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posted January 24, 2006

The Upside-Down World of City Rinks

For some years now, most of the City’s staff zamboni operators have been reluctant to work at Dufferin Rink. Some have not been shy to say so. They say there’s too much interference with their regular way of running rinks. The zamboni drivers seem particularly unhappy about the idea that they should match their ice maintenance visits to the rink program schedule. One particular zamboni operator recently insisted on clearing the ice before a hockey permit was finished, because, he said, that was his prerogative if he felt like it. When a rink friend argued with him, the zamboni driver and his partner left the rink without grooming the ice at all, and went home early. A few days later some of the City zamboni drivers summoned their supervisor to a health and safety meeting.

The following day the on-site rink staff were told that they must follow a new health and safety "protocol." It soon became apparent that these new rules would make it much harder to keep to our ten-year practice of letting skaters keep on skating on the pleasure-skating side while the hockey side is being cleaned by the zamboni, and vice versa. (This is another feature of our rink that has been unpopular with many City zamboni drivers.)To comply with the new rules in the evenings, on-site rink staff would either have to leave the rink house unattended for half an hour, or add another staff whose only role was to double the staff already standing guard outside by the hockey lift-gate (to prevent people from being run over by the zamboni). If the second on-site rink staff was not there, the zamboni driver would have the right to leave the work site immediately, on the grounds of employee health and safety.

This is a bit of déjà vu! The last time there was an employee health and safety complaint at the rink was a few days before Christmas 2003, when City inspectors came and said Dufferin Rink was the worst rink they had ever seen. On that occasion they ordered the new community kitchen bordering the zamboni garage to be torn out and the giant Clay and Paper Theatre puppets to be removed from high up in the rafters. They also said that no one but a licensed zamboni driver could enter the zamboni garage.

A Zamboni, as skaters know, is about the size of a small truck. It has four wheels, a scraper/flooder at the back, and a large chamber for storing the scraped-off snow at the front. As with street sweepers, snowploughs, and road repair vehicles, the driver’s visibility is less than in a car, so the driver has to take extra care. When a zamboni is standing in a garage, though, it’s no more dangerous than a parked car, and so the inspectors’ 2003 verdict did not stand. The Dufferin Rink kitchen is still there, the puppets are back, and the farmers’ market and all sorts of other events have continued.

But now it seems that once again a zamboni is being held up as a singularly dangerous vehicle from which skaters must be protected. So even if you (and your kids) know how to cross a busy road like Dufferin Street without a crossing guard, you can’t be trusted to stay back from a moving zamboni with only one rink guard to warn you off.

Back to the requirement of having an extra, otherwise unnecessary staff person at the rink in the evening. The zamboni supervisor says that there’s only one alternative: to shut all the skaters inside the rink house during the time the zamboni operator is grooming the ice. He says that Dufferin Rink has become so busy that special protections must be put in place. It’s not that there has been any accident, but that there couldbe.

So now we have a problem. The philosophy at this park is to stay away from having extra staff who have waiting-around time as part of their job description, even though that may be a common way municipal government is run. As things stand, the Dufferin Rink staff are booked to do the work that’s needed. Because the rink has become so well used by so many different people, that work includes keeping the rink house clean and arranging it as a neighbourly space, hosting community events, teaching skating, connecting with other rinks, youth counselling, court work with youth, giving citywide rink information, doing web postings, shovelling snow, helping farmers on market day, running the zamboni café, helping the zamboni operator, organizing tournaments, and more. On-site rink staff deal with all the different demands on them, more or less successfully, by helping one another and listening to rink users. They also get rock-solid support from the recreation supervisor.

The zamboni crew have chosen to stay out of this loop and to set their rules independently. That’s a puzzle. A clash of philosophies? So many City rinks still have their windowless staff room with the old couch and the all-winter card game, where the zamboni operators and the on-site rink staff and a few favourite rink users spend time between periods of ice maintenance. Sometimes the door is propped open, other times it’s locked from the inside. Is that protection from the public really so much more agreeable than running a rink that’s a friendly hub in a lively neighbourhood?

There will be some discussions now between the City zamboni operators and the Dufferin Rink on-site staff. Hopefully the two clashing philosophies will move a little closer again. If not (since we don’t like to hire waiting-around rink staff), rink users will have plenty of time to brainstorm about the upside-down world of city rinks, when they’re squashed together inside the rink house as the zamboni moves around the ice outside, all alone.


posted February 20, 2006

Does Anyone Have a Broom?

The City of Toronto has 49 outdoor ice rinks that are cooled by compressors. Many northern cities have one or two such rinks, usually in central plazas or major parks. We have them in neighbourhoods as well, the only city in the world to build such a large number. They're worth more than $60 million. They're supposed to be looked after by Toronto's Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division, but the system for maintaining most of those rinks is a shambles.

