Toronto's Unfunded Parks Plan
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Toronto’s Unfunded Parks Plan

Despite being unanimously passed by council in 2013, the City's five-year parks plan remains mostly unfunded, and critics say Toronto needs to do better.

Becoming “A City Within a Park” isn’t aspirational in Toronto. The city’s 1,600 parks cover 13 per cent of its landmass, and show we’re not fooling around. And the spaces are much loved: Toronto issued more than 125,000 permits for softball, basketball and tennis courts alone in 2012.

55 per cent of Torontonians questioned by city surveys between 2001 and 2012 said they were “very proud” of Toronto’s playgrounds, sports fields, wading pools, BMX courses and trails. The high volume of parkland ranks Toronto ahead of sister-city Chicago and 18 of America’s highest-density cities.

So it seemed fitting in July 2011 that Toronto should create a new framework for guiding the City’s parks planning and services. Recognizing that shifting demographic trends meant people wanted different things from limited park space, City officials tried to balance the needs of seniors and families for public washrooms, shaded benches and picnic areas with the needs of recreational cyclists and runners for drinking fountains and well-marked paved trails. Cultural uses like bocce fields and cricket pitches were also factored in.

Finding unanimity was no small task. Toronto’s diverse populations perceive of public spaces in very different ways; throw in meeting the park’s ecological goals and the resulting report, if ever something resembling a consensus could be found, would be a feat.

So when City Council passed a first-of-its kind Parks Plan [PDF] to guide planning and services from 2013 to 2017, many celebrated.

“It was well received and unanimously supported by council,” said Dave Harvey, executive director of Park People, an advocacy group promoting public engagement in building the city’s parks. “But there were these warnings from us and others that the key will be in implementing the plan.” The City had crafted other good frameworks for park development in the past, Harvey told Torontoist; “we were definitely saying that the city needs to find the resources to actually implement the plan or else it was just going to be pretty words on a page.”

The worry was well justified. Funding the ambitious plan for the city’s 80 square kilometres of parkland was sent from the Parks and Environment Committee to the Budget Committee in 2013 and 2014. Whether the Budget Committee simply didn’t want to fund the Plan or lacked the funds isn’t clear; what is clear is that three years after consulting with thousands of Torontonians on the future of their beloved parks, little has been implemented from the Plan save for emergency repairs on picnic facilities and other critical maintenance, hardly the bucket list of recommendations listed in the report.

Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), a member of the Parks and Environment Committee, told Torontoist it’s “not abnormal” for the objectives of the Parks Plan to remain less-than-fully realized two years after its adoption. “We have all kinds of policy on the books for recreation, for parks, for transportation,” he said, not all of which are funded right away by the Budget Committee.

But there is something else at play, Perks cautioned. “There is, I think, on council, an unwillingness to give social investment—parks, recreation, child care—the same kind of investment as we give to emergency services and physical infrastructure,” he said.

“That’s too bad, because, frankly, a city needs to be more than just bricks, mortar and roads: it needs to be a great place to live and a community with services.”

On Friday, Perks and fellow Parks and Environment committee members will review a report from city staff outlining the costs associated with ten major recommendations from councillors for the city’s parks. Some ideas are new and weren’t previously considered in the 2013-2017 Plan. Everything from invasive species removal in environmentally sensitive areas to beach grooming and garbage removal from ravines was investigated; a $16.42 million price tag was also attached, which includes the creation of 154 staff positions to oversee the recommendations. City staff acknowledge that “some of the plan’s initiatives are not achievable without dedicated increased operating funding.”

Reviewing the report is “part of an ongoing process,” according to Perks. “There are those of us who have been battling for a rounder understanding of where the city needs to be making investments for a very long time. And the battle continues.”

For Harvey and Park People, implementing the Plan is essential to connecting people to their city. “Parks can serve such a critical role for building and supporting particularly underserved and marginalized communities,” he said. “They have so many great returns for relatively small investments.”