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Newsletter, September 2018

Dufferin Rink construction 1993

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.

Update: skating rink and clubhouse construction schedule

Step One: In 2015, the city began hiring consultants to survey the 22-year-old Dufferin Rink clubhouse, and make some renovation proposals.
Step Two: In November 2016, the capital projects section of Parks and Recreation held a public meeting about “The Northwest Corner Revitalization” of the park, covering the rink house, the bake ovens, and the food gardens.
Step Three: A volunteer “community resource group” was picked, and at their first meeting in January 2017 they were told that there was as yet no fixed budget and it would be possible to “do nothing, or renovate, or build new.” The group didn’t come to an agreement and only met once more, in May 2017.
Step Four: The 2018 parks capital budget had a new budget line allocating $3.14 million (funded through debt) for “Dufferin Grove New Community Centre.”
Step Five: In April 2018, city council approved a $700,000 contract for the architecture firm DTAH to plan and oversee this project from 2018 to 2021. An additional $253,000 was approved to cover the cost of “provision of design in 2018.” The project now includes rebuilding the skating rink as well.
Step Six: The DTAH design contract was held up for reasons not made public, but it was signed at the beginning of September.

The rink and many park programs will be closed for 1 - 2 years (or longer)

The rink and the clubhouse are only 25 years old and solidly built. A few fixes would help. But if this project goes ahead, the rink and clubhouse and park kitchens will be out of action for at least a year including the 2019-2020 rink season. Most of the current park programs will have to disappear during the construction year. If the project follows the pattern of other rinks and takes two years or even longer, the current park programs may not reappear, ever.
Whose idea was this, anyway? Time to reconsider?



Public meeting about the park: Sunday Sept.30, 4 pm

Should Dufferin Grove Park become a city/community partnership “conservancy”?

Much of what makes Dufferin Grove a well-loved park was developed during a close partnership between park neighbours and the city’s local park staff between 1993 and 2012.

In 2000, CELOS was set up, as a non-profit local research-by-people organization that could support “practical research” into what works well – and sustainably – in public spaces. Park staff contributed to that research, as part of the partnership. CELOS got charitable status in 2009, which gave us access to some small research grants.

Dufferin Grove was the main testing ground. A public meeting about the park in 1992 had proposed more things for older children to do, not only for the under-six kids who loved the playground. Youth wanted a basketball court, instead of the weedy old bocci court that no one used. Parents wanted the ice rink to be more family-friendly. People wanted more plantings, including native-species planting beds, to add interest to walks in the park. They wanted more benches and picnic tables for sitting down, particularly the seniors: “we can’t just sit down on the grass, it’s too hard to get up again.” People wanted outdoor arts performances, like Toronto parks used to have. And they wanted some food in the park. This last suggestion came particularly from immigrants, who told stories about the friendly socializing around food in the public spaces of their countries.

All those things, plus more, happened – gradually over time, with lots of effort, some conflict, and much collaboration. The increased programs began contributing to the park budget: by 2010, after the groceries to make all the park food were paid for, there was $95,300 left over to put back into additional park staffing and materials.

Then in 2012, city management began to apply their one-size-fits-all policies to the way Dufferin Grove is run. The partnership was dismantled and the staff who had made it work well were placed at the bottom of a strict chain of command. Everything is now controlled off-site. Over the past six years, the cost of operating the park has increased sharply to over $1.3 million a year. The park food income no longer covers even the cost of groceries, and staffing doesn’t work well. Bit by bit, the park programs are shrinking – despite the increasing costs.

On Sunday Sept.30 at 4 pm, CELOS will host an open-air meeting beside the cob café (or in the rink clubhouse if it rains), to discuss: are park friends and neighbours interested in bringing back the community/city partnership – in the form of a park conservancy?

A Park conservancy

Janie Romoff speech

The general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, Janie Romoff, said in a speech last January that her department is undertaking “collaborative governance relationships” at Riverdale Farm, in High Park, in the Lower Don parklands, at Edwards Gardens/Toronto Botanical Garden, at Allan Gardens and in Grange Park. Is it time to add Dufferin Grove to the list?

The general manager also said: “The City of Toronto does not have a one-conservancy-fits-all model. Instead it develops tailored responses to the specific strengths, skills and interests of its partners, while recognizing that as a City government it has unique skills in parks operations that need not be replicated.”

So what’s a conservancy?

Wikipedia says that a park conservancy is a “non-profit organization that can support the maintenance, capital development, and advocacy for parks or park systems.”

Does a conservancy need to be associated with large money donations?

No, why should it? Donations of millions of dollars are exciting for governments, but not every community has wealthy donors. “Support” can also mean people using their time and local knowledge and willing hands to conserve our neighbourhood public spaces.

Does a conservancy need to have non-union staff, separate from city staff?

Not necessarily! The draft Edwards Gardens Master Plan, for example, says that as the conservancy board takes on more of the operations and management of the park, “funds will be transferred from the City to [the board] to be applied accordingly." Parks director Richard Ubbens said that the Master Plan "looks after the entire envelope…" So it sounds like city operating funds can continue to pay city staff, working as part of a new partnership.

The 18-year collaboration at Dufferin Grove Park was a trial-and-error experiment in governance, as well as in outdoor bake ovens, an adventure playground, a park club house, food gardens and native species gardens, an organic farmers’ market, and many other things. It was already a kind of conservancy.

From 2004 the local park program staff – all unionized city staff – were running the park with the support of their local city supervisor and in cooperation with park friends. They had the expertise needed to make it continue to flourish. In 2012, management dismantled the existing staff structure and substituted their standard one-size-fits-all approach. After six years, there are many signs that this has not worked well.

For discussion at the Sept.30 meeting: A Dufferin Grove Park Conservancy draft plan

As reported in the August newsletter, long-time park friend David Rothberg has donated $3000 to help CELOS figure out the details of bringing back the community/city staff partnership to the park. The draft plan will be posted online and paper copies will be available at the September 30 meeting, for comments and alteration.

In its basic form, the $3000 draft Dufferin Grove plan is similar to the $243,000 city-sponsored draft Master Plan for Edwards Gardens/Toronto Botanical Garden. The master plan proposes a conservancy-type partnership to help the botanical garden to flourish and to support the ecosystem of the larger ravine park. The draft Dufferin Grove plan proposes a conservancy partnership, to return the park to being a commons for the neighbourhood, allowing friendly social relations to flourish.

Jane Jacobs

The Edwards Gardens Plan calls for $50 million in fundraising to realize its goals. The Dufferin Grove plan, in contrast, is what Jane Jacobs calls a “vital little plan,” building on many small actions of the people working in the park and the people using the park. The aim is to foster diversity of uses and gifts given (gifts of time and talents, more than of cash). From Jane Jacobs in the 2016 book of her speeches and early articles Vital Little Plans: "Diversity is a small-scale phenomenon. It requires collections of little plans."

Both plans want to build on the strengths of what is already there.

What needs to be considered:

- scale: can small and local work better at Dufferin Grove than master-planned and central?
- union contracts: can unionized city staff collaborate day-to-day with park friends?
- silos: can park maintenance staff, forestry staff, technical staff, and recreation program staff work together as part of the Dufferin Grove conservancy, instead of as independent units?
- keeping the current rink and clubhouse: can the DTAH contract be changed to help existing park structures to work better, instead of replacing the rink and clubhouse and ovens?
- a neighbourhood board: can CELOS work with park enthusiasts to build a Dufferin Grove conservancy board with the necessary experience to help run the park?
- permits: can people who want to contribute music, yoga, theatre, campfires etc. to the park be treated as donors rather than as sources of city permit fee income?
- transparency: can all details of Dufferin Grove spending, income, and contracts be public information?

The cob courtyard café

building the cob café, 2005

The earth-straw-gravel-and-water (“cob”) structure beside the wading pool was built in the summer of 2005, with the help of over 500 pairs of hands (little and big – lots of children took part). It was the invention of park friend Georgie Donais, who had been fascinated by earthen buildings (adobe in all its versions all over the world) for years. She learned as much as she could, and built a small cob oven in her backyard. Then in 2004, Public Health said that the temporary food cart by the Dufferin Grove playground was so busy that it needed to be replaced by a proper outdoor kitchen with hot water, four sinks, and the capacity to both heat up and refrigerate food. Georgie offered to supervise the making of something beautiful as well as useful, hoping for the participation of many volunteers to build it at very little cost.

Would park friends help? They did. It turned out that even casual passersby were inspired to “get muddy” (Georgie’s email was The end result was a wonder. Thirteen years later, its mud walls are firm. The plumbing and wiring, originally installed by city tech services workers, supports its continuing use as an outdoor café kitchen.

Like all public buildings, the cob café needs periodic maintenance and occasional graffiti removal (plastering over graffiti on the cob café is easier to do than chemical removal on brick buildings). All Dufferin Grove on-site staff are part-time workers. Michelle Webb, a park program staffer who was involved in building the cob café back in 2005, has been doing all the maintenance for the last two years. Meantime, most of her colleagues who knew how to plaster have left. There are plenty of new staff, since there’s a high turnover, but when the new staff were offered some park shifts this summer to learn cob maintenance, none were interested. So Michelle has continued solo. If the park changes back to being run as a partnership (a conservancy), the staff will stay longer and again have a stake in helping to keep the cob café working well. The art of and craft of cob maintenance with natural materials is really very interesting.