Of the 46 neighborhood rinks cooled by compressors, there are rinks which are lucky to get two ice maintenance visits a day, or less. It's often uncertain when the zamboni crew will show up, so skaters may have to leave the ice halfway through a scheduled skating time. Then it's not unusual for the zamboni drivers to run the machine up and down the ice twice as fast as they ought, basically adding a new layer of ice by flooding every time instead of scraping off the rough ice and getting the rink surface smooth. Hurrying up and down the ice like that means they can leave sooner. When the weather is warmer and the ice has soft slush on the top, instead of scraping the slush off the ice, zamboni drivers sit out their shift in their staff rooms. If it rains and there's extra water on the ice, instead of taking off the extra water with the zamboni, the drivers have another down-time. (Except once at Dufferin Rink, when the zamboni driver actually flooded the ice as it rained.) As a result, the ice gets thicker and thicker and the compressors have too much ice to freeze.

There are exceptions. The outdoor rinks at Nathan Phillips Square and at Harbourfront (it's not run by the City) use their zambonis to keep their ice around two inches thick. One Saturday in the middle of January, when the temperature was plus 10 degrees Celsius and the sun was out, those two rinks had good ice and were full of happy skaters. Most neighbourhood rinks, on the other hand, were slushy and closed that day. Their ice is between 4 and 7 inches thick, extending over the top of the dasher boards in many hockey rinks.

Since ice is an insulator, having it so thick also means the temperature sensors on the rink floor don't register the temperature on the coldest days, when the compressors should not be running. When the temperature dropped to minus 16 degrees Celsius in the middle of February, the temperature sensors at Dufferin Rink, covered by that amount of ice, took almost 24 hours to register that cold. Only then did the rink compressor turn itself off. That means a whole lot of energy is wasted, and power costs of running outdoor rinks increase sharply.

And the neighborhood rinks have another problem. Their zamboni drivers are scheduled to work until 10 p.m. but one rarely sees any neighborhood rink ice maintenance after 8.30 p.m.except at Dufferin Rink. There the zamboni rushes up and down the ice even faster on the last run.

That final 9 p.m. scheduled ice maintenance at Dufferin Rink has been a sore point for zamboni drivers (CUPE Local 416) all year. They often come at 8.30 and are upset when the on-site rink staff (CUPE Local 79) ask them to wait until the program is done. One of the older drivers explained it to the Local 79 staff like this: Local 416 zamboni drivers make much more money than the Local 79 rink staff. People who make more money should not be bossed around by people who make less. But the local 79 staff stood their ground, with strong support from the friends of the rink.

That didn't sit well. For years, the position of the zamboni drivers has been that both Local 79 staff and rink friends should stop interfering with Local 416 work. All the nagging about ice thickness and scheduling was making their work situation intolerable. About three weeks ago, a new rink "protocol," applying uniquely to Dufferin Rink, was handed to the on-site rink staff, followed by several revised versions as time went on. Local 79 rink staff were not to interfere with Local 416 operations, in fact, they were not even to speak to the zamboni drivers about any work-related matter. All communication was to be through the zamboni drivers' supervisor, by radio. If even one element in the "protocol" was missed, the zamboni driver had the right to get off the zamboni just where it stood, even in the middle of the ice, and leave the rink. (This drastic measure is based on a very questionable interpretation of "danger to a worker" in the Employee Occupational Health and Safety Act.) One of the "protocol" rules was that no volunteer could be involved in any part of the ice maintenance while the zamboni drivers were "on site," so that took care of the rink friends. Rink maintenance would be run according to formal orders going through the zamboni drivers' chain of command from now on, with "discipline" for "non-compliance."

Unhappily for the zamboni drivers, the schedule was still maintained. But at least there was no longer any nagging about the ice thickness. The zamboni drivers' threat of abandoning the zamboni on the ice got the rink staff and the rink friends to keep quiet when the drivers were at the rink.

The military style of this maneuver was shocking to the on-site rink staff, and they appealed to the zamboni drivers' supervisor. But he cited safety. They asked to meet with the supervisor's manager but he was unwilling. They sought support from their CUPE Local 79 union representative but up to now have been unable to get even a meeting. (CUPE Local 79, formerly the "inside workers," is the poor cousin to CUPE Local 416, formerly the "outside workers.") For my part, as a rink friend I sought help from Parks and Recreation management in this situation, all the way up to the general manager. She didn't respond to me directly but told a Star reporter that she was "offended" by my criticisms of her staff. At our public rink meeting to discuss the situation, Recreation Director Don Boyle said: "you people can't get along with anybody. Every six months I have to deal with a crisis at your park."

So it seems that management sees this issue as one of bad manners. That's certainly one element here, although not everyone agrees on whose manners could use improvement. But what is much more interesting to me is this: does the recreation director check whether the two dozen zamboni drivers on his staff might be stopping work most nights before their hours are done? Does the general manager try to find out whether the sixty million dollars of outdoor ice rinks under her jurisdiction could be scraped thinner by all those expensive zambonis the city owns? Do either of them investigate the extra energy costs of 40-odd compressor plants that rarely shut off? And is anyone at City Hall concerned about a public rink where some city employees make a "protocol" saying that the other city employees can't talk to them about their joint task, under threat of a job action? I mean, is anyone in the city management alarmed enough to say: "start over, this is not the military, it's collaboration that will make this city work"...?

