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posted March 29, 2004

March 2004: As spring comes nearer

As spring comes nearer, the park is undergoing its yearly transformation. Suddenly the people are back! In the playground, on the soccer field, on the basketball court, at the oven, sitting on benches, everywhere. Five days in the park, to show what I mean:

On the last Thursday in March it was 17 degrees, and the farmers' market --still inside the rink house -- was swamped. The farmers say they're used to that --as soon as it gets warm, people feel like coming to a market and getting some greens. Colette Murphy, who sells organic and heirloom seeds at the market, was surrounded by gardeners. (And our young park garden volunteers have trays and trays of yoghurt containers filled with dirt, set out on the rink house windowsills, carefully marked for their seed type.)

The next day, Friday, City Councillor Adam Giambrone brought three members of a delegation from the municipal region of Southeastern Botswana, in Africa -- the mayor, the CEO, and the head of their HIV/Aids Homecare program -- to Friday night supper at the rink house. We don't normally have Friday night supper between seasons, and originally, none was scheduled. But Councillor Giambrone urged us to put on a special supper, in the spirit of hospitality -- the Botswanians had asked to meet some ordinary Torontonians. So we put the word out through e-mail and a few posters, and very soon the dinner was all booked up. Jesse Archibald, the new baker and cook in the park, made up a menu, and he and the park crew cooked a very fine meal. The delegation from Botswana were welcomed by over seventy neighbourhood people (kids, parents, grandparents, friends).These Botswanians were so inspired that they stood up in the middle of dinner and each of the three gave a short speech. We found out that over 30 per cent of the younger people in Botswana have HIV/Aids, and that our visitors feel deeply grateful to Stephen Lewis for bringing the African catastrophe to public attention. But we also found out that Botswana, a democratic country, has enormous waterfalls and other beauties that tourists would enjoy: they are eager to see us over there!

And when Councillor Giambrone took the visitors out to the ovens and pointed out various parts of the parks where people play sports, where they have campfires, where the Clay and Paper puppets perform, the Botswanians said: it sounds like you have many different villages here, rather like in our country.

The following day, Saturday: there were tables set up outside the zamboni garage for a rather different event, a pre-demonstration lunch for protesters bound for an immigrant detention centre in Rexdale, called the "Heritage Inn." The lunch was put on by the Ontario Coalition against Poverty, and the volunteer cooks had prepared it in our new kitchen (squash soup, salad, park oven bread, juice or coffee). Your editor walked around picking the winter's litter out of the native species gardens, and listening to the speeches. Some of what she heard made her wonder if the young speakers had skipped out of history class most days when they were in school. But the speakers' reminders about our government's recent treatment of Muslim immigrants made your editor ashamed. One speaker described the high fence around the detention centre: chain link on three sides, but wood on the side facing Rexdale Boulevard -- wood to hide the sight of detainees standing at the fence, looking out. Presumably there are too many long-established immigrants in this city who can remember being locked inside a displaced-persons camp after various European wars, looking out through a high wire fence. They might not take kindly to this flashback to their own captivity. So our government will hide the detainees -- children included, of course -- with a high fence you can't see through if you're driving by.

When the speeches, ranging from foolish to gripping, were done, four Laidlaw buses pulled up and the demonstrators filed onto them and left the park. Evidently you can rent Laidlaw buses to take you anywhere, whether to a school game or a revolution -- it's all fine as long as you pay your rental.

The next day, Sunday: the day of the seventh annual pre-Passover matzo baking. The community oven had to be lit early, so it would be burning at over 500 degrees before the matzo-making began. Annie Hurwitz and Ron Paley arrived with their kids and with all the supplies -- new tablecloths and rolling pins and little dough-marking tools, all kosher -- around 11, and they set everything up. Then from noon until 4, families came across the park from all directions, to go off again a little while later with brown paper bags holding the bread they made. That was some hubbub! -- of talking and rolling dough and giving advice and snippets of history and waiting for a turn with the peel. Jessica Moore, the oven staff person, was continuously at the oven until 4 p.m., and then she had a very stiff back from bending over for so long, pushing the matzo bread in and out. But she said it was beautiful, to see that mindful gathering, preparing for their festival.

