June 25: last-minute patching of the wading pool cracks
This newsletter is put out by CELOS, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space. Since 2000, when this little organization began at Dufferin Grove Park, we’ve been doing what we call “theoretical and practical research” citywide and beyond, into what makes public spaces – like parks – more hospitable and more lively. We’ve been researching what works and what doesn’t, and we’ve documented a lot of what we’ve seen and done, in the sixteen years of this newsletter and on our websites. The printing of the paper version of the newsletter is currently supported by the GH Wood Foundation.
The Dufferin Grove playground club
A new club has started up, to help the playground be more like it was in its heyday. For a suggested donation of $5 a year per family, members can get a membership card (kids get their own) and news updates from time to time, and share good playground ideas. To join, ask around at the playground, or email email@example.com.
A parent wrote: "I don't understand the benefit of being a member. I see that you receive an individual card but I can't grasp what we are a member of?"
CELOS response: "the benefit of being a member is that you go from being a person whose children benefit, to a being a friend-of-the-playground who can also contribute -- first off by helping to fund the shovels/pails with your $5; second by keeping informed of any problems that you can give the city staff feedback on; third by sharing your thoughts on how to keep what's good and maybe try some new things.
Playgrounds like this don't create themselves, and they can easily shrivel up, so every friend-of-the-playground is a help.
Hope that explains it a little better. The membership cards are just for fun, as are a lot of the elements of the playground."
The first batch of $5 donations paid for more shovels, child-size brooms, and little rakes. The sandpit area got more donated construction materials for the little engineers to build bridges, dams, and shelters. Members’ suggestions so far include costumes, clay for sculpture, fabric for making tipis and tents, some handy blankets for babies to roll around on, carpentry offcuts and wood glue for building toys. Tuesdays and Thursdays will be special playground activity days.
Water in the park
yellow grass, brown leaves
(1) trees and drought: Much of Ontario has been in a drought. Between June 12 and June 30, Toronto had less than 4 mm of rainfall, but many days of heat. All over the park, the trees – especially young ones – are showing stress – leaves drooping, some already turning brown, bare branches. The park maintenance crew don’t seem to have tree watering in their schedule, so recreation staff have been leaving the garden-club hoses out day and night to trickle water at the base of the trees most affected. Park users can help: if you see a hose trickling water near a tree that looks nice and damp at the base, move the end of the hose to any nearby tree that is dry. The trickle-hoses are already making some trees look happier.
(2) water conservation: from time to time, people who see the adventure playground’s sandpit watertap running all day get worried about wasting all that water on the kids’ engineering projects. So we bought a Lee Valley water meter and measured the volume used in a typical hour. The meter measured 416 liters per hour. The sandpit tap is used about 10 hours a day, so we calculated that the sandpit uses about 4160 liters of water per day.
We wanted to compare that volume to how much the wading pool uses per day – another kind of kids’ water-play. Belinda Cole, a local water conservationist, asked the city for their water meter readings for the park. After quite a lot of back and forth, Belinda got this message from Daniel Galluzzo, Utility Billing Co-Ordinator, Revenue Services:"Requests of this nature should go through the City Clerks office as I am not sure what information I would be authorized to release to the general public about specific properties." (Really?)
So Belinda sent a Freedom of Information request to the city clerk. While she's waiting for the city’s information, we've taken a different route. Belinda’s son Davey White, a final-year student at Rosedale Valley High School, measured the circumference of the pool (just to where the water gets to, when the pool is filled). Then he measured the level of the normal depth of the water. He took these measurements to school, to his math/physics teacher, Dr. Brian Lim. Dr. Lim helped him to calculate the amount of water with these measurements: to fill the wading pool every morning takes 29,060 liters.
This year, the pool is filled twice: first in the morning, then it’s half-emptied and refilled at mid-day. That means that the wading pool uses at least 43,590 liters of water every day, not counting the hosing for pool cleaning. If a dog runs up and puts its paws in the water, or a child gets water up its nose and gags and throws up -- then the whole pool would have to be drained and refilled an extra time.
