly because Dufferin Grove Park is not a stand-alone. It’s part of a net of parks and common spaces, many of which are having troubles related to ours.
So there’s quite a bit still left to write about. I have one day every week – Wednesday – to write each new chapter. Often, I’ve had to postpone a planned chapter for several weeks because other topics push themselves to the front of the line. That’s all right -- this series is an experiment, like so many other things CELOS does, so the elements change from time to time. This week, I’m going to try something new. Chapter Twenty-One is an open letter to Jim Hart, the new general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation. It’s possible that Chapter Twenty-Two will be an open letter to the presidents of the two main union locals that work at the park: CUPE Locals 79 and 416.
Why write open letters to these three people? Because it seems more and more likely that the City will lock out its municipal workers when their contracts expire on Dec.31. The lockouts can begin as early as January. Where our public spaces are concerned, a lock-out means no outdoor rinks, no libraries, no community centres, no indoor swimming pools, perhaps not for the rest of the winter. It also means that many of the part-time PFR workers at Dufferin Grove and other public facilities won’t have enough money to pay their rent or buy groceries. People will have to help each other.
A municipal strike is a time when the “third element” in civic life – the citizens – becomes more obvious. If a car plant has a strike or a lockout and it stops producing cars, then – until the company’s management and the union work it out – people might have to settle for buying a different car. But through our taxes, we’ve “bought” our public spaces already. We already own our public amenities, and those are our only ones. Most of the time, we are the silent third partner. Oftentimes management staff act as though they are the sole owners of our public spaces, and oftentimes union members act as though our public spaces are first and foremost their work spaces. From both sides there is the inevitable nod to “serving the community.” But the inclusion of the “third element” – in our case, park users – is fleeting. This open letter to PFR general manager Jim Hart is an attempt to get the “third element” included in a more active conversation.
Dear Jim Hart,
This is an open letter about outdoor rinks, mostly. I want to use them to make a kind of template of the questions that need to be asked if we’re going to make better use of Toronto’s wonderful public amenities.
It looks like rink users may be locked out of our public rinks in January. But we were never a party to the discussions that led up to this. If Toronto’s 51 neighbourhood outdoor rinks are to be closed in January, that may prompt the “third element” – those of us who are neither management or staff – to enter more actively into the public discussion of how to put our public spaces on a viable footing.
This is not a conversation about volunteering. There are three much-loved rinks in Ward 18, Dufferin, Wallace, and Campbell. All of three now have clubhouse kitchens. But most people who like to skate there don’t want to make hundreds of mini-pizzas or lace up dozens of little-kid skates, nor clean the rink washrooms either. That’s the point of taxes, so that city staff can be paid to do those things. But if Torontonians allocate $267.4 million in tax funds in 2012, for keeping Toronto’s parks, rinks, community centres, and street trees in good order, we want “respect for taxpayers.” We want value for money. And if after a long work stoppage, initiated by either side, we end up getting less access to rinks and community centres (and libraries), but more $80,000-a-year compliance officers and policy designers, we’ll be getting less value for our taxes. So how do we steer in the right direction?
Back to the outdoor rinks. We want to invite management into a conversation involving people who directly use the rinks and people who directly work at the rinks. We want to discuss with you what makes the rinks work well. Can they become even better, using 10% less money than last year? In January, if City work is stopped, it will be easy talk to your PFR program staff and your park maintenance staff. Once those staff are rubbing their hands together over a barrel fire, to keep warm on an information picket line, park friends will have no trouble finding them. It will be harder to talk to your management staff, since those not on the strategy teams will be driving around trying to keep the arenas open and the city services minimally functioning. A handful of you will be in the City’s war room, strategizing. Union leaders will also be hard to reach once a work stoppage has begun, because they’ll be focused on taking their members through a time without wages. And they’ll be busy strategizing to win, or at least survive, this war. Many of our elected representatives will be in one or the other of the two rooms, depending on their allegiances.