Gene Threndyle, the gardener who made the park's marsh fountain and many of the other native species areas, came with a few people from Wychwood Barns park (the former TTC streetcar yard), who intend to build a bake oven on their site, very soon. These visitors looked at plans and they measured our oven and then most of them went off with our step-by-step picture album, which we made when master oven-builder Alan Scott was here in 2000 helping us build out second oven. Gene stayed behind and sprayed the park's three cherry trees with dormant oil (it stinks like rotten eggs). Then he worked for some hours cleaning up the marsh fountain and the other Garrison-Creek-bed gardens. He broke up the dead stalks left over from last fall and spread them on the beds so they would be prickly and uncomfortable, preventing any homeless person from moving their bedding into the gardens.

A group of actors based in Halifax arrived too -- a troupe called "Zuppa Circus" -- to settle on a location for their June performance as part of the "Festival of outdoor theatre." They walked all around the park trying to imagine it as it looks when the trees are in leaf, and the gardens are so tall you can't even see through to the other side. They settled on a spot near the playground rain shelter. The giant Uzbhekistan yurt belonging to Michele Oser and Ian Small will be the backdrop to their play.

After their decision had been made, about where to perform in June, the actors all went to the bathroom in the rink house before getting into their car. They had been at a conference on Maritime Theatre (in Toronto!) and were leaving the city right then, to drive all night, so that they'd get back to Halifax in time for the Nova Scotia theatre awards the next evening. We gave them a bag of park bread and some park cookies for the road. They headed out the door of the rink house just as a group of <b>marimba players</b> were carrying their big wooden marimbas inside for a rehearsal. And after the marimbas were done, it would be the turn of the Darbazi Georgian choir practice.

Then Monday: the day turned out so sunny and warm that -- despite it being a workday -- the park was lively with people again by late afternoon. This time the action was focused on the basketball court. The park has so many schools nearby. All the benches near the court were filled with giggly after-school girls, watching and commenting on the players. Beside the bake oven a young man waving a bottle of beer was rapping to another group of (unimpressed) girls. The song had obscene references holding it together in a tight weave. (Ugh.) Even more a sign of spring, though, was the presence of two -- then three more, then another two -- pit bulls straining at their leashes. Their young owners, like the robins, return to the park at the first whiff of spring, and for a while late Monday afternoon the park rang with the dogs' high-pitched barks. Your editor zigzagged from group to group on her bicycle, berating them about the bad image they were getting by having so many pit bulls in the park at once. These groups are accustomed to the park's editor/nag, arguing with them about their dogs and their language and the music they try to plug into the park electrical outlets. There is fondness as well as suspicion on both sides of this cultural divide -- the editor and the youth are at the same time glad and exasperated to see each other, taking up the same old arguments they left off when last winter came.

Our visitors from Botswana were right, though. This is a park with many villages in it, and now that spring is almost here, they're all coming out, right along with the tulips.

Jutta Mason

posted April 3, 2004

Correspondence with Bellingham, Washington State, April, 2004

Just before Easter I got a letter-to-the-editor from Jeff Bode, a baker in Bellingham (near Seattle). He had read in our market news (posted on the farmers' market page) that we wanted to lower the prices of our park bread, and he wanted to know what we were charging. He also said he's interested in doing a public oven in Bellingham. I wrote back:

Hello Jeff, what a funny world in which you, from clear across the country, know that we're fiddling with bread prices over here.

In the end, instead of lowering the prices, the bakers increased the weight of the loaves. We charge $3.50 a loaf for most breads, $4 a loaf for fig/anise and pumpkin seed/sesame seed bread (anything that has pricey igredients). Of course that's in Canadian dollars and so it's not the same as it would cost in the U.S. Our new and really good baker thinks we're a bit strange to sell the bread for those prices since we can sell it higher, but that's not really the idea we had when we set this oven thing up. Peasant food (e.g.good, artisanbread) isn't meant to migrate completely into the stomachs of the affluent. The most fun we have with our bread is to sell it by the slice at the rink snack bar in the winter, 25 cents a slice with butter. That's less than a whole loaf would go for, but it's worth it, to see all the shinny hockey kids stuffing their faces with organic bread instead of chips or MacDonald's (we're across the street from a mall).

