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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.


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