Volume 6 Number 8, August 2005
BUILDING THE COB COURTYARD
The cob courtyard by the wading pool is growing spectacularly. They
say that every cloud has a silver lining and that seems to be borne out
at the park, with the cob building project.
Late last summer, Toronto Public Health inspectors told us
to get proper sinks for food preparation installed by the wading pool
for this summer or stop having snacks at the playground food cart. Park
friend Georgie Donais said – “if we have to have sinks, we can back them with a community-built cob courtyard and make something beautiful.” With the help of a $2500 grant from the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation, she set about working with many park friends to build a little courtyard around the sinks, and continuing on from there, to create an outdoor gathering-place. The courtyard walls are made with a sand-clay-straw mix known as "cob" or "monolithic adobe", which is mixed by foot and applied by hand.
From Georgie: “The first stage of the project provides a spot for the washing station required by Public Health. As the wall extends,
we’ve begun to work on building arches, shelves, a fire place for
cooking, a puppet window, sculptures and mosaics. Native plantings will
be incorporated around and within the courtyard. The project will
proceed in stages, starting with this washing station, and extending
further as time and resources allow.” As the wall began to rise,
certain ‘lead hands’ began to emerge too – besides Georgie’s husband Alan, park friends Alfredo, Isaac and Gretel, Michelle, and Catherine spent many hours not only cobbing but also showing others how; Alfredo also became an expert in making windows; Patrick built the fireplace, with an iron “crane” for suspending the cooking pots; Sylvie
and Simon built the kitchen counter with their theatre-set-carpentry know-how. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg
– many more people have helped, some of them lots of times. From
Georgie: “Our cob courtyard wall is steadily growing, thanks to the legion of volunteers who have heeded the call to ‘come get muddy.’ It's not too late to come on down and help us do some building with earth! You can experience the world of cobbing for yourself, at our ongoing earthen building workshops. They happen Monday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm. Even half an hour is enough time to get cobbing!”
Child-minding is available; you can find out more at the site. All
are welcome to participate, including children young and old (and they
do!). Photo updates go up on the website often: www.cobinthepark.ca
Also, a reminder to all those who wanted to donate materials to Cob
in the Park – it's still not too late. Still needed: coloured bottles with flat bottoms (blues, greens, amber, purple); clear jars, mason
jars; china and tile for mosaics; five gallon pails; cedar shakes; a
few pieces of seasoned firewood (18" long, for embedding in the wall).
These materials are for the mosaics embedded in the cob walls.
There’s now a mosaic group for people interested in working with the mosaics, whether they have lots of experience with mosaics, or always wanted to try it and never have. If you want to join that group,
contact Georgie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Parks and Recreation Division’s contribution to this project has been solid and growing. The plumbing for the sinks was
installed by the City’s plumbers, and the electricity for the water heater required by Public Health, as well as for the snack bar cooking facilities, was put in by the City’s electricians. Parks and Recreation supervisor Tino DeCastro and manager James Dann said they would help Georgie make it happen, and they’ve been as good as their word at every step.
COMING EVENTS, AUGUST TO LABOUR DAY WEEKEND
Thursday August 18 to Sunday August 21. Clay and Paper Theatre: This summer’s performance The Space Between returns to Dufferin Grove Park
From artistic director David Anderson: “The Space Between is a multi-dimensional masque (a la Ben Jonson), a giant puppet/choral speech/dance piece which tells the tale of Erysichthon from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Driven by pride and greed, Erysichthon cuts down the sacred oak of the earth goddess Ceres. In a fitting payback, the goddess calls upon Hunger herself to possess Erysichthon until he
finally devours himself. The Space Between places Ovid’s
ancient tale most firmly in the here and now, surrounded by Toronto's
five impressive new art buildings on stilts. The Space Between
celebrates the art between as well as the art that inhabits these
buildings. A double chorus of masquers invite us, the audience, to
contemplate the role of art, the myths that shape us and the values we
The company has been workshopping the play in various Toronto parks
and David Anderson says it’s very different now than at the beginning of July. It will be presented afternoons at 4 and 5 p.m., and evenings at 7.30, in the center of the park, with some new, spectacular puppets. PAY-WHAT-YOU-CAN.