I don't know if you've seen our oven web page since we posted the photos of how the oven was built, but they might be interesting for you if you have to persuade some municipal staff and need documentation:

Then Jeff wrote back in more detail about his efforts to make good bread:

Thanks, Jutta. Yes, I saw those good photos. I heard about Dufferin Grove Park from Alan Scott, in July 2000 correspondence after I had a similar idea. So, of course, and thank God, you're fiddling with prices by now. Whereas, I'm still haggling with bureaucrats; but of course, Bellingham is 1/12th the size of Toronto, so the concentration of building officials per square cm is higher.

I share your philosophy, about what prices ought to be, but the market here most definitely does not. Although Bellingham is in one of the poorest counties of Washington, currently, in direct sales, my 0.4 k boules fetch US$5.00; I sell more 0.9 k boules for $10; and decorated 2.0 k go for $25-30. But these are not even brick-oven breads. I bake in two conventional gas Vulcans with tray-size baking slates. The only masonry ovens here are used by pizzarias, although the WoodStone factory that makes them is right here! I don't think these prices could last, and I intend to lower them once I've got my brick oven going, but sometimes, I despair that what true peasant bread prices would really take is a village of serfs.

Last summer some folks and I who founded the local Slow Food convivium had a booth at a farmers market, to promote Slow Food and the market. Two chefs showed up early, got farmers to donate ingredients, and went back to their kitchen to prepare ... yummy bruschetta-like bread toppings. Meanwhile I baked. Then we went to the booth, I grilled slices, a chef topped it, and we handed out slices free to all comers, along with recipes and the message that this is what you can do with food you can buy here. Of course, that was popular; but it was also incredibly rewarding, just as you must feel feeding those teenagers.

Anyway, your detailed story of how Dufferin Grove Park was reclaimed, is bound to be useful in dealing with the city. You folks have created a wonderful precedent.

posted May 3, 2004

Correspondence about clubs for kids, May 2004

From: H.L
Sent: Friday, May 14, 2004 9:53 AM
Subject: no more camps

I am disappointed to hear that there will be no summer camps taking place this year. This means that only children with a stay at home parent who can afford the club fees (i.e. wealthier parents) will be able to take advantage of the programs. I suppose there are other school-age programs in the city, but it would be nice to have something in out neighbourhood. My kids are not school age, and this in no way affects us, but I was thrilled to see such interesting programs available. I am not quite sure what the problem was involving supervision (perhaps more staff were necessary) but that is the nature of camps and other supervised activities ... no one anticipated this?

I hope this idea will be revisited in the future -- it was marvellous, and I am sure there are lots of resources that the park could draw upon to make it work.

Hello H.L.,

The city of Toronto runs quite a few summer camps nearby: if you want to find out more, call the Wallace-Emerson Centre at 392-0039. I think you will find there is plenty going on in our neighbourhood.

However the city has not run a camp out of Dufferin Grove Park for many years. The few camps we've had had been either Steve and Julie's environmental camp, or (last year) our Friends of Dufferin Grove Park experiment.

Camps are a very big responsibility because of the "duty of care," so they are like nothing else that happens in the park. The staff who worked there last year found it too much when combined with all the many other things they have to do at the park.

(Note: our park has as many things going on in it as a busy community centre. Our city budget is currently at $61,000, which we overspent last year. A busy community centre tends to be around $400,000 minumum, some much more. You see our staff problem.)

As for "anticipating this," quoting your letter, it's because we gave careful thought to our experiences last year that we decided not to do a camp again this year. We have only so much energy, imagination, and time available (from the staff) and we're trying to deploy them as sensibly as we can. Plus they have to attend the wading pool and that is of course, mandatory.

The clubs are an interesting way to use people's talents and put a kind of energy into the park that suits it (parks are primarily meant to be open spaces and not custodial spaces). I think if you look carefully you will find that it is by no means only wealthy parents (i.e. who can afford not to be working 9-5) who bring their children to the park. There are many people who try to make sure they have flexible hours in summer, or who do shift-work, or who try to scrape by on one salary even if it's not big, to allow them some more flexibility in their lives. Especially in summer, parents go to all sorts of trouble to give their kids a sense of getting off the school schedule for a bit.

