A Bird's Eye View: When Lively Parks meet the Rules
Our list of findings
Setup: 18-Jun-2012 by Belinda Cole 
What are the real rules at our local outdoor rinks, wading pools and parks? How do so many "invisible" rules shape how we enjoy our parks - and how we spend our public budgets?
[Note: all the links on this page are included as contents (Topic Details) of this Topic.
Here is where we find ourselves now, and here are a few suggestions for how we might change the rules to leave citizens and neighbours the spaces and opportunities to make the most of our public social spaces....
1.Some rules that govern our parks - usually "conduct" rules - are visibly posted.
2. Mostly however, parks are governed by unseen rules - invisible - only until one runs afoul of them.
3. Frequently, obstacles to what works well "on the ground" - like closing wading pools early on hot days or threats to a local farmers' market - don't come from any law. They result from mistakes and widespread confusion about 1) what the rules are; and 2) who can make and enforce them.
4. Could it be otherwise? In our local park alone, the "invisible rules" that have put a wrench in so many well-loved practices are contained in well over a 1000 pages of provincial laws, regulations, guidelines, city by-laws and city policies. It is hard to know - and impractical to research - how many more pages of rules - that we haven't yet run aground on - exist.
5. Most invisible rules that govern local parks are made: i) to apply across the entire province or city and, ii) to address very different contexts.
6. The rules conflict, intersect, and are written in such a difficult, convoluted way that most people cannot practically read them or find out what they are. Here's a glimpse of our research - so far - into seven laws, policies and guidelines - to try to find out the rules for wading pools.
7. Rule-makers often write convoluted policies with an administrative focus, even when presented with locally-developed rules written in clear, straightforward language.
8. The ideas and goals behind these broad-reaching laws and policies sound good, are hard to argue with, and may work well in certain contexts. However, law and policy-making without an awareness of the place(s) where the rules will apply inevitably have unintended consequences. After all, they are made without taking into account: i) local priorities ii) what works well on the ground or, the iii) effects of the existing rules.
9. This form of across-the-board governance precludes us from asking key questions about what rules make sense in our particular local spaces. And, we lose the opportunity to consider what "tools of governance" are most appropriate for our particular local space.
10. Laws and policies rarely include any indicators of what a successful rule looks like in its context. A thoughtful framework can orient us in our initial, and follow-up discussions about what works and what doesn't in a particular public space.
12. Many of these good-sounding rules are fuelled by understandable, fearful reaction to tragic events, losses and perceived ongoing “problems”. Other times, ordinary people reach out to others to find ways to mark local tragedies, come to grips with the reasons behind them and discern how to proceed in the face of them.
13. Rules made in reaction to fear or a perceived problem are costly to civic life in two important ways:
i) In our fear, we often want to act immediately, without reflection. If we do, we fail to consider key questions about the nature and extent of the problem that led to the tragedy and the range of options available to us – and the costs and implications of each.
ii) They narrow our possibilities for enjoying our public spaces. If we fail to clearly identify what - if anything - constitutes a serious, known risk at our public facilities - by sharing available information on a continuing basis - public administrators and industry advocates will often take on the job of defining and avoiding potentially limitless spectres of imminent harm and liability.
14. Proliferating laws have profound, far-reaching implications for our public spending choices. Bureaucracies, systems and organizations are generally expensive to set up, and they commit citizens both to significant initial and on-going budget allocations that are often not part of our public spending debates. It is very difficult to know or find out how much these regimes and structures cost since accounting can rarely be traced to tangible activities or benefits on the ground.
15. Moreover, well-intentioned laws and rules often lead to a critical shift in decision-making - away from our locally-based and accountable elected representatives to bureaucracies that are neither accessible nor accountable to the citizens who are “governed” by their decisions.
16. Bureaucracies tend naturally towards centralization and standardization—both of which are at odds with the inherent changing, adaptive character of diverse neighbourhood public spaces. See Ward 18 Wading Pools: Triumph of Technocracy over Reason (1) for one example.