Sunday September 4. The Morris Dancers’ annual Labour Day weekend ALE, 3 pm. to 5 p.m. This must be the 6th or 7th year that the Morris dancers are coming to dance for one another (show off their latest dances) and drink beer and eat pizza and bread at the oven. The beer is not for sharing (their permit is just for their own group) but these Morris Dancers are always happy to share their food (including the bread we make for them) and their music and dances. On the basketball court – a wonderful spectacle.
AN OPEN LETTER TO BRENDA LIBRECZ, THE GENERAL MANAGER OF PARKS,
FORESTRY AND RECREATION:
I am writing to you to ask for a meeting with you as soon as possible.
Here’s why: friends of Dufferin Grove Park have been discussing the
effect, on our park, of your Division’s new operating model, to begin
in September. We are very concerned.
Some background: In November 2003, a few weeks before the most
recent municipal government was sworn in, Parks and Recreation
announced a radical change in how they would run their operation. From
our point of view it meant that we would be dealing with a different
supervisor for every element of the park – one for wading pools,
another for skating rinks, another for park maintenance, another for
children’s programs, another for special events, another for
improvements to the park (if any), etc. We protested against this new
conception, and it was put on hold. After some consultations to fix the
problems, it seems that the same approach is back, as of this
The new operating model seems to spell the end of the idea of a
park as first and foremost a neighbourhood meeting place. In its place,
there is what is called a “functional approach,” taking apart all the
elements of a park and managing each separate element centrally (and
perhaps staffing these elements centrally as well).
It’s hard to know how our park can continue to flourish under such
a system, since Dufferin Grove Park is a very specific place that has
grown organically out of the activities of its many friends, from the
volleyball players to the picnickers to the playground kids to the
“rink rats.” All the activities are intertwined, and the great support
we have got over many years, from the Parks and Recreation Division,
has been the support of local (not central) staff who know what we’re
doing, and who have a history with us.
Adding to our concerns is the fact that the examples we’ve seen of
a centralized “functional” approach have been pretty alarming. The
Health and Safety Inspectors’ visit in 2003, resulting in a threat to
shut down the rink, is one example. The C.S.A. playground replacement/
repair program is another. The Policy and Development Division’s
centralized approach to park improvements is another. The list is long.
So we’re writing to ask you to declare our park an alternative
site. If the City is bent on trying their “functional” experiment, we
would ask you to keep our park as an alternative laboratory, to see if
what we do here is worth learning from as well.
We look forward to your invitation for a small group of us to
discuss this with you, as soon as you can accommodate us. We regard
this matter as urgent.
Jutta Mason, friend of Dufferin Grove Park
If you ever wonder why the rink house washrooms are often messy and not so nice to be in, here’s the reason – there’s no caretaker to clean them. In fact, there’s no provision for cleaning the rink house at all. During summer, the wading pool staff are supposed to fit it in, and because of all the things going on at the park, it’s often a real
strain for them to find the time.
Toronto Parks and Recreation has good caretakers on staff, but our
park is not eligible for any caretaker hours because the rink house was originally meant to be only a change house for skaters, i.e. not very busy. This is one of the problems we’d like the general manager, Brenda Librecz, to consider when we meet with her: when new things happen in a park, how can staffing arrangements be adapted? In our case, the washrooms are used by thousands of people year-round. On paper, though, we remain simply a rink house, not on the list for caretaker cleaning.
Soccer: The Toronto Eagles children's soccer club has
the soccer-field permit Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings
and Saturdays until 2. On Thursday evenings, the permit belongs to the "Portugal 2004" children's soccer club. This has been the case for 4-5 years. (On each of those evenings from 6.30 to 8.15 – it’s fun to watch.)
From Saturday 2 p.m. until Sunday evening, the permits are
there for community groups. These community permits are free
through the park staff, and currently there are five regular groups,
plus more spaces for one-off permits. Here are the rules: 1. Two-hour
time slots; 2. usually only half the field; 3. include any
neighborhood person who wants to play soccer but doesn't have a group;
4. Mixed-gender or all-male or all-female.
This is an experiment not carried out elsewhere in the city, i.e.
free community permits that have some participant flexibility, along
the lines of shinny-hockey. To get a community permit, call the park at
416 392-0913 and ask for Mayssan or Matt.