The clubs are meant to make it easier for all those folks, to contribute to the ingenuity of parents in making nice summer days for their kids. As you will see when you look at our rather preliminary description on the web site:

-- there is no mention of what the club fees will be. We'd like to have most clubs either free or pay-what-you-can. So if you were worried that you don't have enough money (if one of the clubs interests your kids), don't worry.


posted June 3, 2004

Can the big drums come to Dufferin Grove Park? (June 2004)

A couple of years ago, a samba drumming group started coming to the park every Sunday afternoon to practise for 3 hours. Although they were very nice, their three-hour boom-boom just about drove the neighbours crazy. So they had to go back indoors to a community centre to practise.

A few weeks ago, on the last Saturday in May, a new group showed up at the park: the Maracatu Nunca Antes or Maracatu Toronto. This is what they said in an e-mail they sent to our web site:

"we're an afro-brazilian percussion group dedicated to the study of afro-brazilian rhythms beyond samba. This summer we shall be parading and participating in numerous festivals including Harbourfront Ritmo Y Color, Hillside, Om, Celebrate Toronto, Muhtadi's iNt Drum Fest, Kensington Harvest Fest, among many more... We are looking for an outdoor space (a park especially) to hold rehearsals on Saturdays between 4 and 6pm. We thought that because many of our members live in the College and Dufferin area, and we all know Dufferin Grove well, we would see about the possibility of holding some rehearsals there. The dates we are looking at are May 29, June 12, July 3rd, July 31, and possibly two Saturdays in August. For more information, pictures, and video clips about our group please visit Our group contains between 15-20 percussionists at a time and dancers with big colourful skirts."

On May 29, the group started off practising in the middle of the park, and you could hear them blocks away. We asked them to go down the hill toward the fountain and Dufferin Street, and so, without missing a beat (they're a parade band, of course), they all walked down the hill, drumming and swaying, and held the rest of their practise there.

The hillside was dotted with people watching and having a really good time. So maybe we should try it again. Most of the band's rehearsal times are at three week-intervals. Park neighbours, let us know how the next time (June 12) is for you, by calling the park at 416 392-0913, or e-mailing Maybe this time it will turn out that nobody is unhappy, and there will be a lively show at the park a few times this summer. Certainly it's obvious, watching the band, that they LOVE to play outside in the sunshine, the rhythms are exciting, and they look and sound beautiful.

Maracatu Nunca Antes or Maracatu Toronto

posted June 3, 2004

Editorial: Visions (June 2004)

Monday June 14: This evening I was bidden to Jane Jacobs' house for a potluck supper. I get an invitation once a year, a week or two before the new Jane Jacobs Prize winners are announced, because I'm one of the stable of past prize winners. We get to meet the winners for this year first at Jane's house, but we're not allowed to tell who we saw there, until the public ceremony a few weeks later.

Jane, almost ninety, sits at the head of the table and grins like the Cheshire cat and asks questions, and here and there she tells a story. This year she talked about her book tour (her book Dark Days Ahead just came out). She was in Portland Oregon, she says, where she knows a lot of people, and she would have expected them to be a pretty enlightened audience. But they said some very strange things, she said: they talked a lot about "visions." These visions were all grand stories about what might happen in the future. She said to them, why do you talk about this make-believe future? They said they have to talk that way, because of the foundations. In order to get money from foundations, they have to have a vision that sounds good to the funders.

I said, in Toronto it's not only foundations, it's every department at city hall, that has people sitting around in planning meetings, making up visions. Mary Lou Morgan (from Foodshare), who was one of the first people to get the Jane Jacobs Prize, agreed. She said most of the visions are so huge that the city could never afford to carry them out.

The latest visions for Parks and Recreation are now being developed by journalist <b>Elaine Dewar</b>. I went to a meeting about the departmental strategic plan which the strategic planners are developing for city council approval on July 5. Brenda Libricz, the acting general manager of Parks and Recreation, said they hired Dewar to "toughen up the document." They want a journalist to make the plan "street proof" - so that the public will pick it up and read it and go "wow."