But now is the month before the war breaks out. Taxpayers are the third element in a municipal conflict, and potentially the tie-breakers. Can public discussion be unhooked from the “stop the gravy train” formula on the one hand and the “mobilize the workers” formula on the other? If we want to get value for our taxes, we may have to try harder to talk to the two usual sides. Can we discuss with you in detail what we think is broken, why it might be broken, and how to fix it? Both sides, you and the union, will probably say you have no time to listen to outsiders. We may say: please listen anyway. We’re not leaving, and we know some things that you need to learn.
In the case of one of Toronto’s most remarkable public resources – our 51 outdoor compressor-cooled ice rinks – we’re two and a half weeks into outdoor rink season. Of the fourteen city rinks scheduled to open on November 19 (around the time when all the centre-city outdoor rinks used to open pre-amalgamation), only one opened – Dufferin Rink. Even that one was a bit of a miracle, since the compressors were not turned on until three days before opening, and there were only two nights of flooding. But the fact that the flooding was at night made it work at least for half of opening day. Then Dufferin Rink had to close for the afternoon – unlike the non-city rink at Harbourfront, which started its ice two days before us and was able to stay open despite the mild temperatures and the feeble November sunlight.
Because the ice at Dufferin Rink got so little flooding at start-up, a group of us tried an experiment, two nights after opening. We put on five overnight test floods with the park’s wading pool hoses, just onto the pleasure-skating pad. The next day, the hockey side (our experiment’s “control” rink) had to stay closed all day, but the pleasure-skating ice was thick enough for lots of people to skate and play shinny hockey (diverted from the hockey pad). The zamboni drivers applied a whole day of extra floods to the hockey rink, and within a few days both sides were even. Will you use our experiment to change the way rinks open up next year?
Even before the first fourteen rinks were due to open, your Parks Director sent a disclaimer to all the city councillors, saying (mistakenly) that outdoor rinks need three days of temperatures no higher than 5 celsius to make ice, but that the forecast was warmer. Even so, he wrote, “we will make every effort to ensure the ice can be made.” But in fact some of the rinks didn’t make any effort. They didn’t even try making ice until after Opening Day had come and gone. Some of the ice maintenance staff we talked to, as we visited these rinks, were convinced that it was impossible to make ice in November. We told them that you can’t make ice if you don’t put on water!
As far as we could see, none of the rinks except Dufferin and City Hall flooded overnight – which is the “industry standard” Rule #1 for rink start-ups. The two double pads in the Etobicoke region each only flooded their hockey rink pad for the first two weeks, apparently in the belief that it was necessary to concentrate refrigeration on one pad to get any ice at all. But one of those rinks – Rennie – has more compressor power than Dufferin (more than Harbourfront, even), as well as a smaller surface and more shade. If Dufferin Rink can make ice on both pads, Rennie can most certainly do it too. Will you set up a citywide ice-making forum for your staff and rink friends next September, to promote the “industry standard” and get the rinks open on time?
While this season’s half-hearted effort (or less) was going on in various city rinks, the city’s website said that these rinks were “delayed due to mild weather. ” That message stayed the same even when the days and nights were cold. Meantime, Dufferin Rink was packed with young skaters from across town, so eager to get on the ice that on some evenings the shinny sides were twenty on twenty. Skaters had to push their way through the crowds to get onto the pleasure-skating pad. The other early-opening rinks gradually straggled into opening, some more than a week late.
When it came time to open the other 39 city rinks for the scheduled December 3 date, there was another round of delays. Twelve of the next rinks weren’t ready. No rinks had overnight start-up floods, and it showed. Some had no floods because they still had construction going on. They were getting new boards or new fences or new pipes, and the work must have started too late in the season. But even those rink delays were listed incorrectly on the city’s website. A delay in getting a new fence put up around an Etobicoke tennis court/rink combo is not a “mechanical issue,” as the website claimed, as though the compressors needed repair. Will you assign staff next November to post accurate outdoor rink information on the city’s website?
