At one point during the inaugural Toronto Park Summit, a woman stood up and explained that she had a problem. There was a small park in her neighbourhood with a poorly designed drinking fountain that needed to be replaced because it was always filled with sand. “Does anyone know a good drinking fountain?” she asked. A woman two seats away nodded that she could help, leaning over to exchange information.
Standing by the podium at the front, Dave Harvey smiled. “This is why we’re here,” he said.
Harvey is the executive director of Park People, an organization that hopes to knit together the plethora of dedicated, but perhaps scattered, park-lovers in Toronto, by providing a platform to share knowledge, connect, and give them the tools and support to make better parks. He is also the author of a recent report on Toronto’s parks put out by the Metcalf Foundation, called Fertile Ground for New Thinking, and recently participated in a panel about parks at the University of Toronto called Whose Park is it?
Held at the Evergreen Brick Works this Saturday, the Park Summit brought together city councillors and parks staff with community organizers and engaged citizens—and then threw them all together in a room to see what happened.
What happened was that people began to talk to each other about parks.
While the woman’s question was a simple one, it speaks to the feeling of helplessness that can set in when you feel like you don’t have access to the information you need to accomplish something. It also speaks to how these problems can sometimes be easily solved—if you only knew the right person.
Tupper Thomas is definitely one of those right people. The summit’s keynote speaker, Thomas is the former administrator of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and the founder of the Prospect Park Alliance, a group that works with the City of New York to, as their website says, “restore, develop, and operate Prospect Park for the enjoyment of all.” Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (the landscape architect who also did Central Park), Prospect Park is a 585-acre park that contains Brooklyn’s only lake, and a few streams and waterfalls that were purpose-designed and built.
When Thomas first became involved in the park in the 1980s, it was a dingy, neglected space. But over time, through a combination of dedicated volunteers, private investment, and government backing, she managed to turn the park around, boosting attendance and creating a spot the community adored.
“No city is a great city without a great park,” Thomas said. And it also seems that no park is a great park without a great community—something Toronto has in spades. Jane Farrow, the executive director of the upcoming Jane’s Walk, moderated a session during which community park organizers shared their experiences. These are people who make time in their busy lives (many were working parents) to improve their neighbourhood parks. But it’s not just about improving the park. What was shown over and over in their stories was that when you improve a neighbourhood park, you also improve the neighbourhood’s sense of community. It’s more about meeting your neighbours than it is about the park, one speaker said.
There was the story of the man from Scarborough who organized the building of an ice rink in his park because there weren’t any community rinks around, and then there was the teacher who set up fire pits outside her park’s ice rink so children would have a place to drink hot chocolate, roast marshmallows, and warm up. Another woman spoke of how she was at a park in Thorncliffe Park after recently immigrating to Canada and was sad to see it in such poor condition, with patchy grass and hardly anywhere to sit. She decided to do something about it, and worked to add benches, garbage cans, and even a successful community bazaar on Fridays. When asked about permits for the bazaar, she laughed, hesitant to answer with the city councillors in the room, but finally said, “We didn’t have a permit for the first one.”
And that highlights the frustration in dealing with city hall on some of these issues and the tedious duty of working through bureaucratic channels to obtain permits for fire pits and outdoor bazaars—sometimes you have to do just do it, even without permission. “We have initiative,” she said. “We have vision—we just need the space.” That’s where, Harvey hopes, Park People can step in to help.
A large map of the GTA was pasted on one of the walls, and people were asked to indicate their park with a red sticker. While there were a lot of stickers in the downtown area, they extended outwards to the inner suburbs and beyond, showing the potential of parks as one of those issues that really brings people together from all over the city.
What is clear from events like the Park Summit is that people in Toronto want to be engaged in their city, but that they might need groups like Park People to lay the groundwork in bringing them all together. This is why Mayor Rob Ford’s recent decision to axe many citizen advisory committees (such as ones on the pedestrian realm, cycling, and aboriginal issues) is so troubling. In a time when we should be encouraging people to engage with their city and not just sit back and let decisions be made for them, it’s unfortunate that the formal avenues through which to do this are shrinking.
These are all volunteer committees: people who take time out of their daily lives to sit on these advisory boards because they want to be involved. Busy people wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t important to them. Shouldn’t we be encouraging this as much as we can, especially when municipal voter turnout is so low? Why do we have people at city hall working to actively disengage citizens?
Not everyone at city hall agrees with this approach, and it was heartening to see these city councillors in attendance at the Park Summit—many of whom who stood up and spoke about the importance of parks and citizen engagement in Toronto.
As Tupper Thomas said, “City parks are the place where democracy happens.” If that’s true, then maybe we should move the council chambers into Trinity–Bellwoods for the summer so our mayor can learn a thing or two.