This summer there hasn’t been as much community soccer as last year – the heat has made it tough to play on the weekend daytime slots. The most active soccer is on Saturday evenings, a long-established gathering of Sudanese soccer players who always end the game by praying in the direction of Mecca. Like everyone playing community soccer, they accept drop-in players too. The main thing about this group is, you’ve got to be pretty good.
Volleyball: For five years the same net was up, just west of
the playground, winter and summer. The net was all patched from where
it had holes and then one morning at the end of July, it was gone. Hard
to believe anyone would have bothered stealing it! The recreation staff
got another net a day later, this one without holes. There are
volleyballs available to borrow, down by the wading pool. (Ask the park
staff.) There’s also a regular mixed-gender group that plays for fun on Wednesday evenings from 7 p.m. If you’re interested in joining, pass by when they’re playing and talk to them. But they may not have much room because the group is already pretty large. All the rest of the week is just first-come first-served, and the net does double duty for
badminton as well.
Ball hockey: The hockey rink is available for pick-up ball
hockey every evening until 11, although the lights are only regularly
turned on for the Wednesday and the Friday community permits. If you
want to get a group together and play on one of the other nights, call
the park and the staff will turn on the lights: 416 392-0913.
Basketball: There are lights on the basketball court until 11
p.m. every night. In the first week of August the City’s maintenance
supervisor, Brian Green, arrived with a crew who put up two
additional basketball hoops just inside the rink enclosure. (Funded
with the money Mike Harris took away from welfare recipients.) The new
hoops have made it easier for people to get playing time, for
three-on-three. We’re hoping that Brian will be able to get one lower
hoop put up as well, for all the little kids who dream of becoming real
Tai chi: This can be seen all over the park in the early
mornings, done mainly but not only by older Chinese people, alone or in
small groups. The oldest person we’re aware of doing tai chi in the
park (until recently) was over 100.
FOOD IN THE PARK
Food cart – It’s at the playground, every day the wading pool is open. This year we have more varied kinds of brunch/lunch foods, using ingredients from the farmers’ market and the park gardens, cooked in the park ovens.
Saturday morning baking: from the park bakers: “the bread cart will be selling fresh park oven breads and breakfast pastries from 11 a.m. Saturdays by the wading pool.”
Friday Night Supper: Every Friday from 6 to 7:30p.m., at
the bake oven. No need to make a reservation: there's usually lots of
food. This is a community dinner cooked in the park bake ovens with
farmers' market produce. Cost is $6 for the main plate unless
you bring your own dishes ($1 off). The main plate is always a choice
of meat or (usually) vegan. There's always park bread, a salad, soup,
and dessert (they cost extra but it's hard to spend much more than $10
per meal). If it's raining hard, no supper (call 416-392-0913
if you're not sure). If it's a cool night, there's a campfire to linger
at with your friends.
Pizza days – weekdays on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 12
noon to 2 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. For $2 a portion,
you can buy a small lump of organic pizza dough, sauce, and cheese, and
make your own pizza in the oven (staff help you bake it). You can pick
toppings in the park gardens to put on as well, or bring extra toppings
from home. It’s a very nice way to meet new neighbours or get together
If you want to include pizza at the oven in a birthday party,
that’s possible on Sundays between 11.30 and 1 and from 3 to 4. You can book it with park staff Mayssan Shuja Uddin at 416
392-0913. The staff cost is $36 extra on top of the pizza cost of
$2 per pizza. If you have more than forty people, that will need an
extra staff person for another $18. To find out more, call the park or
go to the bake ovens and
food section of the web site.
Picnics: In the warm weather, the park is sometimes full of
picnics and family celebrations. There are plenty of picnic tables –
feel free to move them to where you need them, but if you take them far
from where they were, please move them back afterwards (especially
tables taken from the oven area and the wading pool area).
THERE IS NO CHARGE FOR HAVING A PICNIC AND NO NEED TO BOOK AHEAD UNLESS YOU’RE BRINGING A REALLY BIG GROUP.