In the first full week of the skating season, the rinks got help from the weather, to make up for the missing overnight floods. It rained and it got colder, and the rain froze to the rink surface. On the city website, some of these rinks were labelled “closed,” but when we went there, we found them open, with happy skaters.
Even so, many of the rinks were pretty empty in the first few weeks. They had to wait for word of their opening to be passed along from person to person among neighbourhood rink users. Toronto, the only city in the world with this number of compressor-cooled outdoor rinks, has no media announcements or advertising about the outdoor rink openings. The outdoor rinks are such a secret that many Torontonians don’t even know they exist. For opening information, people have to find the link to the (sometimes wrong) rink information buried on an obscure page on the city website – not an easy task. Most people who just went over to their neighbourhood rink on the first of December, to check on the opening date, would have gone away none the wiser. Of the 51 rinks, only four (three in Ward 18 plus High Park) had an opening-date announcement posted on the rink doors or on the bulletin boards. On December 3, West Mall Rink (Etobicoke’s main civic rink, across from the former City Hall) had an out-of-date sign taped to its locked front doors: “The ice rink will not be open as scheduled on the weekend of Saturday November 19....” The rink was open, but only the back doors were unlocked.
In Ward 18, the PFR rink staff made friendly rink opening signs, as they have every year, and posted them throughout the neighbourhood. Their new supervisor told them to stop, because the signs had not been approved by the proper city department. But it was too late, the signs were already up. So the three Ward 18 rinks had lots of skaters from the first day. Will you allow your recreation program staff next October to make paper opening-date signs and put them up at every rink and throughout the neighborhoods?
Lack of publicity is not the only reason why many of the rinks don’t get a lot of skaters, even as the season progresses. Some of the rinks are mainly used by league permits, so there are rarely more than 15 people at the rink at one time. There’s no reason for other skaters to go there because most of the time they couldn’t get onto the ice anyway. For many years the staff at some of the rinks used to lock the doors when there was no permit group. They told unscheduled, drop-in skaters that they couldn’t use the ice without paying, so the ice sat empty for many hours a day, and the rink operator sat in his office. That culture persists unofficially at some rinks to this day. Some of the rink offices have televisions and refrigerators and an extra couch for rink staff to gather and shoot the breeze. Cozy – but only for staff and their friends. Meantime, many of the rink change rooms for skaters are windowless and uninviting, some with out-of-order drink machines or with “thou shalt not” signs everywhere: no photographs allowed without permission (a permission that some newly-empowered teenage staff never give), no playing pond-hockey (“shinny”) without a helmet and even: “no loitering.” In public space!
The “no shinny hockey without a helmet” rule has chased away many skaters, especially youth. In Etobicoke, the rule is so strictly enforced that there is an odd inversion in the pattern of rink use. The well-maintained so-called “major” hockey rinks with boards and clean, warm rink houses often have only half a dozen kids playing shinny in the bi-weekly “youth drop-in” slot.
Meantime, the run-down, unsupervised combination-tennis court-and-so-called-“minor”-rinks, with locked washroom buildings, are crowded with both shinny players and families. People on these “minor” rinks tell us that they don’t like the rule-bound, institutional approach of the “major” rinks. Rink guards employed to enforce the helmet rules at the “majors” often say that they themselves prefer to play at the “minors” when they’re not working – without a helmet.
One-size-fits-all safety rules also remove parents of young children from many of the rinks. Parents are told they can’t skate with a baby in a stroller, even though they can jog on park paths with strollers. They are hobbled from teaching their kids how to skate – by not being allowed on the ice with shoes to support their little ones. Their kids are not allowed to use a chair, in the time-honoured way of starting out on their own.
