Change could be coming to Toronto's parks system now that city council has approved a new strategic plan.
City council’s latest meeting hasn’t exactly been a showcase of thoughtful and productive governance, but amidst the bickering, exasperation, and saying “no” to things, politicians did agree on something: a new parks plan [PDF].
The new plan attempts to chart out a five-year course of action for the City’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation division. It’s like a wish list for improving the City’s parks system. Even though council adopted the plan, the millions of dollars in capital and operating expenses that the plan proposes will have to be approved over time through the budget process.
“There’s lots there in the plan, and we’ve seen strategic plans in the past. But now let’s get some action,” says Dave Harvey, director of Toronto Park People, an advocacy group. He’s optimistic this plan will fare better than others, like 2004’s Common Grounds, because of the dedication of City parks staff, political help from pro-park city councillors, and pressure from organizations like his.
So, what sorts of changes are we looking at? Here are some highlights, with commentary from Richard Ubbens, director of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation for the City:
Urban Park Rangers
Though Ubbens stresses the rangers program is a small part of a large plan, the concept is attention-grabbing. In keeping with the model used by similar programs in New York City and Edmonton, the rangers would be a point of human contact. They’d help park users get information about parks, whether that be about the plants in a particular flower bed, or how to get a permit for a large barbecue. There would be two rangers per district, totalling 12 by the time the program is fully phased in. Rangers could also attend community and volunteer meetings, to maintain human contact between the City and park users.
Improved Online Services
From trail guides to permit services, more parks information will be put online and made accessible. Ubbens hopes to see more guides and information for tourists, or city-dwellers visiting new parts of town. The City also plans to put the parks permitting system online, to cut down on confusion.
More Cooperation With Volunteers
When park users are engaged with the planning and maintenance of horticulture, they’re more likely to talk to fellow park users about it and to keep an eye on its condition, says Ubbens. That’s something the Parks department has already seen during the redevelopment of some trails, especially in environmentally sensitive areas.
“We’re not trying to replace staff, we’re just trying to do this work in cooperation with those who are really interested, really love their community, and really want to participate with making the parks beautiful,” says Ubbens.
And with the growing popularity of park-focused advocacy and community groups, like the many “Friends of…” groups or the Toronto Trees and Parks Foundation, the City wants to harness that effort. There are also plans to make donating cash and in-kind contributions simpler.
As the city has grown, the parks system hasn’t always been able to keep up, says Ubbens. From the over 14,000 responses the department received during the consultation process leading up to the release of the new parks plan, he says most people were happy with Toronto’s parks overall, but they noticed the little things. Some little things the plan calls for include adding more water fountains, improving washrooms, adding shade structures and seating, and making parks infrastructure more accessible.