The third draft of this document is up on our Research page ( at Parks and Recreation Revolution, right column). It is certainly floating in a sea of visions. I wish Jane Jacobs would come to one of the strategic planning gatherings, to tell the city planners exactly what she said she told the vision seekers in Portland. She told them: stop talking about visions. Do what's right now, and the future will turn out the best way it can.

What's right now is taking good care of the sports fields and the flowerbeds, the benches, the picnic tables; putting good staff in the playgrounds to keep them friendly and interesting; fixing what's broken; removing the bureaucratic blocks that keep people from enlivening the parks with their picnics and their performances and their diverse street foods. Then people will go "wow." Visionary documents developed in meeting rooms by computer data analysts (which is the way we're headed) will never nourish public space in that way - or in any way at all, seems to me.

posted July 16, 2004

Open Letter to the City: Dufferin Park Improvements

I was very glad to hear that councillor Giambrone has found some funds for Dufferin Grove Park. This is a great opportunity to make some long overdue improvements. It also opens up the possibility of getting an early start on carrying out the recommendations of the new Parks and Recreation Strategic Plan.

Could you pass along the following suggestions (as starting points) when you meet with the councillor on Monday?

  1. Path paving: asphalt paving of the main park thoroughfare, which is now a dirt track. also paving the diagonal path leading from the main track to the Havelock street south-east entrance. (Strategic Plan recommendation number 10; estimated cost: $70 000.)
  2. Overball/Volleyball court improvements: relocating the Sri Lankan's court to beside the field house, levelling and sodding it, and installing 2 lights. Requested by park users for 9 years now. ( Strat. Plan recomm. number 26; est. cost: $7000.)
  3. Field house electrical upgrade: combine the volleyball lights installation with an elctrical upgrade, recommended by Property Department 8 years ago. (Strat. Plan recomm. number 10; est. cost: $3200.)
  4. Cricket: purchase a movable cork cricket mat and install a storage shed for it and other sports equipment, beside the soccer field. Requested by both East and West Indians from Dover Square Apartments for 4 years now. (Strat. Plan recomm. number 26; est. cost: $8000 - $12000.)
  5. Performance lighting: purchase the same kind of performance lights as are owned by Perth-davenport Community Center, for storage at the rink house and rental to groups wishing to perform music/theatre/other evening events in the park. (Strat. Plan. recomm. number 45; est. cost $3000.)
  6. Gardens and compost: install fences around children's herb garden, as well as around new south-east leaf compost area, for continued environmental restoration and care of the park. (Strat. Plan recomm. number 1-6: est. cost $2500 - $5200.)
  7. Tree planting: purchase 10 new trees and have volunteers plant them near dying trees. (Strat. Plan recomm. 6,11; est. cost $2500.)
  8. Multicultural community garden plots: install a small "life gardens" area in the south-west area of the park, near existing water line. fence it and plow it in the fall, build garden shed. (Strat. Plan recomm. number 17,45; est. cost $5800.)
  9. Homeless youth: hire some street youth to help build a low wall, stone BBQ, and flagstone surface beside the bake oven; use this project as a way to also draw street youth into the bake oven program. (Strat. Plan recomm. number 32; est. cost $11000.)
  10. Tandoor oven: build a small Tandoor oven with help of local north Africans, supervision from Bianca Morgan (park staff with experience in building with clay and straw). Requested by park users for 4 years. (est. cost $7100)</p>
  11. Rain shelter bench rebuild: to make the lockable benches finally work. (unfortunate design by Planning and Development architect in 1998.) ( Strat. Plan recomm. number 10; est. cost $520.)

Those ideas are for starters. all of them have been under discussion for some years. We would be ready to start some of them almost immediately.

I look forward to hearing the meeting's response.

Jutta Mason

posted September 4, 2004

Lessons Learned from the Park Debt (September 2004)
The Bigger Picture

When the many people who are friends of the park first found out that the park was in arrears, lots of us thought up fundraising ideas. But just the thought of some of the effort that would be needed made us tired, particularly because this was another very active summer in the park and some of us were already tired. In the end, it seemed that directly asking people to give between $25 and $50 was the best way to get out of our hole. That turned out to be workable. However, it's not really a way to run a public park in the long run - public space is meant to be tax-funded.

