Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 23)
Some thoughts on what needs to be fixed, including centralization 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing through the fall and winter, December 22, 2011, Chapter Twenty-three
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.” Despite the effort to radically shrink the Dufferin Grove anomalies, they stubbornly clung to life. And now there may be a little bit of light on the horizon. The new Toronto/East York recreation manager, Sue Bartleman, says her motto is “it’s all good.” She says that’s not unrelated to Tino DeCastro’s motto of “let’s make it work.” To show what she means, Sue arrived at a meeting on December 21 with the information to the three Ward 18 rink clubhouse buildings will all be open on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day (in addition to the other days). Originally the rink buildings were all going to be closed on Christmas Day, and on shorter hours for Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Now there’s no shrinkage of open hours from the other years. A donation from rink user David Rothberg will pay for the extra staff hours and the city has agreed to accept his donation (it only costs $179.36 for eight hours of a staff person at a rink, even at time-and-a-half on a statutory holiday). So at the three Ward 18 rinks, people will be able to use the bathrooms and borrow skates and warm up and have a snack. Whoever got new skates for Christmas, you don’t have to wait until the next day to try them out.
In addition, Dufferin Rink will be open until midnight on New Year’s Eve, with a campfire beside the rink, and the zamboni cafe and skate lending open as well. Everyone welcome – if you want to throw $5 in the hat to help pay for the extended hours, that’s nice, but you don’t have to. Everything that goes on at the rinks is “pay what you want” (another good motto). For those readers who feel a sudden wish to donate a bit of money for other city rink change rooms to be open on Christmas Day or on New Year’s Day (many of the central Toronto rink buildings are scheduled to be closed on both days) – that would be nice too. CELOS can give you the contact information for the rink you want to befriend (firstname.lastname@example.org) , and a charitable receipt, too.
One of the “every cloud has a silver lining” outcomes of the city’s Dufferin Grove Park “normalization” project was to give me a push to do what I have long wanted to do: sit down and write out the park’s story. Every Thursday there’s been another chapter about the making and the unmaking of Dufferin Grove Park. 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.”
Since I began last summer there have been twenty-two short chapters, many of them detailing the ways in which the existing city bureaucracy no longer works well for parks. I’m not the only one writing about this. The “collected letters” written by park friends to city management and to councillors run to over 140 pages. People write “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But of course, looking over the whole of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, it is broken. An operating budget of almost $400 million a year that doesn’t allow neighbourhood rink buildings to stay open on the major winter holidays – that needs fixing. An income spread that pays the rink’s family-program staff less than one quarter of the wages of staff who write no-strollers-on-the-rinks rules – that’s crying for a fix. A policy that effectively halts community bake ovens in parks but is praised as great progress, in reports by the Parks director – impossible. And the list goes on.
Some readers of this serial have been telling me lately – “okay, okay, so the proof is there, our parks need reform: but what is to be done? Can we just make a list?”
Yes, but a list will need some work. The items on such a list are sometimes simple, but not always. Not charging a musician a permit fee to play free songs for his neighbours – that’s simple. And nobody should have to pay $140 to have a campfire with their friends or their school group. Pickup shinny hockey with strangers on a good-weather morning, skateboarding with friends on an empty rink in summer, a neighbourhood clothing swap in a field house – all of those activities enliven their neighbourhoods and should be seen as a much-appreciated contribution, not an occasion for city revenue-generation. The unworkable current permit rules are easy to reform.
But that’s the tip of the iceberg. The questions quickly go from simple to complex. If someone offers the city money to keep a rink open, and (unlike our donor) they’re a developer who wants to hurry up a building permit, what should the response be? What if the person paying for the extra hours is planning to run for office and wants the publicity? Does the donation count as an election expense? What if the donours want an ugly sign put up on the rink, or flyers handed out?
Reforming how rules are set is complex – rules for who gets to use the park (dogs versus children? homeless versus neighbours? skateboarders versus nature lovers?), rules for who gets to donate, rules for who gets the contracts to build (playgrounds, rinks, gazebos). Reforming how the budget is spent is more complex still. In Chapter 13, I quoted from a popular 1992 book by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, called Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is transforming the Public Sector. The authors came out swinging. They said that 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 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 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.”
The quote resonates with some of our experience around the park, and more generally around City Hall – this part in particular: “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” – no kidding! But where can remedies come from? There are hundreds of city management staff looking at the problems from the inside, who would agree. But they seem to have their hands tied. We’ve seen that our elected representatives are often buried in briefs and staff reports, so overwhelming in their bulk that many of the details don’t make an impression. Neither of the union locals, not CUPE 416 nor CUPE 79, has engaged in a conversation with the “third element” – us, the public – about making parks work better.