My guess is that at least the Parks, Forestry and Recreation director and his general manager consider these details too trifling to take up their time. Their approach seems to be supported by the mayor. After Don Boyle made his comments about our inability to get along, I sought out Mayor Miller at the end of a public budget meeting. I told him: "there are some real problems at Parks and Recreation, but they have some solutions. Please let me come and talk to you for just half an hour about what I've learned over the past ten years."

The mayor said that he had heard "from a third party" that no City staff people want to work at Dufferin Grove Park, it's too unpleasant. As for a meeting with me, he said he had no time. "Contact my staff and talk to them instead. Then if they feel I should talk to you, they can set it up." But when I left a message with the mayor's staff, my call was not returned.

The mayor is surely a very busy person. So is the general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation. But if the mayor and his staff are unwilling or unable to attend to disturbing details in city government, and that unwillingness is passed down from general manager to director to local manager to supervisor, it's hard to know how Toronto can dig out of the trouble we're in, in the long run. The situation I describe here with the zamboni drivers is only one piece of a municipal conglomerate of doubtful function, staggering along under the weight of a crippling payroll and not enough to show for it.

The mayor has been going around to both the province and the federal government, hat in hand, saying - "we've cut everything to the bone, and still we're in the hole by half a billion dollars. It's not our fault. You're starving us of money. Toronto is the engine of the economy, and if you don't give us your surplus, that engine will fail." Toronto could certainly use more money, but there needs to be more than tax reallocation. Toronto may be an engine, but the City government is more like a house. It's time to clean house from the bottom up. Does anyone have a broom?


posted April 8, 2006

A different template for neighborhood public space

Dufferin Grove Park is a laboratory for a different approach to staffing neighbourhood public space than is the norm in Toronto. The norm is that the City hires mainly young people, often under 20, as recreation "casual staff" for neighborhood community centres and parks. Most of them are paid minimum wage or a few dollars more, and slotted into narrowly defined tasks without much direct guidance. There’s a pretty big chasm between them and the managers who are developing policies and procedures in meetings downtown.

But Dufferin Grove Park tries to provide chances for staff with a greater range of ages and gifts to try new things. Although the pay is still well below that of the park maintenance workers who cut the grass, it’s a bit closer to what a single person can live on (cheap). Supervision and collegial help are strong. What’s more, the boundary between park staff and park friends is very permeable, so that almost all park projects involve both.

Besides keeping the park in good order, a big part of this park staff’s task is to remove the barriers that stop people from trying new things in public space (like building a cob courtyard or setting up a neighborhood pick-up soccer game). At the same time, the staff have to keep a close eye and friendly hand on projects as they develop.

The other big part of their task is to address public conflict with energy and intelligence. Parks can be places of friendship, surprising beauty, and excitement, but they can also become a stage for ugly intimidation. Park staff have to subvert people who enjoy making trouble. Setting safety policies in meetings at City Hall doesn’t help the park, without experienced on-site staff paying good attention, maybe in the rink house, or in the playground, or while picking litter, or making coffee at the food cart. Trouble is addressed by park staff who are in the park day after day, until their knowledge of the park and the people there becomes very solid, and follow-up is fast and sustained.

If this Dufferin Grove "template" finds no application in Toronto’s public space (including other parks) parks will become poorer, sadder places and decreasingly useful to their neighborhoods. That’s why park friends are pretty steadfast in their resistance to dismantling what’s developed at this park.


posted April 11, 2006

A Letter from South Africa

I am a regular contributor to a web site (www.litnet.co.za) in my capacity as a published author. The site is from my country of origin, South Africa. This is just to let the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park know as a matter of netiquette, that a link was included to your very beautiful web site, in order to show our readers how a community can organize itself around an open-air space such as this.

Because community centres in my country of origin cannot be afforded on the same scale as here in Toronto, and in my view a huge need exists for communities to bond and use their resources in more innovative ways, I have taken the liberty to show my readers the model of the park as a "community centre without walls," in hopes that it will help spark some initiatives to develop similar public spaces over there.


posted June 8, 2006

Editorial: The Right Size

The question of permits for events in Dufferin Grove Park seems to be the issue of the moment. There are three major problems:

  1. One-size-fits-all permit fees: This year, for the first time, the City wants permit fees from everyone who does any event in the park, including groups like Clay and Paper Theatre who have brought their gifts to the park from the beginning, and who have helped to shape the park by their long-term involvement. These permit fees apply even if the event requires no extra work from any City staff: pure profit.
  2. New-found popularity: It seems that almost every day, park staff get new inquiries from new groups, including for some events that might swamp out the park (such as this request to hold an open-air concert for young adolescents who can’t go to clubs on account of their age: “We're planning on bringing in everything from noise-punk to electro to experimental jazz to twee-core indie pop.” ......Too big for this park!)
  3. Central control: There is the enduring problem of central versus local permitting. City Hall permit staff recently rejected a dance performance permit request because it was on a Thursday evening – and that day already has the farmers’ market permit from 3 to 7. The central permitting software only allows one permit a day for a park this size, without being able to distinguish between groceries and dance.
Solutions.