This summer’s wading pool

The cooling water of a wading pool during a summer as hot as this past one is a wonderful park resource. But there were problems. Wading pool staff said that the hydraulics of the pools mechanical pit were broken for much of the summer, and also that children continued to slip often on the substandard surfacing. The boredom of the job was another issue, and the staff often looked unhappy. The response from management was to discipline wading pool staff for sitting on the bench beside the pool. Staff were told they must stand or walk most of the time, and they were warned that they were being monitored to make sure. We think that staff boredom and unhappiness can be resolved better by a return to the more challenging job assignments made possible in a conservancy.

Music and dance in the park

21st annual Morris Dancers Labour Day “Ale” at Dufferin Grove, Sunday Sept.2, 2018

Morris dancers date back to farm labourers' resistance to early industrial conditions in Great Britain in the eighteenth century. The dancers often wear bells strapped to their legs; some are in blackface (this refers to a miners' disguise, not an attempt to change race); some dance with swords. It's very energetic, and exhilarating to watch. Groups from other parts of Ontario, NY State, sometimes even Britain, have been coming to this park for 21 years on the Sunday of Labour Day weekend. The groups dance for one another to show off their latest dances, and eat fresh bread and make pizza. For the first 17 years, they also had permission to drink ale, which is traditional for this gathering. There was never any problem, but even as family-friendly, sociable beer gardens are cropping up all over town (examples: at the Bentway, the Brickworks, Wychwood Barns), the permit for Dufferin Grove has become so expensive and cumbersome that the group gave up trying to get permission. They still have a good time and give a good show to passersby. But maybe permission for a refreshing Ale for the dancers can be reinstated with the help of a conservancy.

Polish Heritage celebration, Saturday Sept.8, 2018

Ewelina Ferenc is a Polish musician living in the neighbourhood. She wanted to do a relaxed open-air music session with some Eastern European bandmates, folk dancing too, but getting a permit was hard. She tried five times to find out where to go. After four dead ends she finally got a helpful person downtown who guided her though the Arts in the Park process. She had to pay an extra $100 for a noise permit (slightly amplified traditional folk instruments, so gentle).

By the time Ewelina got her permit, there was less than a week left to get the word out. Even so, she and her friends put on a wonderful concert. Hopefully they weren’t daunted by the paperwork and they’ll bring their music again next year. If the conservancy is up and running by then, there will be no blocks and the musicians can just concentrate on giving their musical gifts, free to the people in the park.

Polky village band, Dufferin Grove Park Saturday Sept.7

Thursday Sept.27 at 7 pm: Special guest performance by Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theatre: "The Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"

Clay and Paper Theatre presents Vermont-based, renowned activist puppeteers, Bread and Puppet Theatre on September 27th at 7pm in Dufferin Grove Park. Bread and Puppet’s touring company will perform "The Grasshopper Rebellion Circus" -- a large-scale political puppet spectacle powered by a hot brass band and traditional circus tropes to address the urgent issues of the day. 60 minutes. PWYC Suggested $15.


The sand pit/adventure playground

This past hot summer the sandpit was often full of children. There was a rough patch at the beginning of the season, when a new program supervisor decreed that the water from the sandpit tap could “severely splash” smaller kids. His estimation of safe water volume meant that the water-tap river didn’t flow far enough for as many kids to play as wanted to. But his approach was modified later and the sandpit once again provided cooling and fun for young visitors from all over the city and beyond. There was a supply of shovels, some pieces of lumber, and the recreation supervisor brought in two giant tires to add to the building supplies. So the little engineers and dam-builders had many hours of pleasurable “work” to do.

Unlicensed play

At the beginning of September the Globe reported that 25 Toronto schools are using an exclusively-licensed “Outdoor Play and Learning” program funded by Earth Day, designed to return imaginative play to recess. The article said that such programs are necessary to counteract parents’ misguided cramming of their children’s schedules with too many structured activities.

Dufferin Grove adventure playground

Parent-blaming is a bit of a hobby for educators (and media). In reality, back in the summer of 2000, when insurance-risk fear persuaded the two Toronto school boards to order most of their best schoolyard playgrounds torn out when no one was looking, it was parents who mobilized (mostly too late, sadly) to insist on their children’s need for challenging play. We see that parents are coming from all over the city to let their kids get busy and dirty at the sandpit at Dufferin Grove Park. If the places for such play are multiplied, the kids and families will come, and play even without licensed “free play” instruction.

Here’s a good sign: in August 2017, parks management reported that they plan to “explore the implementation of Adventure Playgrounds” in more city parks. Hopefully they’ll look into Dufferin Grove’s 25-year experience -- the first and oldest "early conservancy" achievement at the park.

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