Whoever steps up to help, it’s not a remedy to wade through budgets like a bushwacker, hacking off programs, say the writers of “Reinventing Government.” Their metaphor evokes a superficial cleanup. When a task is too large, people fudge it. The fix-up may look impressive, but in behind, the mess is as bad as before.
The problem of scale has to be faced. Dufferin Grove Park is small. It became as it is now in small local increments in the 1990’s, almost entirely dependent on the people directly involved there. Conflict, especially with youthful “jailbirds” for whom the park is a home away from home, shaped the park as much as similarity of outlook did. Then, as the park became known more widely, its shape shifted, both citywide and locally. It became kind of a brand, denoting resistance of various kinds, experimentation, and even hipness – but also uncooperativeness and a deficient grasp of realpolitik.
Most recently, the park became a dangerous “anomaly” that might jeopardize city management’s efforts to clean house. No wonder there have been six months of stress: any mid-sized neighbourhood park would get overwhelmed by such a load of possible signifiers!
But the park is still standing right on the same spot, with a rink clubhouse full of unmatched stools and bins of flour, a brave and wily staff trying to keep order on the ice, and park friends who wrote 140 pages of letters to City Hall, explaining why this is all good. Most of the goodness they’re talking about still happens within the 6 hectares of the park. But it didn’t stay walled up in there – between the staff and rink friends and park enthusiasts, Wallace Rink, Campbell Rink and MacGregor Park have been similarly altered. There are some park friends in more distant parts of the city, with R.V.Burgess playground in Thorncliffe Park being almost our sister park. Various bake ovens in odd locations (behind tall apartment buildings, backing onto highways, down at the end of snowy paths far from shelter) have become “friends” too, and places of good public baking.
The materials for this net of park friendships are campfires and bake-ovens and gardens and, more recently, natural ice rinks. In other words, the grounds for connection are located in definite places and result from particular projects. The projects are not made with text messages nor through meetings in conference rooms. They involve time and often hard labour, and they shape events that are the right size. These projects are small enough that people can test their abilities and – very often – make something good.
When PFR management staff come after these kinds of activities and try to convert them into revenue-generating permits that conform to meeting-generated policies, they either kill the activities or they generate a slow-burn kind of resistance. Many people want to engage with their neighbours. If their efforts are unsupported or even sabotaged by civil servants, eventually there’s a push-back. But the push often has mixed results. Resistance can be confusing. The practical questions – of how civil servants in meeting rooms can stop being threatened by a park, or how taxes can help communities use vacant field houses to enliven their neighbourhoods – need to be studied, in detail. The important thing to keep in view is that the right people to shape these studies are the people directly affected by the outcome. That’s the starting point, and that’s why the difficulties of Dufferin Grove Park with the bureaucracy led a few of us to form the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS) a dozen years ago.
If I’m right about the importance of scale, then one requirement for understanding the broken-ness of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, chronicled in the last twenty-two chapters of this serial story, is to stay with what we know about the parks where we’re connected. We can look for remedies through studying the particular stories of these places and the people who come there. The stories that visitors bring in from other places are useful and interesting too – how do they run parks in New York? In Berlin? In Delhi? But in the end we have to return to sorting out what’s in the pantry right here in Toronto.
It’s the womanly metaphor of the pantry that I’d like to propose in place of the image of the buccaneer wading through the budget slashing line items with his machete, invoked and criticized by the authors of Reinventing Government. In a pantry, every item matters, and could conceivably be of use. A person tidying the pantry has to look carefully, sorting through supplies to find items hidden at the back of the shelves which could be recycled or repurposed. When money is limited, the person with an eye to the pantry can turn to making the best, thriftiest, most ingenious use of what’s already on the shelves.
Toronto’s parks, with their field houses, outdoor rinks, playgrounds, sports fields, natural ravines, and (sometimes 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.
It will be no surprise to readers of this serial story to hear that I think the increasingly centralizing policies of Parks, Forestry and Recreation are a big problem. Centrally-controlled governance has a fatal flaw: there’s no way for central government to obtain – and then usefully sort out – all the local details that vary from place to place. One of our teachers about local governance has been Elinor Ostrom, who teaches political theory at Indiana University in Bloomington. Professor Ostrom shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, for her work on “governing the commons.” In November 2010 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 (see page 7) that we got from reading her work, and had a travelling seminar in the cars on the trip down. When we got there, we found that Ostrom’s institute is called the “Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.” It has that name, Ostrom told us, because she and her husband, also a political scientist, both did a lot of woodworking during their summer breaks from the university. They built a log cabin on some land they bought on Manitoulin Island, and made most of the furniture. They like workshops where people have to fit wood – or governance theories – together with care. Ostrom also told us that their cabin had no electricity. They had a generator to pump their water, and they adapted the water pump to run their computers and their printer as well. Then they sat down and wrote.
