Editor’s Letter (July 2013): how can Toronto protect its parks?

Editor’s Letter (July 2013): how can Toronto protect its parks?

Toronto Life Editor's Letter: Sarah Fulford

One of the nicest ways to spend a summer after­noon is to go to Trinity Bellwoods Park, find a spot on the grass and people-watch. You see families picnicking with toddlers, cyclists with their dogs, and hipsters with guitars drinking not-very-well-concealed microbrews—all squeezed in so close they’re practically sitting on each other’s blankets. When I lived in the area a decade ago, Trinity Bellwoods wasn’t nearly so busy. Now, like many other downtown parks flooded with condo dwellers in search of green, it’s teeming with life.

There are 2.8 million people in Toronto, making it the fourth largest city in North America, and demographers estimate we could break three million by the end of the decade. Overwhelmingly, the population explosion has made our parks more interesting; they’re evolving into multi-use community hubs. They accommodate our growing roster of farmers’ markets. They host outdoor movie nights. They double as open-air galleries during Luminato and Nuit Blanche and as stages for theatre and dance performances.

But all that additional traffic leads to more wear and tear, and the city hasn’t kept up with the increased maintenance needs. Three years ago, a former McGuinty advisor named Dave Harvey noticed that a growing number of residents wanted to take matters into their own hands but weren’t having much luck. Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation department was lousy at responding to citizens who wanted to volunteer time or money to improve their parks. Permits for anything out of the ordinary were a nightmare to obtain, and the city often rejected creative ideas for enhancements. Harvey publicly criticized what he called the department’s “culture of no,” and he launched a volunteer-based advocacy group called Park People. It now has five full-time staff and an annual budget of $300,000—funds raised from such sources as the Westons, TD Bank and the Metcalf Foundation. Its goal is to stimulate investment in our parks, from corporations and individuals.

The city seems to be paying attention. This spring, the parks department released a strategic plan with some excellent ideas, including the introduction of urban park rangers who would address the concerns of area residents—an idea that has worked well in other cities—and the development of user-friendly websites that would simplify the permit application process.

In general, we are moving toward an era when people have more decision-making power over their shared space, which should lead to better parks and happier citizens. But we don’t always agree on what’s best for our parks. An outdoor basketball court is either a terrific way to encourage kids to be active or a recipe for late-night teen debauchery, depending on your point of view. Pity the staff at the parks department who have to deal with our competing interests.

Jan Wong details a spectacular park dispute in her piece “The Fury Unleashed” (page 28), in which a posh uptown dog owners’ association sued the city for the right to have an official off-leash area. The five-year battle was an epic waste of time and money and the source of much neighbourhood hostility. Let it be a cautionary tale: our parks can serve the greater good. We just have to play nice in the sandbox.

(Image: Christopher Wahl)