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Community cafés

07-Jun-2010 [99]

• Query to the 2010 municipal candidates:

This e-mail was sent to a number of candidates including some of those running for mayor, on May 25 2010. The subject line asked "Do you support community cafés in city parks?"

May 24, the Queen's birthday holiday, was a hot sunny day, and people went outside looking for fun. But Toronto's parks-and-recreation facilities were closed, citywide, to save paying any city staff time-and-a-half. This happens on many public holidays -- public facilities are locked, or they have very restricted hours -- exactly when most Torontonians are free to enjoy them.

But surely there are ways to open more of these facilities on public holidays.

Here's one way. At Dufferin Grove Park there's an outdoor kitchen and café, public-health approved, built in 2005, by many community volunteers, with substantial help from city staff. (Collaboration, what a concept...)

This year on Victoria Day it was 29 degrees. Two of the city's part-time recreation workers came to the park and turned on the wading pool sprinklers at the playground. Then they took off their city hats (remember, no staff were supposed to work on the holiday) and became non-city-staff cooks. They began preparing some food in the park clubhouse. The clubhouse has a city-built community kitchen. The cooks made salads, mac-and-cheese, veggie-burgers in pita bread, muffins, and cookies. They brought these down to the playground café -- and fruit juices, and pop (yes) and Fair Trade coffee, and organic hot dogs, and sliced watermelon. They served up the food, at very low prices -- and introduced people to each other, and found lost children, and listened to neighbourhood gossip, and gave out band-aids for scraped knees.

They sold enough food and drink -- because the park was filled with families -- to pay for the groceries and the cooks' and servers' time, from 10 am to 6 pm.

Dufferin Grove Park's community kitchen has been used for preparing good food, to make the park lively, for eight years, both summer and winter. The group running it, to which I belong, is called the "Centre for local research into public space" (CELOS). Our research is about how to make parks work better.

We think our research on food in parks is finished, the results are in -- small non-franchise cafés in busy park playgrounds (and outdoor rink clubhouses in winter) work well!

We have other research we need to work on. So we've been asking the city to take this over, and maybe even to open a few playground or community-rink cafés in other parks.

It's not rocket science. The Dufferin Grove cooks and servers could put their city hats back on. The money earned can go into the big municipal pot downtown, and be allocated back to pay part-time recreation workers for this tasty way of helping to make parks lively. At the same time, the recreation workers can keep an eye on the park.

But so far, no luck. It seems there's a municipal policy against playground cafés run by recreation staff. We haven't been able to find out why, or what it says. But such a policy needs to be exposed to public discussion at City Council. For some years, we've been proposing small city-run cafés as one simple way of putting more resources into parks. There's been hardly a nibble of interest from city councillors. So in this election year we're really curious: As a candidate for City Council, do you support community cafés in parks?

Jutta Mason

There is no record of any candidates' response to this letter.