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Feb.6 meeting follow-up post #10

What Next?

In the middle of February the West End Phoenix newspaper published an article by music journalist Michael Barclay, about the February 6th public meeting, with the title “DON’T EFF WITH THE DUFF.” The piece began with a quote from a person who was unhappy about how the city’s Dufferin Grove “revitalization” plan was proceeding. Barclay wrote “After taking very Canadian pains to not blame anyone officiating the meeting, the frustrated woman went on to describe the process as ‘diabolical.’ This got loud applause.”

Barclay’s reportage brought some online pushback. A skateboarder wrote that in reality the process was “robust,” and run by a “really good team of consultants.” A shinny permit-holder asked why anyone could be unhappy about making the rink better and more efficient, and a third responder wrote sarcastically that neighbours were feeling “OUTRAGE at being consulted over changes to improve facilities,” and that Barclay was not doing “proper journalism.” Since then there has been quite a bit of back-and-forth commentary about the Dufferin Grove plans on the dufferingrovefriends listserv.

Some of these comments seem to reflect the old saying: “don’t sweat the small stuff, look at the big picture.” On the other hand, sometimes the devil really is in the details. In my final blog for this series, I’d like to see if I can attend a bit to both aspects.

The really big (global) picture: Google’s “Sidewalk Lab” is an example of global landing in Toronto with a thud. We can track another global element, circuitously, right into the park. In 2016, Parks and Rec partnered with two other city departments to hire the Toronto design firm Public Work. The city paid the firm $600,000 to do a Public Space, Public Life study about “revitalizing” the city’s public spaces. To gather their information for the study, Public Work partnered with a Copenhagen/San Francisco/New York company that’s also working with Sidewalk Lab, called Gehl Institute. Gehl’s website says their research approach is: “Use the city as a living laboratory to measure the quality of public life. Acquire new tools to take incremental steps toward meaningful and authentic neighborhood transformations.” After the city commissioned the Public Work/Gehl “public life” report, the word “revitalization” began to pop up everywhere, including on big signboards at Dufferin Grove Park. (Interestingly, the signboards show a google satellite photo of the park.)

Under the banner of “revitalization” a very big game is being played out. Over the next ten years, Parks and Rec plans to spend close to $2 billion on capital projects. The Parks and Rec operating-plus-capital budget for this year alone is well over half a billion. That means a lot of possible contracts for design firms. Many design firms advertise themselves as “global,” and some of them really are. Toronto-based non-profit Park People recently worked with a “global innovation” design firm called Doblin to research “how to create parks and public spaces with a greater sense of belonging.” (Apparently some of the working group came to Dufferin Grove to have a look around.) Doblin is actually owned by Deloitte, which provides audit, tax, and financial consulting services, employs more than 286,200 people globally, and earned $43.2 billion last year. Deloitte gets into all the cracks. For example, the City of Toronto has a charitable foundation called Parks and Trees. That foundation recently hired a new Executive Director. She has an MBA, and one of her jobs before she came to the city was as a director of Corporate Responsibility and Community Investment with Deloitte.

After reading one of my posts a month ago, Jim Jacobs reminded me about his mother’s book “Systems of Survival,” in which Jane Jacobs made a distinction between the work of commerce and the work she called “guardians,” for example various arms of government charged with protecting public life. When the two get confused, Jacobs wrote, you get “monstrous hybrids” which make a mess of both jobs.

The local big picture: The city’s web posting about the Dufferin Rink construction schedule begins with a big picture overview: “The average community recreation centre is almost 40 years old, and the average arena is 50 years old. Many City facilities are reaching the end of their lifespans and are not keeping pace with public needs and expectations.”

This raises a lot of questions. How is a rink’s “lifespan” determined? (Dufferin Rink is only 26 years old.) Whose needs and expectations has the rink not been meeting? When did the Dufferin Grove clubhouse turn into a “community recreation centre” or the rink become an “arena”? And how was it decided to look at only the “Northwest Corner,” not the whole park?

The details: Before any of these big picture questions could be addressed, Lura, the community consultation firm that the city hired, invited people to apply for membership in a kind of focus group for a new rink and clubhouse design. This “community resource group” has quite a few members who have a primary interest in just one element of the park – in skateboarding, or bike polo, or the farmers’ market, or their permit group’s winter hockey game. They have their eye on the details, with not much involvement with the rest of the park. The bike polo reps are lobbying for the hockey rink to be subdivided by a wooden fence, except during the rink season. The skateboarder reps want the pleasure-skating rink to be smoother (new concrete). The men’s Thursday 9 – 11 pm permit group reps want a new hockey rink pad that’s a meter-and-a-half wider, with less-tight corners that are easier to scrape and flood. The farmers’ market reps want a renovation both indoors and out, to have more space for the weekly market.

And yet, the level of detail being presented for discussion stops half-way. Instead of reconfiguring the rink clubhouse – and breaking up the rink slab concrete, trucking it to the landfill and building new rink slabs of a different shape – there are lots of thrifty ways to address current rink problems. But there’s too much money available. A budget of up to $4.5 million was given on the city’s contract awards web page, although the most recent Lura explanation says the real number is $3.5 million. For either of those amounts, why be thrifty?

Thrifty: Here are some examples. In the skate rental room, if two redundant water heaters were removed, a few more shelves built, and the skate room got a door with a sliding window, presto -- a good skate-lending space. If the indoor kitchen had one superfluous wall removed, a new door framed in, some HVAC pipes relocated, more shelves put in, walls painted and floor tiles added, presto – an excellent new prep kitchen. Out on the rink, if the rink got its own ice-edger machine, and staff squeegeed the corners when the zamboni lays on its water, the rink corners would no longer be bumpy. And so on. There could be ingenious fixes all over the place. Even counting new rink refrigeration machinery and market space improvements, it would be really hard to spend over $1 million.