Because the wading pool is so often off-limits or too cold, the number of children who are playing at the sandpit often exceeds the number in the wading pool. So the ratio of liters of water per child at the adventure playground is actually quite a bit more conservationist than at the wading pool. Better yet, more can be done to conserve the water – see page 5.
Editorial: Jane Jacobs on visionary planning
Before Jane Jacobs died in 2006, a few of us used to meet at her house once a year, a week or two before the awarding of the yearly Jane Jacobs prizes. There was always a potluck supper in her dining-room/kitchen. Jane would sit at the head of the table and grin like the Cheshire cat, sometimes asking questions, and sometimes telling a story herself. The last year we met there, Jane, almost ninety, talked about her book tour (her book Dark Days Ahead had just come out). She had been to Portland Oregon, where she knew a lot of people, and she expected a pretty enlightened audience. But during the discussion that followed her talk, Jane said, people kept talking about “visions,” grand stories about what might happen in Portland in the future. Jane said she asked them, why do you talk about this make-believe future? They said, we have to talk that way. In order to get money from foundations, we have to have a planning vision that sounds exciting to the funders.
Jane said she told the vision seekers in Portland: that’s no good. Stop talking about visions. Do what you see as right for now, and the future will turn out as good as it can.
In the decade since Jane Jacobs died, many landscape planners and urban policy makers have tried to claim her as their own. But Jacobs early on denounced mainstream urban planning as “pseudo-science.” She constantly encouraged people to trust their common sense about what makes their own neighbourhoods work well – taking small steps to address what’s needed now instead of big plans for the longer term. We think that applies just as well to parks.
It seems that Jane Jacobs thought so too. Back in 2003, when city management first introduced the super-centralized Parks and Recreation staffing system (still in place now), CELOS rang the alarm, analyzing the damage that the new plan would do to local parks. We gave a copy of our analysis to Jane, and an insider friend described seeing Jane follow the new mayor, David Miller, down the hall to his office. She was waving our document, asking him to please read it. Cautions came in from many other people as well. After six months of more “community consultations,” the restructuring went ahead anyway. Eventually a new citywide park plan came out, called “Our Common Ground.” It had visions, plans, a lot of numbers and something the general manager called “the wow factor.” Since then, there has been a succession of additional all-encompassing planning reports. All of them involve community meetings, generally sparsely attended, at big round tables, and all of them are visionary. Jane Jacobs said that such a central perspective would give lots of work to planners and managers but undermine local neighbourhoods. We think so too.\
The tricky politics of wading pools in parks, with citywide “harmonization”
Dufferin Grove Park used to have staff that worked at all the different tasks, not like now, where most staff are only doing one thing. In 2003, on Monday June 23, the park’s program staff prepared to open the wading pool a week early (the temperature was 31 degrees celsius and rising). Responding to early heat waves had been the staff's practice for years. But just before noon, their district manager called and said he had spoken to the general manager of Parks and Recreation. Her decision was that the park would NOT be permitted to have the wading pool open until the regular summer opening date, at the end of the week. The new policy of "harmonization" of services mandated keeping all the wading pools closed until they could all be opened at the same time, on a previously established schedule.
Staff were told to turn on the four-foot spurt of water (it used to be at the centre of the wading pool) instead, to act as a "cooling station." So for two sweltering days there was an empty wading pool with only this little water spurt. Six or eight kids at a time had some fun versus the 30 or 40 who could dance in and out of pool when it's filled with water.