The new Recreation manager for Toronto and East York, Kelvin Seouw, is coming to the park soon to get better acquainted with the issues around permits. Meantime, park users had better keep talking to each other, about what kinds of events fit the park. A neighborhood park should not only be hospitable and lively but also peaceful enough that it’s not a circus. One way to accomplish that might be by sticking to events that are grounded in the local neighbourhood – not too big and not too generic.

No such rule can be ironclad – on May 29, for instance, a “No one is illegal” immigration march that began at Queen’s Park ended with a concert and a picnic at the park. Not suitable? But one of the organizers has been a long-time park friend, and many of the young people who participated were local kids who wanted to show solidarity with their Portuguese neighbors. In the end there were only 200-300 people in the Garrison Creek Hollow over by Dufferin Street, the music was not too loud, and the mood was friendly. One thing that seems helpful is if events are put on by people who have a connection with the park already, rather than people who just pick the park from a list of handy locations. And if annual events get too big and successful, they may need to migrate to a bigger park with better facilities, even if they had their beginning here. One example is the annual Fall Pow Wow put on by Native Child and Family Services, which has been growing every year. Last year they had over a thousand people, and the number of vehicles, the washroom use, and the supervision in the playground just didn’t work. This year the Pow Wow will probably be at Christie Pits, which has internal roads, larger washrooms, and a playground that’s easier to control.

The park can more easily absorb the many smaller events that enliven it. Most of these events don’t even need a permit. On a recent weekday June evening at the park, there was a small group of musicians practising near the cob courtyard, a knot of dog walkers chatting at the crossroads in the centre, a full-court basketball game, a soccer practice, some kids and families in the playground, one baby and its mother in the sandpit, a theatre rehearsal in the rink house, a martial arts practice in the west central area, a drummer playing along with his I-pod near the marsh fountain, a woman working on her computer at a picnic table – and still there was plenty of space for other park users to sit on park benches and read, or chat, or listen to the evening songbirds. The park works very well at this rhythm, not actually scheduled by anyone.

For larger events that do need scheduling, for example whole-school picnics and anniversary celebrations and performances like the Dusk Dances, the park staff can help to gauge what fits together. It’s the role of the on-site park staff to reduce the headaches and help organizers find what they need. The staff are also good at figuring out which events are the right size for this particular park. If you want their help with an event, e-mail mayssan@dufferinpark.ca or call the park at 416 392-0913 and leave a message.


posted September 6, 2006

EDITORIAL: DAVID AND GOLIATH

(1) DAVID:

Fenced in: the toilet project is isolated by the City

The small fellow in this fable is Georgie Donais. Last year she asked the Parks staff if they might bring in some sand, gravel, later a plumber and an electrician. She went to a local construction company and begged some clay, bought some tarps, and asked park users if they’d like to build a very old-style wall around the public health sinks that were needed for the summer food cart.

It turned out that lots of people, little and big, wanted to learn how to build using the ancient adobe method called “cob.” As the wall rose, little by little, built by so many hands of so many different sizes, the wall became a story magnet too. It seems that there’s hardly any culture that doesn’t have such buildings. People brought their photo albums from home, showing buildings in Yemen that are seven hundred years old and still inhabited, round adobe buildings in North Africa, thick-walled cob houses with thatched roofs in English villages. What a lot of joyful community talk and action! Georgie’s dad was a carpenter, and she admired his craft, but she wanted a form of building that was quiet enough for talking (not all that loud hammering). She was right. The wall went up one cob at a time, conversations led to friendships – and respect and admiration grew, day by day, for those people all over the world who developed this way of building. Georgie shaped and directed all this activity for free, and people freely came and went between the playground and the wall. Building was part of a day at the park.

At the end of September the “cob party” for people who helped was huge, and the cob courtyard has become a familiar, loved (and useful) landmark in the park.


National Park composting toilet

People kept telling Georgie that one small thing was still missing: a toilet in the playground. Parents and caregivers have asked, every year, for a nearby toilet ever since the current playground went in (in the eighties). But a plumbed toilet would cost $100,000 or more and there is no such money allocated for this park.

A composting toilet, on the other hand, would be much cheaper, and it could be a little (pilot-project) step to getting a part of the park off the sewage system that pollutes our lake.

Georgie researched the newer composting toilets at national parks, which are low-maintenance, non-smelly, and very efficient. An anonymous donour – inspired by last summer’s cob wall – said he would buy one for the park ($9000). Georgie applied for funding to create a community-built shelter for the toilet, and the Toronto Arts Council gave her $10,000 (on the strength of last year’s cob wall achievement). The Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation gave her another $2000 for materials and for the living roof (like the living roof on the end of the cob wall, full of flowers and native grasses). Georgie put the word out, and by the beginning of June, work was ready to begin.