The remaining funds could fix up the rest of the park – build the long-requested playground washroom/storage room, pave the paths, create a pool and sandpit water-recycling setup, join with an Arts partner to turn the mid-park field house into a theatre workshop space.

Or, instead, the unspent funds could go into the scandalously underfunded “community hub” in the future high-rise development across the street – to put rentable community rooms and gathering spaces where they are sorely needed.

Or, if what I was told recently by a senior parks official is true – that the city has so much development money that they hardly know how to spend it in a timely way – then there’s certainly enough money to do both.

Back to the big picture: Those sensible measures are unlikely to happen. First of all, there are definitely some park users who are excited about new, big-ticket rink items, and they will lobby for them. Second, big-picture construction plans are important for meeting the city’s anomalous staff payroll problem, as I wrote in the first blog of this series, so Capital Projects staff will lobby hard as well.

This means that most likely the northwest corner of the park will have construction for a year or two or maybe three, the rink house will gain some rentable space but lose its clubhouse feel, and Leslie Street Spit will expand its reach with some new rubble and twisted rebar. None of what happens at the park's northwest corner that will alter the park’s central problem: Parks and Rec management’s suppression of its local staff.

Back to Jane Jacobs: In Blog #9 I wrote, for the many-eth time, about city management’s reinstating its hierarchical structure at Dufferin Grove, starting with the removal of Rec supervisor Tino DeCastro in 2010, and then squashing the local ecology that had developed there. The “ecology” was made possible in the first place because of the peculiar staffing arrangements that Rec staff in Toronto have had for at least 50 years. Almost all recreation programs are run by what used to be called “casual” staff, now renamed “part-time,” but with fewer benefits and lower wages than full-time staff. These are people of varying ages who are often between other jobs. Many don’t want to make a career with their city job but they are often adventuresome, interested in trying things, maybe brave. Most don’t want to work full-time. (Although there are some who have been working as part-time staff, hoping to get on full-time, for decades. City management has often let these bargain workers languish until hope is almost gone.)

Jane Jacobs wrote in “The Economy of Cities” that cities flourish when there is competition between many small and mid-sized companies which are clustered near enough that they can also learn from and teach one another. In an odd way Dufferin Grove was a microcosm of what Jacobs saw. Paradoxically, all those casual staff with no careers to lose, and for a time allowed to try things in the park, could riff off each other – making an adventure playground, campfires, supporting musicians in the park, baking bread, starting a snack bar, skate lending, setting up learn-to-play-shinny-hockey classes, ball and bat lending, challenging wannabe gangsters, negotiating with people who heard voices, digging new gardens, cooking dinners, fixing benches, building benches, facing down bullies, supporting picnics, calling parents, chasing thieves, writing grants, sorting receipts, counting money – the list could go on for a few more pages. A lot happened, there were stupid mistakes as well as many small triumphs, but always there were surprises.

Those diverse things kept bubbling up, helped by intermittent support or just benign neglect from further up the line, until about 2010. And then the pattern of lively inventiveness was stopped. Existing programs were set in cement, the staff were micro-managed, and costs went way up. Some staff left and many were, and are, very unhappy.

Bureaucracies are by their nature a monopoly. Jane Jacobs wrote that monopolies are NOT likely to allow cities to flourish. A monopoly often shuts things down from a distance, and it uses fancy language, often with great success, to distract people from what it’s doing. Toronto’s Parks and Rec monopoly/bureaucracy engages in costly “place-making” and “revitalizing.” It partners with other big players to embed a faux ”sense of belonging” in the citizens, and plays with the idea of electronically monitoring bums on benches (* see the footnote below).

Last September there was a packed “shall we run the park with a conservancy” meeting at the rink clubhouse, producing a 140-name email list. I think it’s pretty obvious by now that that there’s no conservancy waiting in the wings. The neighbourhood has changed. Tall towers are coming to swamp out the now-unaffordable houses: daunting. People are distracted.

But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. There are grumblings, and there may be more. The city bureaucracy owns the park and they can do what they choose (see #8 in this series). But who knows when the next wave will come, of people willing to try things and be surprised, willing to work hard and not exaggerate and stay in the same place long enough to follow through?

For myself, I’ll be watching but not doing more in the park. I’ll be focusing on CELOS research, and I invite anyone who wants, to contribute from time to time to our task of doing “research by ordinary people that is disciplined, critical, well-documented and public” [Ivan Illich]. Part of my interest is in documenting what happens next, at Dufferin Grove Park, for the record.

Jutta


Footnote:

The troubles of Sidewalk Lab are a cautionary tale. Journalist John Lorinc wrote about the space-age features that this Sidewalk hybrid – a self-identified visionary design company owned by Google, with its hands in our city’s pocket – intends to bring us, in an article titled “A Mess on the Sidewalk” in the March 2019 issue of Baffler. Lorinc wrote: “Imagine a city street or a public park that can “know” something about who was moving along it, together with subsidiary information about where and how these urbanites were using the space (e.g., was a particular set of sensor-equipped park benches especially popular during early evenings?).”

Benches, although they seem small and local, are part of the big picture when they become electronic. No need for park staff who talk to people in the park and slowly get to know them, because the data the benches collect can be used to construct algorithms about park usage and bench placement. The important task is constant measurement to see how it’s going. Last fall, Gehl/Sidewalk Lab worked with Park People, training some Thorncliffe Park high-rise residents to sit in their park and electronically log what people were doing there. The residents wanted more benches for family picnics, but instead, they got apps on specially adapted cell phones.


 

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