The 2013 Toronto Parks Summit Brings Public-Space Boosters Together
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The 2013 Toronto Parks Summit Brings Public-Space Boosters Together

For the third year in a row, Toronto Park People convened a meeting of its members and supporters.

The Regent Park Daniels Spectrum was packed on Saturday afternoon for the third annual Toronto Parks Summit. The four-hour-long event provided an update on Toronto Park People’s progress improving the city’s parks, and a heads up on what the group is planning to do next.

Toronto Park People is a non-profit, grassroots organization formed in early 2011. It has grown from an outfit with few staff and little money into a conglomerate of 80 parks groups. Its mandate is to inspire new innovations in the use of public space, and to make great parks accessible to all Torontonians.

“It’s really an expanding movement. As people see good things happening in other people’s parks, they want to make that happen in their own parks,” said Dave Harvey, the organization’s director.

This year, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation pledged $5 million over three years to Toronto Parks People to fund new parks initiatives in Toronto. And that’s not the only new development. “We’re expanding our resources,” said Harvey. “We’re bringing in some new staff to help us on the policy front. We’re expanding our outreach resources to help build those new parks groups, in particular with this goal of having a parks group in every ward of the city in two years.”

Keynote speaker Mickey Fearn, the US National Park Service’s deputy director for communications and community assistance, gave an entertaining speech about the virtues and challenges of running a successful parks and rec department. According to Fearn, parks and recreation is the most invisible of government services because its results are hard to quantify. Cities need thriving parks departments, he said, because good parks inspire civic engagement and environmental stewardship.

Collaboration and partnership can be tricky things to maintain. In explaining this, Fearn used a vinaigrette metaphor. Oil and vinegar mix together, he said, but they inevitably separate. In the same way, people get together on initiatives like building better parks, but eventually lose interest and go their separate ways. There must be a unifying vision to keep everyone together. Organizations like Toronto Parks People, Fearn said, act as an emulsifying agent, keeping the oil and vinegar (that is, different organizations and community members) together as a whole.

“The interesting thing is, people are getting together on things to which they feel commitment and power. So they’re willing to work on them because it causes them to feel powerful,” Kearns explained, after his speech.

“There’s these three things: critical mass, force field, and tipping point. You get a critical mass of the people working on things, then this force field emerges, and there’s this tipping point. You see Parks People getting close to that tipping point,” Kearns added.

Capping off the presentation was a series of success stories about four people and organizations that did things to promote public spaces in their communities. CBC Radio One host Jane Farrow interviewed each honoree. Of the four, the crowd favourite seemed to be Fairmount Icemasters, which sets up a skating rink at Fairmount Park every year. After a recent round of funding cuts, a crew of volunteers stepped in to make up the difference, working long hours. They even trucked in snow from hockey arenas to make tobogganing slopes. The whole episode showed that when the City trims the parks budget, local communities are the ones that suffer—and that even in the cold of a Canadian winter, parks can still bring people together.

The summit ended with a tour of the Regent Park redevelopment, including the new aquatic centre that opened up last year. Right now, a planned park area is just an open field of dirt and snow cordoned off by a chain-link fence, but soon it will be a verdant public space. The revitalized Regent Park will, it is hoped, exemplify the type of progress that Toronto Parks People strives toward.