We e-mailed the general manager, on Monday afternoon, to seek a change of mind, but she did not reply. Parents contacted their friends across the city, as the temperature continued to rise, and they passed phone numbers and e-mails back and forth. The park phone rang and rang, and so did the city councillor’s phone. Park friends got all sorts of replies from the city staff they lobbied: that the wading pool couldn't be opened because of security issues (?), lack of training, lack of budget, or because of various risk factors; that we already had a lovely splash pad (the four-foot water spurt), that maybe we'd open in two hours, maybe we'd open in July, maybe they'd put you on hold or give you another number to call -- chaos.
yellow danger suit
Then on Wednesday morning the wading pool was allowed to open after all. By noon the word was out and the pool was full of kids, normal for a hot day. A success!
But that was one of the last times public pressure worked for the wading pool. Over the years since then, that simple concrete basin with a drain in the middle became an area so specialized that the wading pool staff have no connection with the rest of the park at all. The yellow danger suits, the new higher levels of chlorine, the frequent additions of icy water, the long periods of off-limits times, the pre-set pool schedule barely influenced by heat or unseasonal cold: all became the new normal. So normal, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine parents even trying to protest about wading pool rules and schedules to their councillors, or the councillors trying to change one-size-fits-all decisions by recreation management. But who knows? Maybe one day soon, common sense will make itself felt again.
More on water conservation in the park
The water leak: When the water was turned on at the playground area at the beginning of this past May, it was immediately obvious that an existing water leak at the wading pool from last year had got worse. All of May and much of June, a steady stream of water leaked out from one of the filling ports and flowed down into the main drain. Falling maple keys and mud made the wet track quite slippery when kids crossed it, and there were falls and teary children.
In addition, the “cementitious” coating applied to the concrete wading pool surface during the 2009 renovation is cracked and deteriorating. On the Saturday before the wading pool was scheduled to open for the season, five technical services staff caulked over most of the cracks, a temporary fix. But no plumbers were sent out until three days before the opening. They fixed the broken pipe in no time, but because the three water services at the playground are all connected, they had to turn off the sandpit water tap, and the drinking fountain, for 24 hours so that the mended PVC wading pool pipe could cure.
By then it was 32 degrees and the adventure playground was filled with little students having their final-week class trips. The kids were disappointed that they couldn’t make rivers and dams (and incidentally, keep cool).
No doubt the plumbing leak should have been fixed as soon as it became obvious, many weeks earlier. There’s a longer-term problem, though, because of the combining of all the water services. Whenever the wading pool is being filled or topped up (often), it diverts all the water from both the adventure playground and the cob café, for as long as half an hour. Not having a reliable water supply is not safe for a food operation and not acceptable for one of the city’s only adventure playgrounds.
So CELOS asked the general supervisor of technical services, John Abela, to come to the park and strategize how to separate the three water services that currently all join together. At first he said no but then he said he would come after all. No doubt it will cost some money. But the city has recently spent over $40,000 putting bolted-down benches into the park ($2530 x 16 benches = $40,480) plus more for concrete slabs for picnic tables, and for a table tennis table. Hopefully that means there is also money to fix longer-term problems.
Maybe there is even enough money to address the question of where the playground water goes. We know where the sandpit water goes – to the roots of the shady Norway maples that seem to be in better health than their age would warrant. But the 58,120 liters of water used in the wading pool every day goes straight down the sewers. So the other question we’ve asked Mr. Abela (who was trained as a plumber) to consider is: how can the wading pool water be distributed throughout the park instead? Readers of this newsletter: any experience you have to contribute is very welcome!
A new central wading pool policy
Central, one-size-fits-all wading pool policy, no matter how mysterious its rationale, trumps common-sense use of a public resource. Central policies do have some interior mutations that result in changes, though. Over the last few years, the rule was that the wading pools would be half-drained and refilled three times a day, in addition to periodic top-ups of chlorine. This year, we heard at the beginning that the new citywide rule is to drain the pools completely and refill them just once in the middle of the day (2 pm at Dufferin Grove), abandoning the half-draining sessions. A week later, it appears that actually the rule is to only half-drain the pools once a day, that's it. Your newsletter editor contacted the media office to fact-check what the policy would be this year, but the answer was indirect and then the line went dead.