(2) GOLIATH:

kids at last year's cob project

That’s Big Bureaucracy, in this fable. The composting toilet Georgie bought was the same as the one that’s been used for at least seven years in many national parks in Ontario and across Canada. The Class one composting toilet and its tiny surround are exempt from building permit requirements. But because this community art project has some attributes in common with a conventional construction site, the situation becomes muddied. The Goliath of bureaucracy paints reality in big, bold strokes: any building site is a safety hazard, whether it’s the new ROM or a little cob housing built around a single playground toilet. At construction sites, unless there’s a big fence to keep them out, people can break their necks, or be killed plunging down four-story holes. They can lose eyes and limbs. If a provincial inspector comes and finds a parent helping a kid apply clay to shape a little wall, and one or both of them are not wearing regulation steel-toed boots, the Park supervisor could be personally fined $15,000, or $50,000, under the Health and Safety Act, and he’d have to re-mortgage his house.

And then there are the environmental hazards. Just because the toilet is a state-of-the-art model used in national parks doesn’t mean the urban Goliath accepts it. An engineer is necessary to re-certify its design (at a price of more than half the toilet). And perhaps there needs to be an environmental assessment: what if this little seasonal toilet would spread pollution? What if the kids’ little bums were to contaminate the ground so widely that the poison would leach into the wading pool? What if a composting toilet poisoned the groundwater for the neighbouring houses? Will the City’s insurance cover that? (Eeeek!)

“David and Goliath” is a fable. If the fable is true, the good sense of the community might be the pebble that knocks Goliath out of the way of this little composting toilet. We’ll see how the story unfolds, at the September 12 community meeting. The nicest outcome would be if the “Davids” of the bureaucracy (those exist too) and the “Davids” of the community could work together to support the gifts that Georgie brings to the park. Then next year it would be safe to step near the playground trees again (i.e., the current frequently-used “toilets”), and parents and caregivers could relax when their little ones say, for the third time in an hour: “Daddy, I need to pee!”

Jutta Mason


posted September 17 2006

David and Goliath: Take Two

In the first edition of this September newsletter I wrote about the fable of David and Goliath in a Dufferin Grove Park version of little versus BIG. The role of small fellow in this fable was played by Georgie Donais. To go back: last year Georgie asked the Parks staff if they might bring in some sand, gravel, later a plumber and an electrician. She went to a local construction company and begged some clay, bought some tarps, and asked park users if they’d like to build a very old-style wall around the public health sinks that were needed for the summer food cart.

It turned out that lots of people, little and big, wanted to learn how to build using the ancient adobe method called “cob.” As the wall rose, little by little, built by so many hands of so many different sizes, the wall became a story magnet too. It seems that there’s hardly any culture that doesn’t have such buildings. People brought their photo albums from home, showing buildings in Yemen that are seven hundred years old and still inhabited, round adobe buildings in North Africa, thick-walled cob houses with thatched roofs in English villages. What a lot of joyful community talk and action!


Georgie digging clay

So the cob courtyard was built. At the end of September the “cob party” for people who helped was huge. The cob courtyard has become a familiar, loved (and useful) landmark in the park.

This year Georgie sought and obtained outside funding to add the one small thing that was still missing: a toilet in the playground. Parents and caregivers have asked, every year, for a nearby toilet, since the current playground went in (in the eighties). But a plumbed toilet would cost $100,000 or more and there is no such City money allocated for this park. So Georgie planned out a composting toilet (more environment-friendly anyway), with a beautiful community-built cob surround.

The role of big fellow in our fable here was taken by the Big City Bureaucracy. There was a side player: a neighbourhood resident passionately opposed to the project, and diligent at sending letters and e-mails to the people on top. So the project was repeatedly stalled, a big fence was put up, policy orders were given that made the project impossible. City Councillor Giambrone called a meeting.

In the original fable, David knocks out Goliath with a slingshot. But at the park meeting nobody got knocked out. Even if the complainant had come, she wouldn’t have been knocked out – but she didn’t turn up, anyway. However there was a very intense discussion, in a packed rink house. Popular democracy is alive and well!

The many “Davids” at the meeting (including some eloquent children) made their arguments in favour of community good sense instead of one-size-fits-all corporate risk management. There were a lot of points made, and the representatives of the “Goliath” of City management listened very carefully.

Since when does Goliath listen? But in our fable that’s what happened. By the next morning, the Parks management had worked out the remaining blocks to the composting toilet project, with encouragement from the councillor. Georgie was able to confer directly with well-known architect Martin Liefhebber, whom parks management had hired to help the project get official certification. He told Georgie that her plans are sound. And Parks supervisor Peter Leiss told Georgie that once the foundation hole is level, the sculptural cob surround part will revert to being a community art project (funding comes from the Toronto Arts Council). That means the fence can come down and kids can help build.


kids can build with clay

Before the meeting, at the end of the first version of this newsletter editorial, I wrote: The nicest outcome would be if the “Davids” of the bureaucracy (those exist too) and the “Davids” of the community could work together to support the gifts that Georgie brings to the park. Then next year it would be safe to step behind the playground trees again (i.e., the current frequently-used “toilets”), and parents and caregivers could relax when their little ones say, for the third time in an hour: “Daddy, I need to pee!”

