This week Marcus Gee wrote about park maintenance in the Globe and Mail in a column titled “Toronto’s parks suffer from a lack of pride.” He recounts the oft-cited example of Canoe Landing Park as an argument that the City is unable to maintain its parks at a high-quality (especially its signature parks) and that park staff have no sense of pride in our parks.
Gee’s column is unfair to city parks workers, portraying them as lazy and uncaring about their work. Every time I have met a city parks worker, the care and pride they took in our parks was clear. Sure, in a workforce as large as the City’s, you’ll come across people who are careless, but Gee’s is an unproductive generalization.
He does, however, raise a good point when he notes that having on-site park managers who have a deeper, more visible presence in parks would result in parks that are better maintained.
Currently, the City has park supervisors, but these hard-working staff are responsible for a number of parks. For example, there’s one park supervisor for Wards 19 and 20, which includes Trinity Bellwoods, Christie Pits, and a slew of other high-profile parks.
It’s important to remember that parks staff are working under very difficult budget conditions. It was only in 2015 that the City actually approved extra maintenance funding (above and beyond increases just to keep up to the same standards as the year before) to focus on signature parks in high-use times like summer.
There is evidence to suggest that moving from the current “flying squad” model where city crews rotate in and out of many parks doing maintenance work, to a “zone-based” model where crews are responsible for specific areas, results in cleaner parks.
We dabble with this in Toronto in parks like the Toronto Music Garden and Corktown Common where gardeners take special care and receive special training for these signature spaces. But overall city parks workers are stretched across many, many parks “flying” through and doing things like cutting grass, etc.
When Central Park changed their maintenance style to a zone-based system in 1994 they saw big improvements. The park was divided up into a number of different areas and park staff workers were assigned to these specific areas. “Each of 49 zones, roughly 10 acres a piece, are the direct responsibility of a zone gardener whose task is not only to maintain horticultural standards, but also to remove minor graffiti, empty trash baskets, do small-scale mowing, repair benches, and address potential crime situations,” notes a post on the Project for Public Spaces website.
Now, this management style may not be necessary throughout our entire park system, but choosing several high-volume, signature parks—Trinity Bellwoods and Allan Gardens, for example—and assigning a dedicated park manager and staff as a pilot could be an interesting way to see the effects of this for Toronto.
Toronto’s park supervisors are often also the first point of contact that residents have with city parks staff when they want to do something in their park—host an event, for example. Making this presence more visible and including a community-engagement element could be very beneficial. This is an idea we at Park People originally proposed in our Parks Platform for the 2014 election, and it’s one we still believe has merit.
As we head into budget season, we should be watchful of the parks operating budget. Announcements like the proposed Rail Deck Park have rightly sparked a conversation about how we can afford the maintenance costs of new parks. It’s crucial to remember that building new parks is only one side of the equation—we need to strongly advocate for the operating funds needed to support our parks, both new and old.
Jake Tobin Garrett is Park People’s Manager of Policy & Research.