At the beginning of July, a wading pool staffer said that this summer they would be taking their staggered half-hour lunch breaks at 2 pm as well, so that in fact the pool would always be off-limits between 2 and 3 pm, when there is only one staff person while the other one is on their lunch break. However, three days later a different staff person said staff don't need to close the pool while one of them is away for lunch and the other one is alone. Which is the case? We should know by the end of the first week in July, or perhaps the week after that.
Interestingly, the law does not actually require wading pools to be guarded by staff – lawmakers felt that any responsible adult would do. City management does not promote this idea. But during those hours when there are lots of children in the wading pool, parents and caregivers should be as watchful as if there were no wading pool staff. Sometimes the staff’s attention wanders or their iphone is vibrating too urgently.
Happily, during those chlorine top-ups or water-draining or staff lunchtimes while the pool is off-limits, the watertap at the adventure playground’s sandpit stays on. So there is still fun to be had: shady waterplay, making rivers and building bridges.
city-issue wading pool supplies storage box
Separate storage for wading pool chemicals and supplies
The wooden shed near the cob café was built in 1993 with funds donated by the Dufferin Mall, for use as a playground program shed. It now has three uses: storage for the cob café supplies, storage for wading pool equipment and chemicals, and playground program supplies. That’s too crowded! So over the years most of the play supplies have been squeezed out.
Almost all other city wading pools have their own large city-issue locked storage box for their materials and their chemicals. We’d like city aquatics staff to place that kind of storage box at Dufferin Grove, so the shed can have space for the playground supplies again. Up to now, the answer has been no. Time for playground users to step up and ask Councillor Bailao for help? 416 392-7012.
The skateboard park gathering for skateboarder Justin Bokma, Sunday July 3.
An unusually large group of Toronto skateboarders and friends came to the unofficial skateboard park on the Dufferin Grove rink pad on Sunday July 3, to skate and talk about their friend. He was killed at a shooting at an after-hours club in Kensington market early Friday morning. Mr.Bokma was a doorman at the club, but when he was younger he was a professional skateboarder, and obviously he had many friends and people who admired him. There was a lot of beer around at the gathering, but park staff Anna Galati did not interfere on this occasion. She just went around in a friendly way with trash bags and kept picking up the empties, and then encouraged the skateboarders to leave, around 7.30. Nobody got out of line, but everybody looked pretty somber. Who can understand such a cruel act?
From park friend Silvie Varone:Dufferin Grove Skate Park is already a destination for kids of all ages. However, like most skate parks it is predominately used by males. 'Skate Like a Girl' is an event to carve a welcoming space for young girls and less experienced skaters. Trying to 'switch the stance' of skate parks so girls can feel empowered to hit the ramps and learn the fine art of skateboarding, make new friends and carve their space in this awesome community.
Please join us Sunday July 10, 12-3 at the skatepark. Featuring the Babes’ Brigade, prizes giveaways from Vans, Roller Derby ladies, music and of course skateboarding.
Brought to you by Skater Moms and park friends Michelle Webb and Silvie Varone. No we don't skateboard.
Time to make the campfires like those in the rest of the city?
When the neighbourhood campfires began at the park in 1994, they were meant to increase the “eyes on the park,” at a time when the park could be dangerous in the evenings. Nowadays the park is much like other parks, pretty benign, often full of people just talking or picnicking or playing a game. Most of the campfires no longer keep an eye on the park either – they are generally social events not very different from lively parties, focusing entirely on invited guests.
The only difference is that campfires at Dufferin Grove cost slightly less than half of what the other 17 public campfire sites in city parks cost. That’s why there are now 500 to 600 campfires a year at this park – too many. The staff have trouble keeping up with them, and other park work – like attending to the playground or the rink – sometimes gets short shrift. Beyond that, the cheaper rates at Dufferin Grove are unfair to other neighbourhoods, when participants here can well afford to pay the going rate. Time for a change?