The trouble is, over the past eleven years this park grew from being a bit of an orphan, and a convenient neighbourhood short-cut to the mall, into a community-centre-without-walls. But as more people began coming to the park for open-air enjoyment of one kind or another, city staffing followed only reluctantly. The availability of food in the park has grown, and that means more income is available to run the park as well. However, the food income has become so important to running the park now that any threat to the food operations (and there are undoubtedly more regulatory troubles to come) will endanger what goes on here. To put some numbers on this:

Total city recreation wages paid at Dufferin Grove Park Jan.1, 2004 to Aug. 29, 2004: $71,382.34

Total cash wages for additional recreation and maintenance activities paid at Dufferin Grove Park (mainly from food income) Jan.1 to Aug.31: $46,455.73

So the real cost of running the park (not counting the city maintenance, as far as it goes) will be greater than $120,000 by the end of the year. Compared to community centres with walls, that's not bad. For example the two nearest centres to our park, Wallace-Emerson and McCormick, cost nearly $1 million a year (in tax money) to run, despite their income from permit fees. (The number of people who use a built centre and the number who use a lively park like ours is similar, with the park sometimes coming off slightly better.) So, running a park like a community centre could be seen as a bargain.

The city has a heavy financial burden in running all its community recreation centre buildings. For one thing, there are so many. Within 5-15 minutes by bike from our park, in various directions, there are six community recreation centre buildings, and there's strong pressure to build a seventh (Wabash). The cost of staffing and maintaining all these buildings makes it very hard for the city to find enough money for the simpler operations, like our park. City managers struggle and plan and have meetings and set "productivity" targets. And as the centres turn more and more to "pay per use," the community public space element gets weaker. Whole sections of community centres can be pre-empted for paid permits: for example, movie shoots (Trinity Bellwoods), or after-hours clubs (Masaryk-Cowan) or private swimming-pool birthday parties (Wallace Emerson). And still the centres are far from covering their costs. City planners proliferate, studies and repeat studies are launched, and still it's undeniable: the city is in a pickle. And therefore, so is our park.

The solutions are not simple...

When our park budget crisis became known, some folks waggled their eyebrows a bit. Surely this was a sign that we should now do the right thing, get a board with an executive, have proper meetings with proper protocol? At this park there are so many things done on a handshake, so many surprises, so much informal talk at the sand pit or the oven. Surely we would not have got into this trouble if we'd been more organized?

Then again, perhaps we would not have had so much to get in trouble about, because our park might have stayed more of the orphan it was formerly. The city is rich in defunct advisory groups that foundered before the ink was dry on their constitutions. Dufferin Grove Park is rich in friends, i.e. over the years there has been a gradual accumulation of people who are friendly to the park, and friendly to one another at the park. So here's an interesting test - can our park and its friends help to untangle the knots that the city has tied itself in, not only for our park, but for other parks as well? This question will hopefully be part of the conversations that swirl around at the park during the next season. If anybody hears anything good on the subject, please let us know for the newsletter - contact, or call 416 392-0913 and leave your name and number, or hunt up the park staff and share your knowledge with them).

posted October 5, 2004

October, 2004: The Scientologists' Park "Calvacade"

When the weather is warm the park is full of picnics. Only the really big ones get formal permits from City Hall, so when park staff got a form saying the Church of Scientology was coming for a "calvacade," they figured there'd be a lot of people. But it turned out this was no picnic. On the day of the event, September 18, a dozen people came and set up a big yellow tent at the Dufferin Street edge of the park, right by the main entrance into the mall, with the opening facing the street. We were puzzled. What was a "calvacade" and why would it be set up right where all the traffic was?

The tent had messages on the part that faced the street, asking questions along the lines of "are you worried about what the future will bring?" But it didn't say "Church of Scientology" on it. Although the permit had mentioned food, the tent seemed to be just tables with booklets and pamphlets laid out on them, and information people who welcomed anyone going in to take a look. Then a sound system was set up between the tent and the bus shelter, and a small band, including - to our amazement - one of the city parks managers, started to play and sing golden oldies like "The lion sleeps tonight." They had very good voices and they sang for hours -facing toward the street and the bus shelter, which was always crowded with shoppers from the mall. Then at the end of the afternoon they all packed up the tent and left.