Well, that’s what happened. In everyday life, people don’t live happily ever after, as they might in fables. But sometimes things work out a lot better than one expects.


posted October 18, 2006

A DAY IN COURT

Park staff Mayssan Shuja, Amy Withers, Corey Chivers, Anna Galati, ex-staff Daniel Cayley and park friend Jutta Mason went to court in the middle of October to follow up on a big problem at the rink. Last rink season, several “rink rat” youth caused so much trouble and grief in and around the rink house, damaging property and intimidating other rink users, that after weeks of second and third chances and negotiation, the police were called. They searched these youth and one of them was arrested and charged with possession of a concealed weapon (a large knife).

One of the rink staff had been subpoenaed as a witness for this trial. The other staff who came along had all dealt with the youth a lot, and all were very concerned about him, feeling he needs attention and help to change from a very bad direction. But none of the rink staff got to say anything in court. In fact, the whole business was carried out between the Crown – who did not ever ask to speak to any park staff – and the youth’s lawyer, in a side room away from the courtroom. The lawyer said that the case was weak, since the youth had admitted to police that he carried the knife “for self-defence.” That’s illegal, but the lawyer said the youth should have been offered a lawyer before he said anything: “maybe he was carrying the knife to peel apples.” The Crown lawyer agreed that the case was weak. So it was settled between them that the youth would have to work twenty hours doing community service (supervised by the lawyer), and everyone was told to go home. Case closed.

Two months of destructive behaviour by a youth at Dufferin Rink, vandalism of park property and rink staff property, intimidating other rink users, non-compliance with a ban from being in the park, carrying a concealed knife, leading to arrest: the court-ordered penalty is 20 hours of community service at a location of the youth’s own choosing.

Dufferin Rink staff are puzzled that there’s so much talk about the need to connect the justice system with the community. The staff had heard that Youth Court is supposed to be a bit less formal than the more rigid adult courts, a bit more open to talk and real negotiation including all the parties, but the evidence was not there. The reality in this case was that the community affected by this young guy’s behaviour seemed to have no standing at all.

Now the rink staff know that this winter, if they are worried about another kid like this one, they’d better find a different way to deal with the problem. The courts downtown won’t help. Perhaps rink staff and park friends together will be able to work out a more local forum, if there’s a youth in trouble.

There is a little-used provision in the new Youth Justice Act that could allow local police to help with this directly, but police are disinclined to use it because they feel they might be sued. Do any park friends know more about this? If so, please talk to the rink staff: all good ideas appreciated!


posted October 28, 2006

BIO-TOILETS AND COMMUNITY CONTROL

BIO-TOILETS

Park friend and shinny hockey player Veronica Pochmursky, who works at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, sent in an article about “bio-toilets” by Elizabeth Rand-Watkinson, October 27 in the Globe and Mail. This writer describes a Japanese “bio-toilet” soon to be manufactured in Canada. It’s used in very cold climates in Japan and Russia, and in very busy places, e.g. Japan’s biggest zoo, where there are over 2 million visitors a year. The waterless, odourless toilet, with its little rotating augur and fan, sounds very similar to the one being installed at Dufferin Grove Park. But the manufacturer is careful not to call it a composter. He calls it a biodegrader.

The bio-toilet described in the Globe article, like the one that Georgie Donais got donated for the park, has very low maintenance requirements and some remarkable advantages. From the Globe: “Annual maintenance involves the removal and replacement of a third of the supply of sawdust in the unit three times a year. As an added green bonus, the spent sawdust has been effectively pasteurized and contains enough nutrients that it can be safely spread over your lawn as a natural fertilizer. So, you could say your waste produces literally no waste, because everything that comes out of the biotoilet can be put to good use.”

COMMUNITY CONTROL

The Globe writer anticipates a time when these toilets will gain broad acceptance, because – she says – they are so much better for the environment. As became evident this summer, though, acceptance is not quite here yet. Several close park neighbours have tried hard to stop the installation of the toilet in the park. For some time now, they have been calling for more formal community input on all decisions made about the park. Last November, the City called a public meeting at St.Mary's High School to find out whether other voices were calling for a more formal community advisory structure too. Every household in the area got an invitation, and the cafeteria was almost full. But at the end of the meeting it was clear that there was minimal enthusiasm for a formal community council, and no further steps were taken.

That was before the bio-toilet and then the arrival of Foodshare and their youth teaching garden in the park. To stop these initiatives, the question of "community control" was back on the table. It has even become an election issue: Ward 18 candidate Simon Wookey says he will work to create "Park Trusts" to "take the authority from the politicians and put it into the hands of the community." Would that mean -- perhaps -- that the community would have the authority not only to vote on a new kind of toilet, but also on replacing grass with a new garden bed, paving of the central path to make the park wheelchair-accessible, permission to hold a cultural event -- every detail?