Campfires: The friends of the park have a standing year-round
campfire permit at three park locations. Park staff will train you in
campfire safety, give you water, pails, and a shovel, and kindling if
you need it. For July, you don’t have to bring your own wood because we have some extra. You can also borrow grills from us, and a cast-iron
stand, if you want to cook more than marshmallows or hot dogs on a
stick. For more information or to book a permit, call the park at 416
392-0913 and ask for Matt or Mayssan. You can also go to the campfires section of the park web
WADING POOL HOURS, THE SANDPIT, AND OTHER PARK FUN
The wading pool is open every day from about 11.30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
(or until 7 if it’s over 28 degrees). Bring water toys but please
leave the squirt guns at home. The sandpit is always open. If you and
your kids are frequent early-morning sandpit visitors, you can ask the
staff for your own key to the lockup box, so you can take out the
equipment when you arrive. No need to put it away when you leave, but
please: last person to leave the sandpit in the evening, turn off the
Crafts materials are set out most days beside the wading pool. On Wednesday afternoon park staff Bianca runs clay-building; on Thursday afternoon kids can cook flapjacks over a campfire with park staff Caitlin; on Saturday afternoon, park staff Eroca sets up the tile-painting table (the tiles are all going to be part of the cob courtyard mosaics); and on Sundays, Eroca (who is a dancer) does “beach blanket bingo” – dancing and bingo by the wading pool. Park staff also lend out balls (basketballs, volleyballs, footballs), but you have to leave collateral. Chess and checkers are set up by the yurt near the wading pool.
WE LOSE OUR FREEDOM OF INFORMATION APPEAL: THE CITY IS NOT REQUIRED TO REVEAL HOW THEY SPENT $4.3 MILLION PLAYGROUND REPAIR MONEY
Since the year 2000, the City of Toronto says it’s spent between $5.9
and $6.3 million (depending on who you talk to) tearing out and replacing playground equipment in park playgrounds to conform to new standards set by the Canadian Standards Association (an association whose makeup is over 90% manufacturers). The “dumbing down” of park playgrounds that resulted was much less publicized in the media than the destruction of playgrounds in schoolyards, but the evidence is there in most of our parks. 49 park playgrounds had their play equipment entirely removed and replaced with cheaper stuff. Many more playgrounds (like ours at Dufferin Grove) lost slides or swings or jiggly toys. In many parks, lost equipment was not replaced at all – which means less fun. Playground advocate Maya Littman began to ask the City questions about their “playground safety” program in 2001, but she didn’t get many answers, either from city councillors or from City staff. After our park playground lost a slide and a jiggly bridge, we began to ask questions too. We found out that many of Dufferin Grove Park’s other playground components are also threatened. City staff explanations were evasive, so in June 2004 we formally began submitting
questions to the City’s Freedom of Information office.
What we found out alarmed us more. It seemed that the City’s
playground safety program may have gone off the rails soon after former
Mayor Lastman first proposed it in 1998. We asked for records, and
the City sent us a price list for the 49 playground replacements
($1,048,410). But for the remaining $4.3 million or so (for the
repairs and replacements at those park playgrounds which just had parts
removed) the City said their records were on many little pieces of
paper in various boxes. We would have to pay $12,960 to get staff to
collect those receipts to show us.
Too much money! We appealed to the City and to the provincial Information
and Privacy Commissioner, for a fee waiver. We said we couldn’t
afford such a fee, but that we feel it’s in the public interest to find
out where that money went.
But before our fee waiver appeal inquiry could take place, the City
suddenly changed their position. They said that they couldn’t find the
records we wanted at all, and therefore they do not exist. Under the
freedom of information laws, an institution can’t be forced to reveal
records that don’t exist – how could they?
That changed the subject of our appeal. Instead of considering
whether it was in the public interest to discover where and how those
$4.3 million were spent, the Inquiry was narrowed down to one question:
had the City staff conducted a “reasonable search” to find those
On June 22, our appeal hearing was held at the offices of
the Provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner’s offices at 2
Bloor Street East. The argument we made was that if the General Manager
of Parks and Recreation wrote in a letter in July 2004 that $4,941,590
had been spent on playground repairs, there must be records of how they
arrived at that number.
The City had sent five staff to the Inquiry hearing, including two
lawyers. In their presentation they said the staff had looked
everywhere and couldn’t find any specific records of how and where that
playground repair money was spent.
When the provincial freedom of information adjudicator handed down
her decision two weeks later, she wrote: “….in my view, it is arguable
that a more detailed recording keeping of expenditures perhaps ought to
exist; however, I make no finding in this regard.“ She had concluded
that the staff had made a reasonable effort in looking around, and no
further search would be required. Case closed.
So we lost that round. However, at the Inquiry we carefully wrote
down the names of the documents that the City staff mentioned they had
looked at to see if they pertained to repair expenses. A week later we
submitted new freedom of information requests to the City, for those
references we hadn’t known about before. An example: the playground
construction supervisor said at the Inquiry that in 2001, $373,978 was
spent in the downtown area to do playground safety repairs. We asked:
if you know that figure down to the dollar, how could you have had no
receipts to base them on? The City’s answer is due on August 8, and
we’ll put it in the next newsletter. Is this a bad-book-keeping
problem, or were those numbers just made up? And if they were, what was
that $4.3 million playground repair money actually spent on?
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION: WE GET A SURPRISING ANSWER ABOUT PLAYGROUND INJURIES
On August 12, 2004, our research group submitted a question to the City
of Toronto’s Corporate Access and Information office: how much did
the City spend on lawsuits or out-of-court settlements for injuries on
city property, from 1980 to the present? We had a good reason for
asking: we were wondering why the City spent $5.9 million removing
playground equipment from City parks (or sometimes whole playgrounds),
often replacing it with cheap “dumbed-down” equipment (or nothing at
all). They pointed to the latest safety standards put out by
manufacturers, but since those standards are not law, we thought there
must be additional reasons. Were there maybe a lot of kids getting hurt
in park playgrounds, and the City was having to pay?
The City didn’t respond to our question, so in November 2004 we
appealed to the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner’s
office. They told the City to send us an answer.
We were sent whatever pre-amalgamation information they had, but
none since 1997 (the playground destruction began in 2000). The
pre-amalgamation results showed only one playground injury claim, for
$23,570, between 1980 to 1996. (The most numerous claims and biggest
settlements against Parks and Recreation were related to City
vehicle accidents.) Since the City wouldn’t give us the rest of the
information up to the present, we appealed again to the Province, in
January 2005. On March 31 the City’s Claims Division said we’d have to
pay $1,050 to get the post-amalgamation injury claim reports.
We appealed the fee, and the wheels were set in motion for a provincial
adjudicator to consider the issue. Then on May 9 a letter came from the
City of Toronto Finance Division’s “Risk Management Unit” saying
there was now a new reason why they wouldn’t give us the information –
because it would be against the City’s economic interests.
“Snakes and ladders” again. Since the City changed its reason for
denying us the information, the rules of the Information and Privacy
Commission required us start with the appeal again, from the beginning.
But then there was a sudden upturn in our fortunes. CBC radio had
asked the City the same question, but on a larger scale – they wanted a
record of the amounts of all lawsuits and claims (not only those
related to playgrounds) since amalgamation. The City gave the CBC the
same answer as we got “we won’t tell you, because it’s against our
economic interests.” The CBC appealed to the province and they got
right to the top. The province’s Information and Privacy
Commissioner Ann Cavoukian personally handled the appeal. On
July 22 she ordered the City to release the lawsuits and claims
information. She wrote in her appeal order: “Citizens cannot
participate meaningfully in the democratic process, and hold
politicians and bureaucrats accountable, unless they have access to
information held by the government, subject only to necessary
exemptions that are limited and specific.”
A few days later we got a letter in the mail from the City
giving us the information we had sought since August 2004. It turns out
that in the seven years since the playground safety standards were
revised, there have been only six claims against the city for
playground injuries (two before the playground changes and four after).
The largest settlement was $4,361 and the smallest was $667, for a
total of $11,463. (Broken arms?)
And then there was the playground injury claim in 1994 (see above).
When you add them all together, it seems that the City’s Claims
Division could find only seven playground injury claims in twenty-five
years, costing the City of Toronto a total of $35,033. In response, our
park playgrounds were drastically dumbed down, at a cost of at least
$5.9 million (but much of that undocumented).
How could that happen? Our CELOS research group is digging
around to find out. More in the September newsletter.
A (SHORT) FARMERS’ MARKET CRISIS
On Thursday August the 4th, a city by-law enforcement officer
came to the park. He was shocked to see the farmers parking on the
grass inside the park (beside their stands) and gave them a warning.
The next week, he said, he would be back at market time, and would give
them each a $105 ticket if he saw them even driving up to unload.
The officer then went down to the wading pool and said the food
cart was illegal, the cob courtyard was probably illegal, and when he
found out we have campfires in the park, he said that was illegal too.
He also said that there had been a complaint about the food cart.
Someone had reported that it was run by an (unnamed) private
The by-law enforcement officer wasn’t much interested in our
explanations. He described all that he saw to his supervisor on his
cell phone, and told the park staff that his supervisor was “hopping
mad” at what he was hearing.
The officer summoned a public health inspector from another
district, on an emergency basis. The inspector arrived and walked all
around with the park with our staff person Mayssan. Then he
wrote “unwarranted complaint” on his inspection form and left. The
by-law enforcement officer left too, saying he’d be back.
The friends of the park have received a lot of support from park managers over the years. We called West Region manager James Dann, and described the situation. It seemed clear that the problem here was
a misunderstanding – the by-law enforcement officer had not heard of a
park like ours, and assumed that we were getting away with murder.
James called the by-law enforcement supervisor and reassured him.
He confirmed that we have had regular contact with Public Health,
and the friends of the park work in close collaboration with Parks and
Recreation. It emerged that the main problem with the farmers’ market
was the lack of a farmers’ market permit. (Since there are only two
markets in Toronto parks, such permits are not a standard item.) So
James arranged for an official city permit. That means the by-law
enforcement officer will not come back next week and fine each farmer
$105 after all.
This is another example of the problem with centralized structure
(management by function). Officials come from elsewhere in the city and
find us confusing. They make a panic and the whole business takes so
much of everyone’s time. We’ve asked for a meeting to discuss the real
world of farmers’ markets, with City managers. We also hope that the Parks,
Forestry and Recreation general manager, Brenda Librecz, will find
a way to have our park administered locally, not centrally (see “Open
The by-law enforcement officer who came to our park seemed just as
appalled by what he saw here as the City’s Health and Safety rink
inspectors were in December 2003, when they said that ours was the
worst rink they had ever seen. You have to wonder: what would their
ideal park look like?
TREES IN DROUGHT
After we noticed that the only new tree planted by Forestry in
many years seems to be dying, park staff and volunteers have gone into
tree-rescue mode. In the second week of August the wading pool staff
put garden hoses on in the park around the clock, trickling water
beside tree after tree, focusing on the young trees which are more
vulnerable. If you see that a puddle is collecting around one tree,
feel free to nudge the hose to a nearby tree – we’re lucky we have
enough water in the Toronto water system to save the trees.
GOOD DEEDS FOR THE PARK
We got a wonderful gift from long-time park friend Kyla Dixon-Muir:
two brand new chafing dishes for serving Friday Night Supper:
stainless-steel hot water basins, food tray inserts, gleaming lids and
all. Kyla found them in a dumpster! But she now lives in on the other
side of the Don Valley, and people have been so busy at the park there
was no one to go across the viaduct and pick them up. Then Kyla sent a
message for us to post on the Dufferin Grove Friends list serve
and we got four offers for pick-up within the day. Sheila Pin
went and got them (we thanked her with fresh park oven bread and
cinnamon buns). Thanks to Kyla, Sheila, and also Emily Visser
and Bernard King, faithful moderator of that list serve for
almost five years now.
This special double edition newsletter was sponsored by Tere
Oulette, the owner of a wonderful toy store called Scooter Girl
(187 Roncesvalles), and by Abe Altman (one of the regulars
helping at the cob courtyard) and Nathalie Grondin. They are
all friends of the park and together they contributed $92 for us to
print 350 copies of this newsletter.