It seems that this event, which turned its back on the park, was not really a park event as such. It was more like a crusade or an ad campaign targeting a busy street. Except that there is a by-law against promoting religions in parks.

Maybe that by-law is outdated. At a time when ad campaigns are more and more being invited into public space, if Pepsi and Nike can promote their wares in parks, why not have an ad for a brand of religion? Now the fact is, there's also a provincial law against making a pitch too near a bus stop (the "Safe Streets Act," to prevent panhandling to a captive audience). But then again, TTC passengers already have no choice about looking at ads (for jeans or mouthwash) on every inch of sellable TTC space. The Scientology people have just taken it the next logical step: a religion ad, pitched from under the maple trees.

posted November 9

Making the Playground Safe

One of the things the park's research arm, CELOS, received through a freedom of information request, after a long delay, is the 1999 playground inspection records for all city parks, including our own. These inspections followed former Mayor Mel Lastman's 1998 motion that all park playgrounds should be "upgraded" to meet new 1998 standards (backed, not by the government, but by an association of mainly manufacturers, almost half of them not located Canada). The verdicts of the whirlwind inspections led to the removal of 48 entire park playground structures and the disappearance of additional playground pieces from almost every park in the city, at the cost, so far, of just over $6 million. A bit over one million seems to have gone to buying replacement playground sets, and almost seventy per cent of that went to two manufacturers, Henderson and Belair. Both of these companies have generously supported the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association's annual conference and trade shows. The association's 2004 gathering in Halifax had a banner headline on its web site "sponsorship prospectus," to attract more support from companies: "Buying Power: Municipalities in Canada spend over 2 billion dollars on products and services in the parks and recreation sector alone!" Much of this money is spent on playgrounds. (Claire Tucker Reid, the general manager of Toronto Parks and Recreation until last December, is the association's new Ontario Division director.)

It's not only in Canada that playground equipment has become a "highly competitive and fast-growing global business" [Montreal Gazette, Business section, July 2004]. In the U.S. and in many European countries, the fear of increased insurance premiums has led to the "dumbing down" of many playgrounds with new equipment advertised as being safer.

One of the interesting things about this international panic is that it seems to be based mainly on very questionable injury data. Canadian playground-related-injury statistics are one example. Maya Litman - together with some friends - has closely documented Toronto playground alterations since 2001 (you can see some of them in great detail on their web site Maya contacted Health Canada to find out how playground injuries could have jumped in one year from 10,000 children being hurt to 28,000. A "senior analyst" responded that the numbers were only estimates: i.e. guesses. But these guesses were quoted everywhere as fact, and they led to the removal of a whole lot more of what Maya calls "much-loved" playground pieces.

It seems that many kids have voted with their feet, and playground use is down. And here's the kicker: playground injuries requiring at least one night in hospital actually increased in Toronto playgrounds after the wave of park and schoolyard equipment removals (we're waiting for the latest hospital numbers, due to be released this month, to see if that pattern has continued).

At Dufferin Grove playground the jiggly bridge and the fireman's pole and the curved slide were removed, and the much-loved yellow climber is under threat. The entire wooden playground structure is slated for removal next year. It's hard to see, from the inspection report for our playground, what the causes for removal would be. We want to find out, so about four weeks ago we asked technical services manager Bob Crump to send a city playground inspector meet us at the playground and go over the report. We also asked for the inspector to check the softness of the ground (softer ground cushions falls, under the monkey bars in particular, so the rink staff recently added a lot of sand under there). Since our request has still not led to the arrival of an inspector, we'll try asking Parks and Recreation director Don Boyle. We'll also set up a phone list and an e-mail list of people who want to be kept informed: call the park at <b>416 392-0913</b> to get on the list or email

Old Kind and New Kind...

Old Kind: Huge, complex, great for all ages. Encourages imagination and creativity. New Kind: Colourful, but boring. Tiny, unstimulating and unchallenging. (Thanks to for the photos.)

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