If such a system is installed, here's a puzzle: who will be eligible to be a part of any community parks authority? If membership is by election, will everyone in the ward get to vote, or only the people who live within a block of the park? Will frequent park users be allowed to vote, although they live six blocks away, or even in an adjacent ward? (Dufferin Grove Park is only two blocks from a ward boundary.) If not, will that mean that parks are possessions of their immediate neighbourhood, not an amenity belonging to all Toronto residents? If yes, how frequently will a person have to use the park to be allowed to vote on the park authority? How will they prove frequent use?

This candidate’s idea may need a little more thought.


posted November 11, 2006

THE LOCAL POLITICS OF “PARK TRUSTS”

For some time now, a group of neighbours whose houses are close to the park have been calling for more formal community input on all decisions made about the park. Last November, the City called a public meeting at St.Mary's High School to find out whether other voices in the community were calling for a more formal advisory structure as well. Every household in the area got an invitation, and the cafeteria was almost full. But at the end of the meeting it was clear that there was minimal enthusiasm for a formal community council with an executive, by-laws, and regular meetings. So no further steps were taken. Park friends continued to connect mainly informally, all over the park in all seasons, with one another and with the park staff who watched the wading pool in the summer, served Friday Night Supper by the oven, or laced up kids’ skates in winter.

That was before the playground bio-toilet and then the arrival of Foodshare and their youth teaching-garden in the park. To stop these initiatives, the same park neighbours put the question of "community control" back on the table. It has even become an election issue. Ward 18 candidate Simon Wookey says in his election pamphlet that he will work to create "Park Trusts" to "take the authority from the politicians and put it into the hands of the community."

Park trusts are an unfamiliar concept. Would that mean -- perhaps -- that the community would have the authority not only to vote on a new kind of toilet, but also on replacing grass with a new garden bed, paving the central path to make the park wheelchair-accessible, giving permission to hold a cultural event -- every detail?

If such a system is installed, here's a puzzle: who will be eligible to be a part of any “community parks authority”? If membership is by election, will everyone in the ward get to vote, or only the people who live within a block of the park? Will frequent park users be allowed to vote, although they live six blocks away, or even in an adjacent ward? (Dufferin Grove Park is only two blocks from a ward boundary.) If not, will that mean that parks are possessions of their immediate neighbourhood, not an amenity belonging to the wider community? If yes, how frequently will people have to use the park to be allowed to vote on the park authority? How will they prove frequency of use?

In a follow-up pamphlet, Mr.Wookey calls for a “Citizens’ Assembly” to put parks “beyond the whim of politicians and developers” and instead provide “a legal framework for park stewardship in perpetuity.” The Assembly “could be struck from among the various constituency groups that will examine the options and create a plan.”

This proposal sounds rather similar to the option of a more formal structure that was rejected at last year’s community meeting. It seems to leave the park friends at last year’s meeting, who wanted to avoid formal groups, out in the cold. The park staff who are employed by our taxes are also not mentioned. Such an approach would certainly transform Dufferin Grove Park completely. Park friends might want to discuss this new approach with all the councillor candidates in depth. Perhaps it needs more thought.


posted November 11, 2006

EDITORIAL: SHOULD THIS URBAN PARK BE LIKE A PEACEFUL COUNTRY ESTATE OR A LIVELY TOWN MEETING-PLACE?

When some park neighbours recently blocked the establishment of the Foodshare youth teaching garden across from the south end of the mall, there was some talk of a “nimby” group developing in the neighbourhood.

But that may not be a helpful way to understand what’s happening. It’s more likely that opposition to the gardens and the bio-toilet, the market and the “Night of Dread,” does not express a blind “not in my back yard” sentiment, but rather, a real difference in philosophy about what urban parks are for. One kind of park is modeled on the English country estate, with beautifully maintained lawns and graceful trees: peaceful and quiet. The park neighbours who put out pamphlets against the Foodshare youth garden and the park bio-toilet seem to have that view. They worry that the garden would reduce park greenspace by replacing the grass with plants, and that the cob structure around the bio-toilet continues “a disturbing trend regarding Dufferin Grove Park, an incremental loss of open green space.”

In a noisy, busy city, people may often long for a peaceful park oasis of grass and trees and gentle breezes. The problem is, that’s not all that people long for. At a “Parks Renaissance” meeting in Thorncliffe Park (D.V.P. and Eglinton) a few months ago, participants were regretting the cultural difference between Canadians and East Indians that made it so hard for immigrants to have enjoyable family gatherings in parks nearby. It was their impression that born-Canadians prefer orderly, quiet parks with strict permit regulation, and few places to sit, to discourage spontaneous events in public space. Canadians, someone said, have no experience of the liveliness and surprise of public squares such as exist in most of the world. Lots of people nodded.