Ostrom’s writings, and these stories that she told us, made us think she was our kind of analyst. We got a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to try and apply her template of governance to the way parks work here in Toronto. We want to sort through different cases of local initiatives and see, with Ostrom’s lens, why some work well and others falter. The next few chapters (resuming January 5th) will tell what we’ve found out so far, in the “pantries” we’ve been sorting.
The dictionary page
List of Principles, adapted for Toronto parks, from Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.' 1990, Cambridge University Press.
1. Clearly defined boundaries Individuals or households who have rights to use common resources in parks must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the park resource. On-site park staff who use the individual park as their primary worksite are included in the definition of park users.
2. User rules match local circumstances Rules about using a park must relate to local conditions in the individual parks, including the particular park requirements, regarding labor, material, and/or money.
3. Collective-choice arrangements Most of the people affected by the rules must be able to participate in modifying the operational rules. This includes the on-site staff at the individual parks. Their participation should be weighted according to the amount of time they work at the particular park.
4. Monitoring. Monitors, who actively audit park conditions and appropriate behaviour, must be accountable to the park users or must be the park users.
5. Graduated sanctions. Park users (including on-site staff, see #3) who violate the operational rules must be likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and context of the offense) by other park users, by park staff accountable to these park users, or by both. Important technical terms used by Elinor Ostrom: In the absence of effective sanctions for people who shirk working on solutions, or who free-ride on the work of others, the rest will feel like suckers and will most likely quit trying.
6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms. Park users and park staff must have rapid access to low-cost forums to resolve conflicts among park users or between park users and park staff.
7. Recognition of the right to adapt park use to local circumstances. City management must not challenge the rights of park users to develop operating rules to fit the local circumstances, nor must management challenge the right to adapt the rules as the local circumstances change.
8. Local park institutions and related government divisions are nested enterprises. Park use, maintenance, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities must be organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.
9. Continuous access to detailed information The best information available about all the issues relevant to the individual parks must be disseminated widely to increase the degree of understanding and level of cooperation among the participants.
10. Straightforward – rather than strategic – behavior. Park users and park staff must not behave opportunistically in order to try to obtain benefits greater than those obtainable through straightforward behaviour. This condition implies that individuals must reveal their evaluations honestly, must contribute to collective benefits whenever formulas exist for equitably assigning resources, and must be willing to invest time and resources in finding solutions to joint problems. (Ostrom writes that this kind of helpful behaviour is somewhat rare.)
The Money Page
Under the recent management changes affecting Ward 18 parks, the recreation program staff have been paid for all their unpaid hours from the Fall. That means they can do some Christmas shopping, and start to save for the coming lockout (or strike).
Lockout or strike?
It seems more and more likely that the City will lock out its municipal workers soon after their contracts expire on Dec.31. The lockouts can begin as early as mid-January. We found out last week that the City may force a strike instead. Apparently a lockout leaves the workers without a collective agreement but allows management to make any changes, including dismissal of workers. A strike stops the clock, we were told, but a lockout doesn’t. Either way, where our public spaces are concerned, a lock-out or a strike both mean the same thing: no outdoor rinks, no community centres, no indoor swimming pools, perhaps not for the rest of the winter and beyond. Either a lockout or a strike means that many of the part-time PFR workers at Dufferin Grove and other public facilities won’t have money to pay their rent or buy groceries. People will have to help each other.
It costs $179.36 for eight hours of a staff person at a rink, even at time-and-a-half wage rates on a statutory holiday. On November 30, we asked park friend David Rothberg whether we could use part of his rink donation to staff the three Ward 18 rinks on the main holidays, when they were scheduled to be closed. (Most of the donation went to fix up the new kitchens at Campbell and Wallace, after Councillor Ana Bailao got the plumbing and wiring upgraded; and for new skates and sticks and gloves to loan out to skaters.)
David said, “sure, I want the rinks to be open on the main holidays when people have time to get out and skate with their friends.” The idea of community donations for small specific benefits like rink staffing is new enough that it needed some last-minute, top-level okays from City Hall. They met at 7 a.m. on Wednesday Dec.21. At 10 a.m., recreation manager Sue Bartleman came to Wallace Rink and said the holiday hours were approved. The revised hours showed up on the city’s 311 schedule half an hour later. So: if you want to invite your friends to come and skate with you on Christmas Day, you’re in luck. The rinks around here will be open and the coffee will be on.
Winter Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer