Whose Park Is It?
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Whose Park Is It?

As the days grow longer and our breath becomes invisible again, Torontonians will be flooding back to our beloved parks all over town. This is the city within a park, after all. And, according to Richard Ubbens, the director of parks at the City of Toronto, we have over 8,000 hectares of green space in more than 1,600 parks.
We also have more than 300 million dollars worth of a state-of-good-repair backlog and a mayor who is looking for ways to shrink the parks budget.
And so we wonder: whose park is it? A timely question, and also the subject of a talk held April 7 at the John H. Daniels School of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto and organized and hosted by the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects and Ground Magazine, a quarterly publication of the OALA. Panellists included: Ubbens; David Harvey, executive director of the newly formed Park People community group; Anna Hill, from the Friends of Trinity Bellwoods Park; Jim Melvin, principal at PMA Landscape Architects; and Dave Meslin, the ubiquitous community organizer whose official title on the flyer was listed as “instigator.”
What quickly emerged from the discussion is that parks are highly contested spaces.

“What about animal habitats?” one audience member asked. “What about more live music?” asked another. What about community gardens? Basketball courts? Corporate sponsorship? Advertising? Fences? Children’s play equipment? Greenhouses? Festivals? Tool sheds? Bicycle paths? Naturalization? Fruit trees? Ice rinks? Tennis courts?
The list of uses (and, some would say, abuses) of parks is endless. For example, Harvey suggested he’d like a place to have a drink in parks—an activity that might not gel with everyone’s idea of what a park should be. (Although a trek down to Trinity Bellwoods in summer reveals that, in practice, there are many people who side with Harvey on that one.)
As Hill pointed out, it’s a community’s job to find the best solutions for its own park. And there are numerous dedicated community groups in Toronto who volunteer their time by doing just that. Her group, the Friends of Trinity Bellwoods, regularly votes on issues concerning park uses. Recently, 125 park users—75 of them kids—cast a vote on new playground equipment.
However, Melvin noted, neighbourhood park groups can also get caught up in NIMBYism, staunchly advocating for the status quo. This was further highlighted when an audience member who works for a neighbouring municipality explained how they run up against community opposition whenever they suggest park uses such as a basketball court, because neighbours are concerned that youth will be attracted to the area. (Youth in a park? Outrageous! That might actually promote physical activity and health! Quick, get them to an indoor mall!)

An Ultimate Frisbee pickup game in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Photo by ariehsinger from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

And then there are the key issues of which parks attract people who have the time and resources to create a neighourhood “Friends of” group, and whether parks in lower-income neighbourhoods are receiving as much attention as those like Trinity Bellwoods.
Underlying all of this is the matter of tactics. When an audience member asked how to create a new park out of a fenced-off, provincially owned vacant lot in his neighbourhood, Meslin, the official “instigator,” suggested just taking down the fence and using the space, while Ubbens suggested that working with the local councillor was probably the best route to go. Meslin nodded, then added, “Just take down the fence.”
Several parts of the discussion centred on the issue of funding and, specifically, whether there is an acceptable level of advertising and corporate investment in our public parks. Meslin spoke of advertising’s slow but steady creep into public spaces through the Trojan horse of street furniture and Info-To-Go stations, while Harvey touched on the need to explore other forms of funding for parks, suggesting that the City might look at corporate naming rights in exchange for upgraded or new facilities. While he noted he didn’t mean changing the name of a park to Coca-Cola Park, he pointed as an example to Chicago’s Millennium Park, home to the McDonald’s Cycle Center, which provides bike lockers and showers. Are these types of sponsorships inevitable in an era of fiscal austerity, or do we see parks as places that should be free of corporate branding?
City parks are, in a way, the final frontier of advertising. They remain one of the few places in our city where we can go to (mostly) escape the noise of commercialism—even Ubben spoke out against it, saying he doesn’t want to see advertising in city parks. Of course, several marketing companies have found ways to infiltrate our green spaces. Ever encounter bands of dressed-up characters roving through parks getting people to pose for pictures with large cardboard posters of the latest blockbuster film? While this may fly at Yonge-Dundas Square, it can seem jarringly out of place amidst people lounging on blankets, reading, and playing frisbee.
So, after we’ve long ceded our streets and public squares to advertising, what makes the park so special? Why do we bristle so much at the thought of ads in our green spaces, more than we do to ads on our streets?
What came up again and again, in not only the panel discussion but in the question period afterwards, is the idea that parks belong to us, in a way that doesn’t apply to other parts of the city. There is a personal as well as community attachment—the idea that this is my park, my space when I’m there, and it’s yours when you are. It’s this idea that makes parks such contested spaces, but also such vibrant and exciting ones as well.
So, who does own city parks? “We all do,” Ubbens said. The question remains, however, just exactly what that means.
Park People are holding the first ever Park Summit at the Evergreen Brick Works on April 16. Although the summit itself is full, there is a meet-and-greet party afterwards from 4–5:30 p.m. where you can hobnob with your neighbourhood park lovers.

CLARIFICATION: April 12, 2011, 3:25 PM This post, in its original form, did not include the organizers of Whose Park Is It? The event was hosted by the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects and Ground Magazine, a quarterly publication of the OALA.