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Newsletter January 2020

Greta Thunberg image on side of playground shed

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” 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 this newsletter and on our four websites.

Skate rentals

Tino DeCastro was the recreation supervisor for the former Ward 18, which included Dufferin Grove Park, for about fourteen years. Midway though that time, he suggested that CELOS should apply for an NHL Players Association grant that he had heard about, which would bring the rink 50 sets of hockey equipment for free. So we did. The NHL wanted to promote hockey, and besides that, the players were on strike (it was 2004), and people were mad that they couldn’t watch hockey. So perhaps the NHL players thought people could play it themselves while they were waiting for the salary negotiations to wrap up. We got a yes.

skates ready to rent for $2

When the boxes arrived, the rink staff unpacked the different sizes of skates and sticks, helmets and hockey gloves, put numbers on them, and bought a record book. CELOS supplied some shelves, and we fit the NHL PA gifts into the only extra space left in the rink house – the water heater room (the three giant hot water heaters to supply the zamboni had a room of their own). There was no room for the helmets, so Tino found a big wooden box in a forgotten Christie Pits storage room and it was set up along the outside wall near the hockey rink entrance, so anyone who wanted a helmet could borrow one from there.

At outdoor rinks the game played is mainly pond hockey, called “shinny hockey.” So the rest of the body armour in the NHL boxes – the giant padded pants, the shoulder pads, the shin pads – went to hockey programs at arenas, sometimes in trade for some more skates for Dufferin Rink. No need for body armour in shinny games. We decided to charge just enough to pay for skate maintenance, and the skate lending program was launched – for just skating or shinny.

We never thought, when Tino made his suggestion, what a difference it would make to the culture of the rink to have skate rentals. Demand was so great that Tino worked with staff and CELOS to get rental programs set up at Wallace and Campbell rinks too, in 2007.

After Tino was moved to another location in 2012, the skate lending program had a few rough years, but last year and this year, city management found a new skate donor – MLSE (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment) -- and the rental collections are getting better again.

The trade-off seems to be that the city agrees to put up shiny blue plaques thanking (only!) the Toronto Maple Leafs and MLSE for their support of what they call the “skate library.” Perhaps, someday, there will be such “libraries” at other rinks too. (Up to now, the city says NO.)


Greta Thunberg and climate change action for the park: bad news and good news

Around the time when Greta Thunberg was visiting Montreal, someone put up a very large poster of Thunberg’s face, surrounded by roses, on the side of the Dufferin Grove wading pool shed near the playground. It seems to be glued on with wallpaper paste, so it will stay there for a while. Not long ago a mother was taking a photo of her young daughter beside the poster, both of them looking proud and determined.

Last Sept.27, when Thunberg was walking at the head of the climate strike march in Montreal, many parents from this neighbourhood took their children out of school to walk in the climate strike march in downtown Toronto. Small children from the younger grades at the Grove School marched around the park, holding signs and singing. Mayor John Tory tweeted that the city was turning off the lights of the “Toronto” sign at Nathan Phillips Square that day, in solidarity. Four days later, city council declared a “climate emergency.”

Already at the beginning of September, some park friends had translated their unease with the city’s plan to demolish the concrete of the current east-west rink slabs – and replace them with new concrete slabs oriented north-south – into a petition asking the city to drop that part of their “Northwest Corner” project. Concrete manufacture is said to be responsible for 4-8% of the world's CO2 and for almost a 10th of the world's industrial water use. The city’s own “climate action strategy” had released a report in 2017 drawing attention to the environmental costs that come with "early replacement of [the city's assets], particularly longer lasting assets." Skylar Hill-Jackson and Andrea Holtslander, both members of the city’s think tank for the rink changes, enlisted other park friends to help gather signatures against replacing rink slabs when they still work well, and against taking out trees to make a poorly-planned accessible entrance to the renovated rink house. The petition asked for smaller fixes to the rink, and for using the remainder of the allocated funds to fix problems in the rest of the park.

When the petition grew to over a thousand names, Skylar presented it to the city capital projects team at a public consultation meeting the week before Thunberg came to Canada. But city staff said it wouldn’t be possible to change the plans.

There’s another meeting of the think tank (called the community resource group) on January 16, but by now the construction contracts will have been tendered and the chance for shrinking the plan is most likely over.