The so-called safety rules are not based on claims against the city. A Freedom of Information request a few years ago turned up the information that there have been never been any lawsuits against the city for letting adults skate with strollers or without helmets, and letting kids use chairs as skating aids. Hypothetical risk-management saves no money, but it empties our neighbourhood outdoor rinks. Will you reopen the risk policies that are shrinking attendance at the outdoor rinks? This time, will you take the discussions out of the meeting rooms at City Hall, and seek the experiences of skaters at the outdoor rinks?
When rinks are not busy, your rink staff look around for tasks to occupy them. Their training focuses on risk management, and also on anger management. As the staff enforce the rules and policies more vigorously, against the skaters who still come, more people get mad at them. Some don’t come back. A parent filming their child’s first skate, with only one other skater on the entire rink, is told to put the camera away. A mother on snowy ice in shoes, with her baby in a carrier and supporting her 3-year old in bob skates, is told to leave the ice. The staff person enforcing this rule says, in her own defence, that she’s “not going to put her job on the line” to enable parents to teach their children to skate. This staff person has learned that helping people to make the rink work for their kids might get her fired. If the staff’s fear of being fired is an unintended side effect of the current style of management, can you find a remedy?
When skaters go away unhappy and don’t return, your program staff have even less to do. They are underemployed at $10.75 or $12.50 an hour. Your ice-maintenance staff, on the other hand, are underemployed at $31 an hour or more, with 26% benefits on top of that. During ice-making, if they are scheduled during the day, they often end up sitting on their hands for most of their shift, since hose-flooding in daylight breaks down the ice unless it’s cloudy and cold. And at those rinks that don’t have many skaters, ice maintenance takes up only half your staff’s shift. This well-paid inactivity continues throughout the season, interrupted only on snowy days when the rink needs extra clearing. Such wasteful work allocation has been part of many of the outdoor rinks for years, and the emptier the rink, the less work is available for your staff to do.
Can you open the door to applying let’s-make-it-work principles at the rinks that seems to be orphans? Four years ago, a group of your rink program staff collaborated with CELOS to visit all the rinks, talk to the local staff and rink users, and put together a booklet of practical suggestions for enlivening the rinks. This booklet was largely ignored, although there were a few rinks that got windows put into the staff room so staff could see out while they sat inside. More recently, management’s interest in rink usage has mainly been expressed as a requirement for your staff to count rink users. The counts are all over the map – from a totally implausible 66,000 skater visits in 2007 at Rosedale Rink, to less than 300 visits for 2011 at popular Hodgson Rink (equally impossible). This year the count sheets require entries every hour. While this counting does help to occupy underemployed staff, it doesn’t do anything to address the problems. It’s easy to see which rinks have little use. We’ve chronicled those rinks for years now on the cityrinks.ca “rink diaries,” if you want to look them up. Can you redirect your staff’s census-taking time to making some real improvements in their rinks?
Here you run into another problem. All your full-time recreation staff are now occupied exclusively with administrative duties. This astonishing transformation, from hands-on work with kids and grownups to entering data and monitoring part-time staff, happened in central Toronto only during the last ten years. When the full-time staff stopped spending much time with the people who are now described as “customers,” their understanding of how to solve practical problems grew rusty. Generic “training” sessions became the magic bullet, administered by full-time staff to the part-time staff who run all the actual programs. The training sessions offer basic, homely insights like this: “How we communicate: 55% body language – 37% tonality – 8% words.” “Safe work practices to avoid musculo-skeletal disorder: you many need to move around and skate in order to stay warm. It’s best to wear loose-fitting clothing.” But this kind of return to first principles doesn’t bridge to making the rinks work better. Will you suspend central training sessions for a year and send your full-time staff back into the “field” one day a week, where they can get in better contact with the part-time PFR program staff (giving training as needed) and get reacquainted with the communities where they work?
I recently heard from one of your staff that some people at PFR downtown think of the three Ward 18 rinks as “loopy.” That leads me to my final question, which I’m passing along from some of the park friends (who don’t think that word really fits): Will you join park users for a conversation at Dufferin Rink’s Friday Night Supper next week? We think you would enjoy it.
Winter Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer