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Editorials 2007

posted December 30, 2006

EDITORIAL: RINK CROWDING

Almost fifty years ago, on January 3 1958, the Toronto Star ran an editorial called: "If Sardines Skated They'd Choose Toronto." It said: "Skating is not much fun when people have to wait in line outside for half an hour or more, and then go on an intolerably crowded ice surface..."

There’s no waiting in line outside Dufferin Rink yet, but for the first time this December, the rink staff considered it. Why was the rink so crowded?

There are several reasons: first, two other double-pad rinks nearby, Wallace and Harry Gairey Rinks, were recently rebuilt. Although there are 8 months to do construction when the rinks are not running, the work didn’t begin until fall. Then there was a lack of inter-departmental collaboration, compounded by absent City managerial staff during holidays. So the two rinks were unfinished, and stayed closed, long after the beginning of the three-month rink season. They were closed right through most – or all – of the school holidays. There were many days when no construction took place. The buck didn’t stop anywhere. So more skaters came to Dufferin Rink.

The second reason why so many people come here is that although there are 49 other compressor-cooled outdoor rinks in Toronto, many of them are not that enjoyable. The simple things that make Dufferin Rink pleasant – reliable ice maintenance, cheap, wholesome food, lots of places to sit, the fire in the wood stove, and kids’ books to read there; capable, knowledgeable staff who work together with rink users – are in short supply at many other city rinks. So people come to Dufferin Rink from all over the city, and eventually the rink gets too crowded.

There are several remedies for the crowding. One is for rink users to let City management know that they have to do better when carrying out building projects. Our park researchers will write a report for the City Councillors on the Parks Committee, describing what went wrong at Wallace and Harry Gairey Rinks, and we’ll follow up to see what the councillors do in response.

The second thing is to keep trying to “take the show on the road.” Dufferin Rink staff sometimes go to other rinks when they’re not working here, talking to rink staff, giving them our new rink handbook, offering to collaborate. This is a dicey thing to do, since the Parks department is run enough like the military to raise issues of insubordination, if a lower-rank staff objects to the way a rink is run. So giving the other rinks a boost won’t work unless rink users at those rinks also get involved.

Back in the 1950s, when the Star wrote its “sardines on skates” editorial, a much-loved commissioner of Parks named Tommy Thompson got his staff to put up signs in all the parks: “Please walk on the grass.” The right sign to make the outdoor rinks better would be “Please talk to staff when you don’t like something.” Canadians famously don’t like to complain, but the City staff (see the contact list in “Night-time noise at the rink”) , and City Councillors, need to hear – from lots of people – how their rinks could be better. The compressor-cooled rinks that the city built over the years work very well in the warmer winters we’re having. They deserve to be better run, so that people can enjoy the rink in their own neighbourhood, and not be forced to travel far to this one.


Dec.27


crowded rink


crowds outside
 

posted February 03, 2007

EDITORIAL: COOKING FIRE WINTER SAFETY TESTS


Dufferin Grove soup pot

There was a flurry of e-mails and phone calls after the cooking fires were halted. The Fire officials e-mailed a protocol that required all cooking fires to be 100 feet from any structure (including the concrete rink house). That would mean no cooking fires, ever, at Dufferin Rink nor most other parks. A meeting was held, not involving any Dufferin Grove staff or friends. Councillor Adam Giambrone’s office tried to help.

But dealing with issues of safety is tricky nowadays. Hypothetical risk scenarios often trump examination of actual experience.

Cooking fires in parks are a gray area for Fire Departments. There’s some margin for error, since you can’t set a whole row of houses on fire, as you might if a gas barbecue canister explodes on your back patio. There’s also a specific exemption (no fire permit required) for small cooking fires in the provincial Fire Code legislation, although Toronto Fire Services seems to dismiss that. But the main thing is: Fire staff want to make sure that nobody gets hurt by fires, and so do Dufferin park staff. An opportunity to work together for a good cause!

Time for a bit of science. I’ve asked Councillor Giambrone’s office if they would request Toronto Fire Services to set up some public show-and-tell fire demonstrations, while it’s still winter, at Dufferin Grove. With fire trucks standing by (or the long, powerful zamboni hoses from the garage poised), park staff will make their usual-size cooking fire 100 feet away and the fire staff will demonstrate how this will set a structure on fire 90 feet away (e.g. the concrete block rink house, or the children’s garden fence. If that doesn’t work, the same tests can be done with a cooking fire 50 feet away, then 20 feet, then 10 feet, then 2 feet.

Then the park staff will make their usual-size cooking fire four feet from a tree, and the fire staff will try to show how that fire can set the tree on fire in winter, or singe it. And last, the fire staff will be asked to force some sparks from the sheltered rink cooking fire site onto the nearest wood: the benches, the garden rail fence, and the wooden boards covering the concrete community oven. This final part of the experiment would show whether, in the cold of winter, these structures can catch fire from sparks.

On the basis of these tests, Fire Services could then re-write their cooking fire protocols for parks, with a full sign-on from park users and on-site park staff. For example, even though the sheltered rink cooking fire circle (only used in winter) has not set the fence or the oven on fire in the past 6 years, what are the practical ways staff could make sure it doesn’t happen in the next 60 years either?

Applied science at its best! To find out more about the timing of this public demonstration, or to get involved in this issue: www.dufferinpark.ca “campfires.”

From park friend and researcher Belinda Cole:

“A clear principle in any democratic society is that people must know what the laws are, that they are expected to obey. In the case of this park, City officials have too frequently issued spoken edicts that have closed down or interfered with interesting and much-loved park events and projects, without making it clear what – if any – law or regulation forms the basis for their demand. (It’s also important to remember that city policy is not law in itself, and so it must be backed up by law to be enforceable.)

As citizens we are, of course, obliged to obey actual laws that are clearly presented and explained to us. At the same time, when a civil servant appears to be acting in an arbitrary way, beyond the scope of his or her authority, there may be legal avenues for challenging such behaviours and actions. This is a question worth researching.”


You can read the thread of conversation about this issue so far or email campfires@dufferinpark.ca if you want to receive email updates. You can also have a look at our campfires page for information about the campfire program, and Campfire Protest Letters for some community response.

posted March 13, 2007

Whose parks are they anyway?

On January 26, 2007, the existing campfire permission in Dufferin Grove Park was cancelled. Thirteen years of campfires at the park with no injury, and suddenly they were stopped!

The Parks supervisor was concerned about the safety of having all those campfires in parks, and unhappy about their “inadequate protocol.”

When the order came to cancel the campfires, Dufferin Rink staff had to call all the people planning birthday parties or family get-togethers around campfires, telling them their gathering was off. (The staff said it was not a happy job, making those calls.) One woman wrote a protest e-mail to the Parks supervisor, so he let her have her campfire after all, even though everyone else was banned. A new, uniform protocol, now meant to apply across the whole city, was devised, rewritten, and rewritten again. The first meeting to discuss the new fire protocol didn’t include any Dufferin Grove Recreation staff or park friends. The next two meetings allowed two recreation staff to come, but still no community people.

All was confusion. One day it seemed that all campfires would revert to the jurisdiction of the central permitting office, costing $53.50 each time, with no recreation staff supervision. Then it seemed that recreation staff would have to be present every minute to oversee the campfire groups – a staffing expense for which there is no budget (and no need). It was impossible for park friends to get a place at the table, to be part of the discussion.

An e-mail to ‘campfire friends’ brought the letters to the Councillor and the mayor’s office which are excerpted in the campfire handbook above. Four days later, and still before any new rink protocol was offered for public presentation, the Park Supervisor called Dufferin Rink to tell the Recreation staff that the campfires had been temporarily restored. This would be in effect for a weekend, or maybe even for a month. The rules would be the old fire safety rules that have been in place for thirteen years, now renamed the “Pilot Project” rules.

Meantime, meetings continued. As time went on, e-mails began to accumulate. Only some of these e-mails were sent to me or carbon copied to me, so the chronicle that follows is a bit like looking through a keyhole, with only my e-mails clear to me and the staff exchanges spotty. Even so, I have enough to make a twenty-page narrative that I’ve called “The campfires of bureaucracy.” It gives an idea of the twists and turns that follow when open conversation is excluded and orders are unilateral. The “f” word reared its head: failing to meet conditions, failure to comply; and “p” words peppered the e-mails -- Permits, Pilots, Policies, Protocol, Procedure, Process. Thirteen years of campfires at Dufferin Grove Park were made to sound like an illicit activity. Although the park campfires were established and have been maintained for many years with the explicit blessing of both the Fire Department and Parks and Recreation management, the new wave of Parks management seemed to find that hard to credit. So their first step was drastic: to halt all the campfires. Only then did they begin talking, still in a very limited way that mostly kept park users out of the conversation as outsiders.

This development has been both astonishing and frustrating to park friends. There’s an urge to say “I don’t need this,’ and leave. But when citizens are met with a series of bureaucratic “No’s” in their public spaces – not only for campfires, but for so many other initiatives too – and they turn away, their parks often become orphans. Following the bureaucrats and challenging them to open up to citizens is a difficult alternative, but it has a chance of working out better in the long run.

Tracking the bureaucracy starts with finding out who’s doing what with their power. To that end, here is the story so far. Read more >>

PUBLIC MEETING: THE FUTURE OF DUFFERIN GROVE PARK

Tuesday June 26, 7.00 pm (pizza at the ovens from 6 – 7.30 pm)

Things have been a little rough for the park since the Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division restructured last year. Management’s effort to mark out clear boundaries between the functions of the Parks staff and the functions of the Recreation staff seems to have exacerbated the silo effect. Campfires, washrooms, the farmers’ market, park bench repair, bake oven use, rink house access, curb cuts for bikes – everything seems to be problematic! It takes a lot of extra time to work out the problems raised by the new structure. To get an idea of how many negotiations are needed to straighten out every new blockage, take a look at the park web site’s problems and solutions section – click on “campfires partly restored.” Or try “field house washroom maintenance,” or “illegal ashes.” In the spirit of having as much public documentation as possible, every salient e-mail and phone call is recorded there. When reading the threads, few people make it to the end. It’s tiring!

Park friends are not the only ones getting tired of the ambiguities. City Parks director Paul Ronan recently sent this e-mail:

“We have been directed by [general manager] Brenda [Librecz] to work out a park use agreement for Dufferin Grove. Parks staff recreation staff and the Councillor and [park friends] will be fully involved in developing this agreement. I look forward to reaching a positive healthy relationship where roles and responsibilities are clearly understood and followed.”


Brenda Librecz

This is a very good idea. It won’t be easy, though. Many of the same activities that are loved and cherished by park users are seen as problems by Parks management. The director is worried about what the City lawyers and the Auditor General might think if they become aware of this park. And he has good reason to worry – another period of major insurance-anxiety is upon us, and our politicians are passing laws that have unintended negative consequences on public space. Some of the laws have penalties for public servants if they don’t make people comply.

The Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS, pronounced “see-loss”) has been looking into the liability issues. The research so far is fascinating. CELOS is ready to help take up the general manager’s directive, to start formal discussions about how this park can best be cared for by the City.

Hopefully the discussions here will help out at other parks as well. Park friends who come here from other neighbourhoods have often sighed that they’d like their local park to be more lively and more of a neighbourhood meeting place. How to build warm, fruitful collaboration between City Parks staff and park users – that question is relevant to other city parks too.

Councillor Adam Giambrone and his assistant Chris Gallop have worked hard to broker agreements and address the public space problems as they come up. Now it’s time to broaden the discussion to include upper management and draw in as many park users as possible. On Tuesday June 26, there will be pizza and pre-meeting information displays at the bake oven from 6 to 7 pm.) Watch the web site thread for more information: click on “park use meetings” in the problems and solutions section.

Editorial

posted July 14, 2007

ANOTHER NOISY BIO-TOILET MEETING

Friday July 13, 2007

The playground’s cob courtyard (its thick walls made with “cob” – i.e. clay, sand, straw, and water mixed together – a bit like adobe) was originally built to frame the required public-health sinks for the wading pool snack bar. During the summer of 2005, about five hundred people participated with park user and builder Georgie Donais to shape that little courtyard, with more than just sinks -- a fireplace and a green roof and even a baby changing station. But one element was still missing: a toilet handy to the playground. Playground users have been asking for such a facility for many years, but there was never enough money – building a new park washroom costs between $150,000 and $350,000. What to do?

Georgie began to research the newer kind of industrial-strength composting toilets that are increasingly used in public spaces where location and circumstances prohibit standard plumbing hook-up. She visited such installations, made phone calls all over the country, consulted with the park managers, and applied for a grant to help build a simple cob shelter around a “Phoenix” brand composting bio-toilet. She found a donor for the $9000 toilet. She designed a cob shelter with bas-relief sculptures in the walls, and the Toronto Arts Council approved a $10,000 “Community Arts” grant. The park’s Recreation staff helped Georgie to set up a playground meeting to discuss the project. Work (with volunteer help) began in July 2006.

But then concern among some park neighbours that the toilet would be more like a smelly chemical toilet than an ecological break-through, put the project on pause. A large community meeting reaffirmed broad support for the project, but continuing opposition even made the bio-toilet a local issue in the November municipal elections. The Parks department, interested in the possibilities of park toilets which don’t require costly plumbing infrastructure, hired Martin Liefhebber, an architect well-known for his green credentials. The City followed up by hiring engineer Kharyn Chau to help the small cob toilet housing meet the building code. (The building code does not specifically address earthen building processes, so the engineer has had to work hard.) Now the engineer and the architect, consulting with Georgie, have almost finished adapting the toilet and its building to the regulations.

So on Friday July 13 City Councillor Adam Giambrone held another information meeting. This was the fourth public discussion meeting about the subject, and the crowd had distinctly dwindled from the last time, but there were still about 25 people pro and 8 against (plus several people there to protest the Lansdowne road narrowing). The convictions of the people on either side of the toilet did not seem to alter in any way, and at times the meeting became so noisy that the Councillor said he would have to leave if people did not allow him to chair.

Where that leaves the bio-toilet: Parks supervisor Peter Leiss confirmed that the City is committed to trying the Phoenix toilet as a pilot project. He said there’s no City money for any new plumbed toilets, and although a company might be found to fund them, that would come along with the right to have advertising inside a city park – not yet permitted by the City. (Italics are Peter’s). The modifications to the toilet and its little cob enclosure will increase the cost of the project to about $15,000 more than the money raised for it. There is good hope that the City will be able to cover that cost, especially since bio-toilets seem to be the coming thing: the City of Edmonton has commissioned a bank of Phoenix bio-toilets near its downtown, a similar model is reportedly servicing the busiest zoo in Japan, and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority has installed some ‘eco-toilets’ in their office building in Vaughan. Hopefully the toilet will win over its opponents when it’s actually built – a real, existing bio-toilet may be worth a thousand words.

posted August 20, 2007

BUDGET HOUSECLEANING

Mayor David Miller lost the first round of his attempt to gain some more taxes for the city by charging drivers and new house buyers extra. He may win the next try – after all, cities are legally required to balance their budget, and right now the 2007 municipal budget is over half a billion dollars too high. City Council will have to do something. What’s more, Toronto’s debt (from capital expenditures) is about to hit 2 billion. So it’s no wonder that when City Council refused to order the new tax now, the Mayor asked City staff to help out by reducing City operating expenses by $100 million.

He can ask, but can the City management deliver? It’s tough. In the case of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, they’ll have to reduce their almost-$300 million operating budget by at least $5 million this year. How can that be done? There’s a hiring freeze now, but just paying the existing staff rises by $9 million a year because of negotiated pay increases and cost of living adjustments. These pay increases for permanent workers and management have hit Parks, Forestry and Recreation even harder because over 400 staff positions were added in the past four years, bringing the total staff positions to over 4000. And just hiring more staff doesn’t seem to help get the work done: new trees still don’t get watered, picnic tables and benches rot for want of paint. Meantime, formerly free programs have escalating user fees, which still fall far short of covering the operating costs. It’s a puzzle that will have to be solved soon.

CLEANING OUT OUR OWN PANTRY, MAKING DO WITH WHAT WE HAVE

Every park has to help reduce the operating costs while the City tries to dig itself out of its deepening fiscal hole. Here are some immediate suggestions for Dufferin Grove Park, based on talking with on-site staff and park users.

  1. Put the $250,000 wading pool rebuilding on hold. That’s a capital cost, but since the money for such capital projects is entirely from borrowing, there will be interest, charged to the operating budget. (And a City that’s $2 billion in debt should suspend borrowing more, maybe…)The wading pool still works fine except for the antiquated system for turning the water on and off, which can be fixed by some skilful plumbers.
  2. Reassign the extra two staff who drive into the park every night and lock the field house washrooms. On-site recreation staff can resume locking the washrooms as they have for years, helped out by volunteers.
  3. Cut grass cutting by half. This will free up maintenance workers for other tasks (like fixing missing bench slats and helping with tree watering) and save on fuel as well. No need to run the big diesel mowers during the dry days of summer, even if a few hardy grasses pop up to sway in the hot breezes.
  4. Free up existing Parks by-law workers to deal with dog problems and other major issues. They can focus on bigger problems by collaborating more closely with Parks maintenance staff and Recreation program staff, who can deal with the little annoyances in the day to day. At the moment, there’s so much specialization of function that by-law officers often operate without direct communication with on-site staff. This has sometimes caused confusion and the need for extensive bureaucratic damage control – costing extra hours for a lot of people.
  5. For winter: fit the rink season more to the angle of the sun (open earlier and close earlier), to reduce energy costs for keeping the rink frozen, and at the same time to reduce ice repair time for the workers (the high sun of March makes ice maintenance much more time-and-energy-consuming than the low sun of November).
  6. Encourage park workers (maintenance and program workers, supervisors) to use bikes or the TTC to go between parks when possible, saving fuel and repair costs for City vehicles.
  7. Reduce paperwork by letting Recreation staff resume doing programming without having to clear every detail with two other branches (Permits and Parks maintenance). The amount of internal paperwork even for long-established programs, in the new centralized departmental structure, takes a lot of extra staff time at every level.

In the mid-August print run of this newsletter, we’ll have some larger recommendations for the Department as a whole, with more details about money that can be saved. Park users, this is your chance to shine: add your suggestions and either tell them to on-site Recreation staff or email them to: editor@dufferinpark.ca.

posted August 20, 2007

BUDGET MATH FROM OUR “CELOS” RESEARCH GROUP:

Mayor David Miller lost the first round of his attempt to gain some more taxes for the city by charging drivers and new house buyers extra. He may win the next try – after all, cities are legally required to balance their budget, and the 2007 municipal budget was over half a billion dollars too high. City Council will have to do something. Here’s the math:

The big-picture financial situation: Toronto’s debt (also called “liability,” from capital expenditures and employee WSIB claims, retiree benefits, sick-leave pay-outs and employee separation costs) has increased every year and is now $2.39 billion. (For comparison, from 2005: Montreal: $6.049 billion debt. Ottawa: $253 million debt. Vancouver: $7 million debt. Calgary: $561 million assets. Edmonton: $2.531 billion assets.) Interest payments on the city’s debt come from the city’s operating funds: almost $203 million last year, if we read the financial report right. And Toronto’s operating expenses continue to rise. In 2005 the gross operating budget was $6.8 billion; by 2006 it had risen to $7.1 billion.

The Parks, Forestry and Recreation financial situation: It’s no better. The major chunk of the operating costs is staff payroll, and in the last four years, as the budget over-run increased, so did the size of the Parks, Forestry and Recreation staff. Management staff seems to have gone from 161 to 226 in since 2003, an increase of 65 management positions. 25 of those staff plus the general manager earn over $100,000 (several earn close to what the mayor earns, on either side.) During those four years, permanent full-time staff went up by 250, from 1556 to 1806. The increase of part-time/seasonal/casual staff during that four years brings the total “full-time equivalent” positions at Parks, Forestry and Recreation from 3592.7 in 2003 to 4005.7 in 2007, with another 111 positions approved for the 2007 budget: a total increase of over 500 positions in four years. (Note: these numbers are taken from the analyst budget notes and audit reports of the various years. The reports are rather confusing, and CELOS tried to check these numbers with the financial staff. However they were unable to respond within two weeks.)

Meeting such a payroll is made even more difficult by the City’s cost-of-living allowance and union agreements, which mean that even if no more staff were hired, the payroll for Parks, Forestry and Recreation would still go up by around $10 million (wage increases) every year. And from the 2007 budget analyst notes: “Due to the mix of its staff complement, the Program’s salaries and benefits are likely to be overspent again in 2007. No provision has been made in the 2007 Recommended Operating Budget for higher overtime costs or unachievable gapping targets.”

But the staff numbers don’t tell everything. The disparity in incomes among Parks, Forestry and Recreation workers is also remarkable, with some supervisors of as few as 3 -12 people earning up to $87,000 a year while many recreation program staff make less than $20,000, with little outlook for improvement. In addition, during this time of steep workforce increase, the number of plumbing staff to fix water-fountains and park toilets was cut in half, and picnic tables and benches stopped getting repaired.

The payroll together with other costs means that the Parks, Forestry and Recreation budget 2007 is around $303.4 million gross (we couldn’t find the exact number in the documents). Revenue from permits, user fees and various provincial and federal grants reduces the budget size to $226.146 million. But that’s still quite a lot.

posted August 20, 2007

HOW TO CUT COSTS AND STILL HAVE FUN

When Mayor Miller raised the alarm, City managers decided that one way to save money was by cutting the hours of Parks and Recreation part-time workers. Community centres are to be closed on Mondays; outdoor ice rinks are to stay locked until January; golf courses will close a week early; and the cleanup workers will disappear from the parks well before the leaves fall.

There are some puzzling things here. For example: community centres also make money, by charging fees for daycare or weight rooms or swimming lessons. Laying off the part-time program staff will save on wages but will also mean lost fees (and full-time staff will have to be paid whether the centres are open or not).

As for keeping outdoor ice rinks closed until January: these rinks use less energy during the low-sun months of November and December. Not opening them until the days are starting to lengthen means higher energy costs. (Earlier opening and earlier closing would make more financial sense). In addition, the City has just spent $10.3 million doing energy retrofits on all the outdoor rinks and some of the indoor ones. And according to the capital projects list on the City’s website, $4.089 million was just spent doing repairs and replacements of outdoor rinks citywide last year. In this neighbourhood, for example, Wallace Emerson just got a new rink for $1.1million, and Dufferin Rink got new pipes for $200,000 this spring. Does it really make sense to board up the house after you just renovated?

It’s possible that the outdoor rinks have been selected because the energy retrofit program is unusual. It was done on the assumption that if the City borrowed the $10.3 million to put in weather-stripping, pipes-insulation and computer controls for the ice-making plants, the energy savings would be so high that the retrofit work would in effect pay for itself. The money saved on utility bills would be used to pay off the loan. However there was no reliable baseline of previous energy costs, and now, as utility costs keep going up anyway, Parks Forestry and Recreation must pay high utility bills and the borrowed money – at the rate of $1.3 million a year (for the next ten years). What’s unusual is that the money must come out of the operating budget, which is also meant to staff the rinks. It may be that Parks management is a little doubtful about the “deemed savings” forecast for this project (without an energy baseline, who can tell if the City got value for money?). However one sure way to reduce energy costs is not to run the rinks.

There must be better ways to save money than these citywide closures. One suggestion: save money on payroll. Since management staff are the highest paid, they can set the good example. If each of the 226 management staff of Parks, Forestry and Recreation worked one four-day-week a month, expenditures would go down nearly $1.5 million (yes, “Rae days” for management). That’s a start! And there are other good possibilities, long-term solutions to a problem that won’t go away even with new taxes. This needs well-informed public discussion! CELOS is putting together its Parks, Forestry and Recreation budget report for citizens, so everyone can help with solutions. Fact-checking has been tricky since questions often take a long time to get responses. But the report’s first version is almost ready – watch for it at the park or on the web site. It will make lively reading, and hopefully, lively discussion too.

EDITORIALS - BUDGET CUTS

GOOD PARK STAFF ARE NOT “DISPOSABLE”

Mayor Miller’s directive to cut $100 million from the city’s operating budget this year, in preparation for even harsher cuts next year, resulted in staff cuts affecting the lowest-paid and most vulnerable staff at Parks and Recreation. There’s quite a range of pay in this department: 25 of its 200-plus management staff make over $100,000 a year, with additional 24% benefits on top of that. At the other extreme are the many recreation-program casual staff, who earn $20,000 if they’re lucky enough to get close to full-time hours. It’s those staff who have been told that their hours have been radically cut (especially if they work in the 50 outdoor rinks). This includes students working for their tuition, and much of the “new blood” in the department, young people willing to put up with the wages for now in order to get established.

The mayor’s cuts have not touched management nor full-time union positions. Their wages are secure even if the rinks and community centres are locked and the parks are full of litter. But because the casual staff run most of the programs, shrinking their hours also affects park and community centre users the most. Treating these staff as “disposable” is a very bad idea. The best of them are increasingly forced to abandon their interest in public spaces and take up other work. In that way, cuts made like this are worse for public space than vandalism. The mayor’s plan need re-working.

PROGRAM CUTS FOR PARKS AND RECREATION


Dufferin Rink

In August City Manager Shirley Hoy announced major cuts to city services that would affect most people in Toronto. The most immediate effect on Dufferin Grove is that the rink is supposed to stay shut for the busiest part of its season (the month of December). Mayor David Miller says that this is necessary because his new taxes on house sales and car registration were defeated by City Council.

From the CEntre for LOcal Research into Public Space (CELOS):

There are alternatives to Mayor Miller's budget cuts. Here is a menu of "better budget cuts" for the Parks and Recreation budget. Cutting Mondays at recreation centres and also outdoor rinks, and cutting litter picking, are cuts designed to cause "maximum distress" (quote from former finance committee chair David Soknacki) to get people's attention. There are many better ways to save money -- the list below is from analyzing the Parks and Recreation budgets since 2001, and also canvassing parks staff at various levels and locations for their ideas. Many of them also think there are better choices of cuts than the mayor's list. This is the time for park users and park workers to speak up....

BETTER BUDGET CUTS FOR PARKS AND RECREATION

1. Cut one day a month for each of the 226 (or so) management staff. Save $1.5 million in a year. Right now the City is only cutting the hours of their lowest-paid staff. Those cuts add up much more slowly (except in the eyes of the lowest-paid staff whose small wages go down even lower). Interestingly, it seems that lots of management staff are willing to take these days off, and even those few days yield an impressive saving at their rate of pay.

2. Cut one director and his/her staff, maybe the folks whose main job it is to “evaluate, recommend and initiate innovative advancements in regard to service integration trends.” There are now 7 directors plus one new “acting director” whose job it is to connect silos built by the other 7. Some of the directors make nearly the same salary as the mayor – that adds up. Save $1.62 million.

Some of the staff can be moved out into the field, they can help run the rink programs. The casual staff program wages are about $20,000 a year if they get near-full-time hours.

3. Reduce the number of Parks trash police (and their supervisor) by half. They don’t keep track of how many people they catch (Freedom of Information says there is no report on their output), so it’s hard to know how many officers to cut, or even how many there are. But cutting four could be a good start, which leaves at least four more to do dog enforcement in their spare time. Save $400,000 (counting benefits and new trucks).

4. Move one-third of the Parks and Rec Youth Outreach Workers (called “yow’s), over to public health. One-third of 21 means seven YOWs, those ones whose job is to “provide general information and referral services to the designated youth groups, on recreation, housing, employment, education, health, other services and establish positive relationships with youth, agencies, police, schools and the broader community.” Public health has lots of new funding from the Province. This staff transfer would give them new, suitable youth staff without the necessity of interview or orientation. Save $490,000 for Parks and Rec to put toward opening the City's 12 double-pad outdoor artificial ice rinks in mid-November – using the formula that one good pleasure-skating and shinny-hockey rink equals 10 good YOWs-worth of youth work.

5. Cut out the Parks, Forestry and Recreation Divisional Safety and Security Plan officers. They’re an expensive way to do evening washroom lockup in parks and an inefficient way to relate to troublemakers. Save $350,000 (or maybe more, the project is partly confidential). Restore the recreation staff to their former role of fostering security: long-term work with youth and communities. (Instead of what they have become now: book-keepers for shrinking program revenues.) Leave the crisis work to real police officers. Parks and recreation centres were safer (and cheaper) when recreationists were still allowed to use their skills. (See by-law story "New By-law Officers".)

That’s $4.36 million saved for starters. It’s only a drop in the bucket of the 2007 PFR operating budget of $303 million. The CELOS research group has more good suggestions, and so do some of the City workers. This list is just for the short term, to prevent the Mayor’s cuts from punishing citizens and front-line program workers.

EDITORIAL: A LITTLE FARMERS’ MARKET HISTORY (by Jutta Mason)

About ten years ago, the farmers at Toronto’s only organic farmers’ market (at that time) found out they had lost their regular location on Markham Street. At that time Mario Zanetti was the director of Toronto’s Parks and Recreation Department. He was a “let’s try and see what works” kind of guy. He said that if the market wanted to relocate to Dufferin Grove, he couldn’t see a problem with that. So there was a bit of discussion with some of the farmers at that organic market, but in the end they settled on going to Queen Street instead.

Then in May of 2001, Elizabeth Harris started the first park farmers’ market in Toronto, at Riverdale Farm near Parliament and Gerrard, every Tuesday afternoon. It was an organic market, and Elizabeth asked whether somebody from Dufferin Grove would be willing to come and sell bread. There were no park bakers then, so toward the end of the first Riverdale market season my daughter Kate and I began baking bread to take to that market. The sixty loaves we were able to bake were always sold in half an hour, since Elizabeth had laid the groundwork well and lots of people came.

In February 2002, the park newsletter ran a query from Anne Freeman: would people in the neighborhood be interested in a Dufferin Grove farmers’ market on the model of Riverdale market? There was lots of enthusiasm, but by then the Toronto Parks bureaucracy had grown enormously (amalgamation). The obstacles seemed daunting.

That spring, Dufferin Grove had park bakers for the first time: Anna Bekerman, Jenny Cook, and Caitlin Shea (who were working at the park already) stepped up to bake for Riverdale market on their off-day. Bread production went up immediately, but the trip across town in mid-afternoon was always a cliffhanger. (Baking all day, then loading up a borrowed car with the table, the baskets of bread, the cutting board, knives, butter, cleaning supplies, fanny pouch with enough change, bags, tablecloth, then getting stuck in the heavy cross-town traffic, setting up late, etc. etc.)

Vendors at farmers’ markets talk to each other a lot. One day near the end of the second Riverdale Market season, farmers Zalia Conde and Lorenz Eppinger were chatting with us about how much they’d like to carry on selling through the winter. Zalia was a baker as well as a grower, Lorenz had lots of storage vegetables, and both were convinced that a year-round farmers’ market made it much easier for farmers to build a regular customer base. Besides that, they wanted a second location in the west.

James Dann was the Parks manager at that time, and he was willing to try a market at Dufferin Grove, since there seemed to be a lot of community enthusiasm. Word had spread fast, because of the newsletter and because the park web site and a neighbourhood e-list had already been started by Emily Visser and Bernard King. So it was resolved to do a west-end market following the good model that Elizabeth Harris had worked out with the farmers at Riverdale.

On the first day, Thursday November 7, the farmers set up a spectacular display of produce, pies, and meat. The park bakers had an overflowing bread table. The contrast between the cold outside and the cornucopia inside the rink house was astonishing. For their part, the farmers were surprised by the warm welcome they got from the market visitors. And the market customers found, from the very beginning, that it took a long time to shop, because there were so many familiar faces, and so much news to exchange.

The rest is in Anne Freeman’s description on the facing page. She left out one very important thing, though: after the first year of the Dufferin Grove market, it became obvious that there was too much coordination for the Dufferin Grove staff, or the ad-hoc market advisory board, to manage. The market needed a real manager, and Anne Freeman seemed like the obvious choice. She needed some persuasion, but when she agreed to be manager, it was a lucky day for the market. So the 5-year birthday cake, baked by the park bakers, is also a cake for Anne.

MORE RINK NEWS

Last April, the little research group called CELOS presented an “Outdoor Rink Report” to City Council’s Parks and the Environment Committee. The report had a lot of inexpensive suggestions for improving the outdoor rinks. The councillors asked Parks staff to consider the report and come back in three months with a response. Three months turned into 9 months (it’s now due to be discussed in January). Meantime the budget crisis, looming for years already, broke over the city, causing havoc. To save money, the outdoor rinks were to stay closed until January 2008.

Then MasterCard gave its “opening the rinks after all: priceless” donation, soon followed by the passing of the new taxes. However, by all accounts Toronto is still short of meeting its 2008 operating budget. We’re missing another $240 million, and so it seems likely that new cuts will continue to be made.

It would be good if city management was a bit more careful when making the next round of cuts. So CELOS is continuing its budget inquiries (see web site news p.6). And city staff have begun talking to the rink researchers and other rink activists, to begin making some improvements. The list so far:

Costanza Allevato, the acting Toronto/East York Recreation manager, has assigned staff to do “facility audits” of all the rink change rooms, to check for 1. benches, 2. bulletin boards, 3. working phones, 4. rubber mats, 5. broken vending machines, 6. signage (e.g. change room, staff office) and 7. cleaning supplies. By mid-November these audits will be done and repair orders issued where necessary. “Active Living” staff Vanessa Anderson is reorganizing the city’s rink web site to be more informative and current.

Kevin Bowser, the citywide Outdoor Rinks manager, has committed to having outdoor rinks unlocked and accessible for skaters during all daylight and early evening hours even when staff are not there. He and his rink supervisors are working on placing shovels at every rink, plus training rink staff to work with rink users who want to shovel snow off the ice when the zamboni is unavailable. The rink supervisors will make sure that every rink has benches to sit on. When advised that many adult shinny players disagree with the city’s helmets-for-shinny policy (on the books for five years but not enforceable so far), Mr.Bowser agreed to look into the process of making this policy.

On the subject of the rink season corresponding to the angle of the sun (opening mid-November and closing at the end of February), Mr.Bowser said there would have to be public meetings. Since CELOS rink researchers have done energy-conservation and ice-quality research supporting a return to the earlier opening and closing, they will be working with any city councillors who want to consult with rink users, on this and other outdoor rink issues. Adding windows to windowless change rooms and staff rooms will also be on the agenda. No budget for simple things like windows and rubber skate mats doesn’t mean giving up. Other solutions can be found, as Ryan O’Neill from Jimmie Simpson Rink shows us: “I took the initiative to help with the rubber mat situation. I got in touch with Universal Services, a company that deals in rental floor mats. I asked what they do with the used mats that are no longer in circulation and offered them a way to creatively recycle them, and they were all for it. So I've got around 200 mats that I'm picking up next week.” That’s an inspiration!

WEB SITE NEWS

The park web site, which has grown too complicated, is about to get simpler. The “research” section, which deals with larger City budget questions and freedom of information inquiries as well as some local issues, is gradually being moved over to the new CELOS website, celos.ca.

CELOS (pronounced “see-loss”) stands for the CEntre for LOcal Research into Public Space. Its mandate is to do both practical and theoretical research. For example, helping people who want to try a park campfire in their own neighbourhood park is practical research; finding out why there’s no money in the $60 million Parks and Rec capital budget to fix the players’ box at Wallace Rink is theoretical research.

The “City Rinks” section, which gives a lot of information about outdoor rinks elsewhere in the city as well as Dufferin Rink, is being moved to the new cityrinks.ca website (and being merged with “saveourrinks.ca”). In addition, the grant CELOS received from the Trillium Foundation has allowed quite a few other groups to set up their own wiki websites, very simple to post. So some of the dufferinpark.ca “neighbourhood news” items are now posted on those separate web sites: campbellpark.ca, wallaceemerson.ca, tibaldiparkette.parkcommons.ca, macgregorpark.ca, greenhere.parkcommons.ca, and perth-dupont.parkcommons.ca.

The dufferinpark.ca website is gradually getting caught up with its “problems and solutions” section, which catalogues and archives the ongoing care of the park. More pictures are being posted too. Joseph Lo (a Master of Architecture student from the University of Waterloo), doing his thesis on Dufferin Grove, sent a whole lot of old photos and old maps of the park that he found at the City Archives. Heidrun Gabel-Koepff will be posting them this month. It appears that there used to be a fountain in the middle of soccer field, surrounded by many trees. The photos show early flowerbed plantings, lots of grass tennis courts, Dufferin Street with only two lanes, and neighbouring houses which are hard to place now. Have a look – Heidrun will put a page link on the home page when she’s done the postings.

CONGRATULATIONS, DAVID ANDERSON!

Clay and Paper Theatre’s long-time director David Anderson just found out two days after the eighth annual Night of Dread that he has received a Chalmers Arts Fellowship from the Ontario Arts Council. This fellowship is endowed by the Chalmers family, which donated more than $9 million to the arts in Ontario. Here’s what the fellowship is for: The program provides financial support directly to artists so they may have the opportunity to dedicate themselves to individual creative pursuits. The program aims to provide such support at moments in artists’ careers when a concentration on personal and/or artistic growth or renewal and exploration is most likely to have the greatest impact on their long-term artistic and career development.

David plans to travel to Portugal to learn more about puppetry traditions there, and to return (for the third time) to the Republic of Georgia, where he already has many folk-art friends. Dufferin Grove Park will see the effects next year: congratulations!

WHAT ACTIVITIES MAKE POLICE STOP AND QUESTION PARK USERS?

Almost two years ago, a CELOS freedom of information request asked for all police incident reports over 4 years at Dufferin Grove Park (minus names). Until recently, no one found time to analyze the data. Now CELOS researcher Corey Chivers has gone through all the reports and made a pie chart to show what makes police question park users (notably 43% of the activity regarding loitering). This seems to suggest the need for some follow-up information, but first the chart has been sent to Fourteen Division Superintendent Ruth White, asking for help with clarification.

 

WOMEN OF WINTER WANT YOUR UNUSED SKATES, AND CANADIAN TIRE $

Deirdre Norman, of the Women of Winter shinny hockey program, has been gathering skates for the new Wallace Rink skate-lending program. She and her hockey mates are also collecting donations of Canadian Tire money (or just plain money) to buy a special High Park-style zamboni tent so that Wallace Rink can house a zamboni onsite. Now that Wallace Rink has been rebuilt so nicely, it’s time to help it work better. To contact Deirdre: hockey@thewomenofwinter.com, or leave a message at 416 392-0913.

Newsletter and Website Credits

Newsletter prepared by: Jutta Mason
Illustrations: Jane LowBeer
Web site: Henrik Bechmann

Park phone: 416 392-0913
E-mail: mail@dufferinpark.ca
web address: www.dufferinpark.ca

THE BIO-TOILET: EDITORIAL

Artist's conception of the
Dufferin Park Bio-toilet

Bio-toilets (modern composting toilets), of the sort that Georgie Donais got donated for Dufferin Grove Park, have passionate friends – and passionate enemies too, such as the park neighbour who wrote in her blog recently that she had worked hard to bring in “enough building inspectors to delay the shithole for 2 years.”

Despite that kind of opposition, new bio-toilet projects seem get written up in the papers every few weeks now. Since Georgie Donais began the project at Dufferin Grove, a bio-toilet was put in at the Markham Fairgrounds, where there can be 100,000 people visiting a weekend event. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority has put in a bio-toilet staff washroom for 45 people at their offices in Vaughn. Their resource project manager Dave Rogalsky said "Using technology such as the compost toilet is a matter of changing people's perceptions. The idea of it can give people the creeps. But we’re committed to sustainability and our site was 400 metres from city services, so compost toilets were an easy sell.” They figured out that the bio-toilets reduced their water usage by six times the norm.

The City of Edmonton parks system has put in bio-toilets that will be up and running by next summer. The Bronx Zoo in New York City has “eco-restrooms” designed to accommodate more than a half-million visitors per year, with 14 foam-flush bio-toilets and four waterless urinals. The Mountain Equipment Co-op in Winnipeg has bio-toilets, and so does the CK Choi Institute of Asian Research at UBC in Vancouver. They figure that their five units save nearly 100,000 gallons of water per year.

Meantime it seems pretty clear by now that Parks management is not much interested in supporting the Dufferin Grove bio-toilet project. Georgie Donais was only occasionally allowed to be at the table when the plans were drawn up by the architect hired by the city (an architect for a toilet is unusual, but that’s what the inspectors required, after the project’s opponents alerted them). Since Georgie was not allowed to be a full participant in the planning, the building permit that came through has some serious problems. But the foundation plans are fine, and that part might have been started in September. It seemed like the City’s own workers might take on the foundation contract, since it mainly involved pouring cement, something at which the city’s Technical Services are very experienced. However, Georgie was not allowed to talk to them directly – everything had to go through Parks supervisor Peter Leiss. After three months of keeping her waiting, Mr.Leiss finally let Georgie know that Technical Services wouldn’t do it. And so on it goes, with blocks and inaction in every direction. .

Georgie has written to Mr.Leiss that she can’t continue to work on this basis: “It is clear to me that we continue to have two very different ideas about what kind of cooperation and collaboration it is going to take to get this project successfully completed….It is time for the city to stand behind its stated commitments both to water conservation and to community collaboration.”

It may be that the issue will need discussion at the Parks and Environment Committee, to see whether environmentally-minded councillors can direct Parks management to stop dragging their feet.

The city’s commitments to water conservation are firm, but sometimes hard to see in action. Certainly the drought this past summer and fall was a warning, but conserving water during that time by not watering the newly planted trees seems like it was a bad idea. Better to try an ingenious little waterless technology that can be built and installed with hands-on help from park users, and that can add fertility to the park instead of sending more sewage to the lake.

posted December 16, 2007

So Many Youth!

Many of you who've been skating at Dufferin Rink already this year will have noticed that the rink is at times almost overwhelmed with teenagers.

For reasons that sociologists may understand, Dufferin Rink has become a cool (hot?) place for youth to see and be seen, more so than ever before. Richard Sanger gave us a poem that explains some of it: Law of the local rink

It's very good for youth to have a reason to go out and get fresh air and good exercise. On the other hand, it's not so good to have them overwhelm other park users. Mixed use is ideal.

I want to let you know that the rink staff are acutely aware of the problem. They're trying various things --

1. a lot of talking to youth about their behaviour 2. no campfires at Dufferin Rink in the evenings for a few weeks (these tend to be another youth magnet) 3. As of Dec.14: a regular "Friday evening dance party" at WALLACE rink, i.e. skating music, with a campfire and hot dogs and hot chocolate, to draw youth over to another rink (share the wealth!) 4. As of Dec.21: a weekly youth campfire at CAMPBELL RINK. 5. Additional outdoor supervision at Dufferin Rink, except when short-staffed.

I think this concentration of youth at Dufferin Rink is a temporary problem but if you love to skate there, YOU CAN HELP too:

1. Please report ALL disruptive behaviour on the rink to the inside rink staff, RIGHT AWAY. (Don't grin and bear it.)

2. If you hear the "F" word, or related expressions, say "hey, watch your language, there are kids around!" -- in a firm but nice way. Many of the youth are actually embarrassed when they forget, and they say "uh, sorry." Feedback is very helpful.

3. Give the rink staff a copy of your favourite low-key classical CD. The rink staff will be playing a little quiet music inside from time to time, to shift the tone.

It takes a village to raise a youth. And mixed in among these youthful goofballs are a few very troubled and unhappy youth whose family circumstances are rough, and sad. Some use the park as their winter home, and the rink staff work with them especially. These kids can use substantial kindness, and firm guidance too. Every little bit helps.

posted December 20, 2007

PEACE ON EARTH AND GOOD WILL WITH PARKS AND RECREATION

After last January’s campfire ban, the rink-stairs barriers, and more recently the almost-cancelling of a third of the outdoor rink season, the mood between CELOS and Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) was not very happy. (CELOS is the little public space research group that began at Dufferin Grove park about five years ago.) So in November, CELOS board member Jane Price wrote a letter to Brenda Librecz, asking for a meeting. Brenda is the general manager of PFR, and she’s awfully busy. But she invited CELOS to come and meet with her for 90 minutes on December 20, and so Jane, CELOS researcher Belinda Cole, and Jutta Mason went down to City Hall.

Brenda brought her assistant Wynna Brown and her director of Management Services, Ann Ulusoy. The conversation (in a little huddle in the corner of an empty and gigantic Committee Room Two) touched on many points, and actually went on for two hours. It seemed that the desire to pull together instead of doing the tug-of-war was shared on both sides. Brenda said, so let’s try it, let’s try and develop a new model of working together.

Open conversation seems to be the first thing. Brenda said she plans to invite one or two people from CELOS to speak about their work in local city parks, at a citywide supervisors’ meeting in February. Around the same time she’ll bring Jutta along to a meeting of a local PFR staff “Neighbourhood team.” And Wynna Brown will help to defuse crises like the campfire troubles before they get big.

So: friendly relations between park friends and City Hall return, just in time for the holidays. That’s a pretty good Christmas present, to everyone involved.


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