While the City's 2012 budget reveals reduced services in Toronto's parks, it's been holding public consultations on a new Parks Plan that will provide guidance for the next five years.
On a Thursday night last week, park-loving Torontonians found themselves gathered around a collection of tables in the gymnasium at Wellesley Community Centre for the last of four public consultation sessions the City conducted to develop its new Parks Plan. The five-year strategic plan will touch on everything from park acquisition to management to the operations of Toronto’s 1,600 parks. After the presenter breezed through a PowerPoint presentation [PDF] on seven council-approved guiding principles, the discussion passed hands to the citizens sitting at tables waiting to tell City employees what they thought of Toronto’s parks.
One of the first questions that arose was how the City advertised the public consultations. “Someone sent me a link on Facebook,” said one woman. “Was this information posted in any actual parks?” asked someone else. Indeed, the poor publicizing of these consultations is a problem for a process that purports to engage a wide range of citizens. Many in the city who would want to provide input into the Parks Plan likely have no idea when consultations are happening, or that there is an accompanying online survey.
Dave Harvey is not one of those people. Harvey is executive director of Park People, an advocacy organization that brings together people from all over the city through their love of Toronto’s parks. The organization recently released the first of their solutions papers, Pathway for Parks [PDF], which outlines several ideas that could improve Toronto’s parks. The focus on financial impacts and finding “efficiencies” shows that Park People is paying close attention to the current climate at City Hall by speaking their language.
The report highlights the need for the City to shift resources into maintenance of existing parks as opposed to the creation of new parks, as well as the benefits of working more closely with the community and facilitating the creation of more neighbourhood park groups. “Toronto Park People will work in partnership with City staff to make this happen,” the report says.
The report also calls for a look into private investment in parks, including sponsorships and partnerships with surrounding business improvement areas. It is likely these types of recommendations will find the most traction within the current City administration, but Park People maintains that advertising should stay out of city parks, and that the community should approve any sponsorships. Many other cities, like New York and Chicago, have parks funded by businesses and corporate sponsorships; however, as shown in a panel discussion on parks in April, some in Toronto are wary of the idea.
Parks, Forestry and Recreation was one of the City departments told to cut 10 per cent from their operating budget for 2012. Yesterday morning the City released these budgets, showing that Parks had made a reduction of 4.9 per cent, or $13.4 million. “No additional reductions were recommended beyond this point,” the report notes, “as further reductions would significantly impact PF&R’s service levels.”
There are a number of service impacts outlined [PDF]. Impacts noted as minor ranged from off-peak closures at select arenas to reducing the Parks Ambassador Program—which identifies homeless people in parks and refers them to support services—from two people to one person. Major service impacts included the closing of five wading pools and two outdoor pools, and reducing a program that prunes and removes hazardous trees. The report also calls for introducing children and youth program fees in priority centres, which will bring in an estimated $1.1 million.
Torontoist caught up with Park People steering committee member James Chan at Thursday’s public consultation. He said the problem with cutting funding to parks is that, though cuts may not always have an immediately visible impact, they have long-term effects on the quality of the park system, especially given the already considerable maintenance backlog. Basically, while closing an outdoor pool has an immediate impact, the effect of reducing the amount of tree maintenance may be felt less directly but is still significant.
This is something that those at the Park Plan consultation understood. At the end of the consultation, an overview of some of the comments from each of the tables was given. People wanted more benches, better maintenance, more cricket pitches, and better wayfinding signage and lighting. They wanted upgraded washroom facilities, more community gardens, and better tree care. For them, the city’s parks are an essential service—not a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have.
This is the city within a park, after all.