But here’s some good news. When Greta Thunberg was making her speeches, she often repeated: “We want actions, not just nice words.” For those children and their parents who say the same, there’s another chance to address park-related climate damage: reduce the city’s outdoor-rinks season to end on the first Sunday in March. Read on.


The good news: shifting the outdoor rink season to address climate change

Toronto is the world capital of outdoor mechanically-cooled ice rinks. We have 54. Montreal has 8. So does New York. So we have the bragging rights, but it would be good to run this civic treasure responsibly.

For decades our outdoor rinks always used to open mid-November and close on the first Sunday in March. Then in the late 1990s, there was some city hall backroom lets-save-money pressure to mothball half the rinks. In 2001 the new amalgamated city council shrank the rink season to 10 weeks. That was so unpopular that it only last one year. Then in the cold winter of 2007/2008, when a left-leaning council refused to consider leaving even a few rinks open into March, that gave the Toronto Sun the chance to run the headline Pink Finks Sink Rinks. Score! Worried politicians veered off in the other direction, eventually voting to keep two thirds of the outdoor rinks open to the end of March break. To save money the Parks Division cut the season back at the other end, during November (this year to only one day).

Dufferin Rink slush, March 2008

In the six weeks on either side of the December 21 winter solstice, the sun is very weak. It doesn't get to spend very much time above the horizon, and that suits the machinery just fine – when it’s below 0 Celsius outside, the compressors often cycle off. By March, though, the sun is getting much higher in the sky, and the machinery often has trouble keeping the ice frozen at minus 4. The machines have to run all the time, so in March the outdoor rinks are energy hogs. (You can see the science here.)

Parks managers tried to explain to city council that rinks are too slushy to skate for most days in March, and that, even on unusually cold days, very few skaters use the rinks. People are tired of winter. But council has wanted the extended season kept no matter what. Maybe many of the councillors never see the situation first hand – everything stops at city hall during March break, and lots of councillors use the break to fly to where they can get a head start on warm weather.

So: why is this good news, the waste of all that energy to run the cooling machinery for 34 outdoor rinks under the strong March sun? Here’s why: right here in Toronto, every March, there’s a wonderful opportunity for young climate activists to get some practice doing a climate strike themselves, and with a specific target. Greta Thunberg said to the American congress, “unite behind the science and act on the science.” Young Torontonians can try standing in front of city hall, or in front of their city councillors’ offices, or in front of Dufferin Rink (or any of the outdoor rinks) after the first Sunday in March, with a sign saying “listen to the science, shut down the outdoor rinks NOW.”

Maybe their parents, and their teachers, and their neighbours, would even feel like standing with them some of the time. And if city council listens – that would be one small LOCAL carbon footprint box checked off.

Pass it on….


Goodbye to the rink as we know it

This winter is the last rink season before construction begins. $ 4.5 million has been allocated to renovate the rink clubhouse, to demolish the current east/west rink pads and replace them with rink pads that face north/ south instead, and to relocate the basketball court. There was some community pressure against this, including a 1062-signature petition to keep the rink slabs as they are and use the funds to fix the whole park – to not only do long-overdue but simpler repairs to the rink clubhouse, but also to get a good washroom building by the playground, better accessible paths, better storage for equipment such as the skateboard ramps, and maybe a more workable arts space. But there was strong support from City Councillor Ana Bailao to spend the $4.5 million on the original concept for the northwest corner, so that’s the plan. The rink reconfiguration is useful for the farmers’ market and the bike polo group. The rink building renovation will supply a park program facility for after-school and summer camp programs, as well as a space for wintertime skate changing.

The city’s capital projects web page says: “Construction is scheduled to begin February 2020 with an estimated completion by December 2021.” But the city’s outdoor rinks web page says the rink will stay open until March 22. A later construction start makes a later ending likely, so that at least one and most likely the next two rink seasons will be cancelled. The rink house will be inaccessible for part or all of that time too, affecting most other park programs including the playground, the cafés, Clay and Paper Theatre, and the farmers’ market. City management staff says they will provide workarounds, but no specifics have yet been given.

The city’s slide show of the transformed rink and program space is here.

The city’s next “Community Resource Group” meeting will take place on January 16th 2020 from 6:30-8:30PM at St. Wenceslaus Church (496 Gladstone Ave). The meeting is open to the public but only CRG members can speak. UPDATE: the slide show from the design team's presentation is here.


Sunday skating in the round

The east lift gate that allows Sunday pleasure-skating in the round is broken. It won’t lift up, so Sunday skating is not a round anymore, but rather a squashed figure of eight with a bottleneck in the middle. Apparently the gate stopped working at the end of last season and someone told the rink staff it couldn’t be fixed. So if any skaters asked, the staff said that they were sorry, the city had done its best but nothing could be done.

But when the same problem came up in 2013, rink users complained and CELOS sent in a group photo of skaters posed in front of the lift gate. It was fixed quickly. Rinks supervisor Donna Densmore just heard about the problem during the Christmas holidays, and she said no lift truck was available then. Maybe in January? – if skaters speak up. 311 is the number to call.

UPDATE: the lift gate was fixed as soon as the tech staff returned after the holidays. Better late than never -- but not attending to a problem that began in March 2019 and lasted until January 2020 -- that's a pretty sloppy way to run a city.


The trouble with enforcing helmets for shinny hockey

At the public consultation meetings for replacing the current rink pads, some hockey players who have a weekly permit at Dufferin Rink were enthusiastic about widening the hockey rink to a newer city standard: 5 feet wider than it currently is. They said the dimensions of the existing rink don’t bother them during their permit, but there are sometimes so many youth playing during the drop-in shinny times that the extra five feet would really help reduce the crowding.

City management has a faster remedy to solve the crowding here at Dufferin Rink, though, no need to wait until the end of construction. The solution is: enforcing the city’s helmets-for-shinny-hockey rule for any age. The new rink coordinator at Dufferin Rink has said that this is the season rink staff will apply the rule at Dufferin Grove “to have consistency.”

A little history: at a meeting of the directors of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation in 2004, they adopted a policy requiring CSA-approved hockey helmets for all shinny hockey players, plus little kids under 6. Unlike the provincial bike helmet law, which was passed after a lot of public consultation, there was no consultation with skaters. And the directors made no distinction between shinny hockey and full-equipment hockey. It’s possible that they had so little experience of the two sports that they didn’t understand the difference. They had no data on shinny hockey injuries, just a generalized “what if” worry about risk and liability.

When the mandatory helmet rule began to be enforced in boarded rinks in Etobicoke and North York, in 2006, their drop-in shinny attendance went right down. By 2010, when the downtown rinks were still de facto free-choice about helmets for shinny, those central Toronto rinks had from four to eight times higher numbers of players.

Etobicoke and North York shinny players were voting with their feet, coming downtown to where they could play shinny the way they were used to. The rules of shinny hockey are: no checking, no raising the puck, and no body armour necessary. Many players choose to wear hockey gloves and some add shin pads. The game is also called pond hockey, a reminder of its simple roots in Canada’s wintry landscape. The game works when people are careful of one another – which they have to be, since there’s no armour and therefore no excuse for being rough. People who tend to push or hit are thrown out of the game by the other players.

shinny hockey as it's always been played -- no helmets, no body armour, no checking, no slapshots - just the joy of the game

The science: Of course, people can wear helmets for shinny if they want to, and some prefer that. Interestingly, this is where we learn something odd from neuroscience. A helmet can help protect against cuts to the scalp or even a skull fracture, but of course it’s still possible to get cuts or broken bones on other parts of the body. The most common break at a rink is of a forearm, or – especially if the ice is not maintained well – of a leg, from getting a skate caught in a crevice. Helmets can’t help there. The hope, though, is that helmets will prevent concussions, and therefore brain damage. And that’s where the science is not good news.

Neuroscientists describe the brain as being a bit like a bowl of Jello. When you shake it, it may develop little fissures which – in the case of a brain – can interrupt the connections between the neurons. And no helmet so far devised can prevent the brain from shaking inside its skull when there’s an impact on the head – even, sometimes, a pretty small impact.

So the Bauer company has a disclaimer on its website, saying that there’s no guarantee that any of the international hockey helmet certification standards which the company applies when making helmets, will reduce the risk of concussion.

The data: In 2006, CELOS asked the city’s Freedom of Information staff about rink injury liability claims (indoors and out) against the city between amalgamation (1997) and the time up to applying the requirement of helmets for shinny hockey (2006). We found out that there were only 5 claims, two in indoor rinks during organized hockey games, and the other three during public skating on outdoor rinks. In other words, in nine years of mostly helmetless shinny, there were 0 claims relating to shinny hockey.

The next big push for helmets for drop-in shinny came in 2010. CELOS tried to track down the actual injury data. Since rink staff are required to file an incident report for each injury, the city’s recreation director – after some persuasion from CELOS – assigned one of his staff to do a quick count for two sample years – 2008 and 2009. She found 217 injury reports for the city’s 49 indoor rinks and 51 outdoor rinks during the two years. 17 required an ambulance. And only 13 of the 217 injury reports – all minor – involved shinny hockey.

Even after the mandatory helmet policy was applied to shinny players, there were still many rinks where it was not enforced. In Etobicoke, about half the mechanically cooled outdoor rinks are unstaffed. They’re called “minor” rinks, and they don’t have boards or in some cases even fences. It was, and still is, common to see 20 players at those free-choice rinks (including a few who went on to a career in the NHL), mostly without helmets. Meantime at the official outdoor hockey pads in Etobicoke there are sometimes barely enough players, during drop-in shinny times, for a game. Lots of room on the ice.

In 2010 CELOS asked city management to go back and consult with skaters citywide, and record what they thought about the helmet policy. The managers said no, there was no budget for that kind of consultation. But downtown, if shinny hockey players insisted, no helmets.

Now the next wave of enforcement is beginning. Staff at some rinks have been told that if helmetless shinny players refuse to leave, police should be called. Apparently, if city management says that every shinny hockey player must wear a helmet, they can make it stick. So, even before Dufferin Rink is rebuilt to add the extra five feet, there will soon be more space – if the pattern holds and shinny players stay away.

Unless the skaters refuse to comply. (Then what? Criminal records? Overcrowded jails?)


Sidewalk snow clearing

If you have trouble getting to the rink, the market, or anywhere else this winter because the downtown core still doesn’t get municipal sidewalk plowing (Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough DO get it), you can go to this website (started by the Deer Park residents’ group) to add your voice to make it happen now:


Outdoor public bake ovens all over town

One morning late last summer, Gail Ferguson looked out her front window and saw a crane lowering a large brick bake oven into the park across the street from her house. It was the oven that was built in Christie Pits in the fall of 2000, and it had been picked up by the crane, loaded onto a flatbed truck, and shipped across town to Fairmount Park, near Greenwood and Gerrard.

This oven was built using leftover materials from the second, smaller Dufferin Grove bake oven, for which CELOS had fundraised and assembled a volunteer crew led by Alan Scott in May of 2000. The Christie Pits oven is the exact twin of our oven, and was used for years until Parks Capital Projects decided that Christie Pits should have a new oven built with materials imported from France. The original oven was lifted up and stored with construction supplies while Christie Pits was being re-graded, and we heard it was going to be taken to the dump. What? So CELOS began asking around – what park friends group could use a well-functioning oven in their park? Barry Ross, a member of the venerable “Fairmount Park Ice Masters,” (both a natural-ice-rink crew and a band) heard about it, and he asked the Parks staff if Fairmount Park could have it. That became a long saga, with a lot of “can’t be done” chapters, but on August 27, 2019, there it was, standing next to the Fairmount Park rink shed, solid as could be.

Fairmount Park bake-oven: first pizza

The Parks staff locked the oven door and said no one could use the oven without paying for a permit, which was a complicated process and is still not well-worked-out. Even so, on Dec.21, park baker Michael Monastyrskyj, and I from CELOS, were invited to the first Fairmount pizza night, at their park friends’ annual solstice celebration. When we got there, two oven keepers were stoking an excellent fire, and soon after, half a dozen Fairmount Park friends emerged from Gail Ferguson’s house carrying at least eight large pizzas they had made in her kitchen, ready to go in the oven. The pizzas baked up in a very short time and disappeared even faster – delicious. One of the people enjoying the pizza inauguration was Toni Corrado – the woman who lived under the open sky in Dufferin Grove Park for three and a half months this past year. The little apartment she got, through the city’s housing staff, is near enough to Fairmount Park that she was able to drive her wheelchair over to the park in 15 minutes, and her two little dogs came too.

Fire brings people together!

Editor: Jutta Mason/ Illustrations: Jane LowBeer

CELOS websites:,,,

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