Generalizations rarely cover all cases. Much of Dufferin Grove Park is lawn and trees, but it also has lots of places to sit, and it has surprise and liveliness. Part of the liveliness comes from the great variety of little and big park friends who are doing things in the park – digging a river or making a campfire or rigging up a skateboard platform or talking to a farmer. Last year Georgie Donais decided to guide five hundred pairs of hands in building a cob courtyard that has now become a much-loved park destination. Last month, three kids in their early teens resolved to build their own BMX track on one side of the adventure playground, without permission, with shovels they brought from home. Then suddenly the three had become eight youth with their bikes, digging instead of playing computer games, trying out their own plan. Will they dig up the whole park, leaving mounds of earth like prairie groundhogs? Will the park be ruined? No, because the park staff will now work out limits on the project with this little group. Even so, that piece of lawn will need some fixing, after the kids’ bicycle adventure gives way to other phases of growing up. Then the grass will be back.

Does tranquility get lost in all that hubbub? Sometimes for a while but not for good. Can tranquility and liveliness coexist in one park? Maybe it can, despite the recent pessimism of some of the park neighbours. If people keep talking to each other, diverse park philosophies can coexist to nourish the spirits of the diverse park users. We’ll see if good will and compromise are as resilient as the park grass.


posted December 10, 2006

Editorial: This Park Now Involves 12 Supervisors

Exactly three years ago, at the time of the 2003 election, Parks and Recreation announced a complete restructuring. The new system would be “structure by function” rather than by location, and it involved an alarming number of separate lines of responsibility, all running to centralized managers downtown. At that time, I prepared an analysis of the new structure and sent it to many councillors. I also gave it to Jane Jacobs, whom newly-elected Mayor David Miller had appointed to a committee of transition advisors. Jane read the analysis and then put the document into Mayor Miller hands personally, telling him that the new system was bad for neighbourhoods, and to please read the analysis. He didn’t have time, but other councillors were concerned about the plans too, and persuaded the mayor to delay the change. So the restructuring was delayed for two years while Parks and Recreation did more consultation.

But in the end, the system was installed in almost the identical form. So now we have to live with it. What it means is that, depending on the issue, Dufferin Grove Park has to deal with the following twelve management staff:

1. Active living supervisor – certification-type sports in the park, e.g. skating classes;

2. Customer Service supervisor – e.g. permits for the rink, soccer, etc., events;

3. Aquatics supervisor – who staffs the wading pool and what goes on there;

4. Youth supervisor - e.g. all matters relating to youth workers, policies affecting youth, the Youth garden;

5. Forestry supervisor – e.g. tree-planting and maintenance;

6. Recreation supervisor – supervisor for existing staff and supposed to be the “quarterback” for issues that need to go elsewhere;

7. Parks supervisor – maintenance of the outdoor parts of the park, responsibility (in part) for the Foodshare gardens and the bio-toilet project;

8. By-law enforcement supervisor – farmers’ market, dogs;

9. Community development manager – interface between the community and “neighbourhood teams”;

10. Facilities supervisor – rink house and field house repairs and maintenance including the Trades;

11. Technical services supervisor – rink compressor plant maintenance, painters and electricians (outdoor park repairs).

12. Rink supervisor – rink ice maintenance.

Back in 2003, Jane Jacobs asked the mayor to let me talk to him about why this complex and centralized kind of structure makes it harder for neighbourhoods to care for their parks. But he never did, and last year when I asked him again, to let me talk to him for only half an hour about parks, he turned me down. You can’t blame him, really – he has a huge city to run and why should he listen to just one person?

But in fact, many more than one person cares about what happens in parks. And Dufferin Grove is a kind of ‘mine canary’ for other parks. Trouble for us often signals trouble for other parks too. An example: recently the park staff here were told that all campfire permits have to be booked centrally and will cost $53.30 each. Then we heard that campfire permits can’t happen at all anymore, in any parks.

Campfires are a wonderful way for people to get to know each other, for neighbours and friends to come together, and – big side-effect – for parks to be safer at night. People at other parks want them too – this is not the moment to cut them. So the new ruling got alarm bells ringing. With the help of Tino Decastro (Recreation Supervisor), his Recreation Manager Kelvin Seow, and Councillor Giambrone’s office, the campfires were saved. They are now slotted as a community-building program instead of another way to charge people fees: $53.50 for adding something good to their parks. A helpful clarification, for other parks as well!

1. that our neighbourhood parks are a treasure that’s meant to be more like a community commons than a golden goose for permit fees.

2. that the new centralized structure needs to be adapted to local circumstances.

3. that this is not the opinion of only one person.

Canadians famously don’t like to complain, and that’s wonderful, but this next term of City Council is the time to let the councillors know when the Parks structure is causing a problem. (That’s not complaining, that’s feedback.) Councillor Paula Fletcher is the new chair of the Parks and Environment Committee, and she seems to understand the particular role of urban parks in strengthening neighbourhoods. We’ll invite her and the other councillors on that committee to the Outdoor Ice Rink Handbook launch at the December 15 Friday Night Supper, and maybe hear a bit more about their priorities for parks. Beyond that, I’ll be looking around for people who are willing to contact their local Councillor on behalf of parks. We might as well try. (Send your ideas to: editor@dufferinpark.ca).


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