Another year, another dollar. It’s budget time in the City of Toronto again and this year—an election year, mind you—we’re seeing another budget that keeps our heads above water, but doesn’t invest in new or enhanced services for our parks.
The budget must still go through the political process including a final vote by City Council, so expect some changes, but here’s our key take-aways from what is proposed right now:
Our city and park systems keeps growing, but our operating budget? Not so much.
This year’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation operating budget shows a zero percent increase over last year’s budget. Last year’s budget was essentially flat as well. This despite the fact that during that time we’ve added new residents and new parks to Toronto.
While we have money to build and improve parks in Toronto (thanks to a levy on development that goes towards parks), where we fall flat year after year is mustering the willpower to invest in our parks operations.
The operating budget is what keeps the lights on, the flowers pretty, and the grass cut. It’s what ensures we have staff to actually manage and build the things we want, operate them after they’re built, and engage with community members in making sure they are active and vibrant places.
We can’t continue to propose new parks, including big and expensive ones (Rail Deck Park), and approve new master plans (Ravine Strategy) without making a commitment to meaningfully increase operating funding to pay for these things. Something’s gotta give.
New plans and projects require political willpower to fund their implementation
Make no mistake, last year was an exciting one for parks. Not only did we see new and redesigned parks—like Trillium Park, Grange Park, and Berczy Park—we saw the undertaking of new, much-needed citywide parks plans.
This includes approval of the Ravine Strategy, which will guide investment in what is arguably Toronto’s greatest natural asset—our ravine system—and plans like the Recreation and Facilities Master Plan (approved in 2017) and the Parkland Strategy (ongoing) that lay out citywide strategies for ensuring our parks keep pace with population growth and demographic change.
We also saw big, exciting projects like Rail Deck Park continue to move forward, with City Council approving re-designating the space above the rail corridor for park use. This was an essential step to preserve this space for a future park.
But we’ll say it again: these plans and projects require a real conversation and commitment to funding their implementation. Our last citywide Parks Plan offers a cautionary tale.
Five years after our five-year Parks Plan we still have a bunch left to do
City Council approved the five-year Parks Plan in 2013 with a host of recommendations for new services and investment. Five years later as that plan reaches its end, while the City has acted on a number of its recommendations, we still have several unfunded initiatives.
Previous operating budgets kept saying funding would be considered in the next year’s budget. And then the next year. And the year after that. It’s worth noting this is the same language found in this year’s budget for the Ravine Strategy, which says that funding will be considered in the 2019 budget.
Staff outline that it would take an investment of a total $8.6 million through 2018 – 2020 to fund the remaining elements of the Parks Plan, including money for community engagement, horticultural displays, community gardens, and enhanced maintenance.
This is not frivolous spending. It’s an investment in the quality of our parks and public spaces, which can positively impact park use and neighbourhood pride—not to mention help make our city look good to tourists and visitors.
Climate change and extreme weather are causing real financial impacts
Last year was a particularly bad one for damage to our parks from extreme weather with heavy rainfalls causing floods. This was especially evident in our beloved Toronto Islands, which were closed for much of the summer and experienced a 50% drop in ferry traffic as a result. The cost resulting from storm damage is estimated to be about $8.5 million.
CBC reported that this repair work is not yet fully funded in this year’s budget. We need to repair and restore our park system no doubt, but we also need to think ahead about how we can better design our parks to mitigate the effects of climate change.
As we wrote in our Parks Solutions Brief on climate change and parks this summer, it’s time we invested in green infrastructure in our parks. These are elements like bioswales, rain gardens, and retention ponds that soak up, filter, and store rain water where it falls, rather than overwhelming underground pipe systems and causing floods.
We should be taking the opportunity to incorporate this type of green infrastructure into new parks and redesigned ones so that we can get ahead of future storms.
The State of Good Repair Backlog continues to grow
Speaking of repair work, the State of Good Repair backlog for Parks, Forestry, and Recreation is not getting any smaller. This is what the City calls the build-up of repair work that needs to be done to keep parks and recreation infrastructure like field houses and community centres in tip top shape. Staff note it will grow to $600 million by 2027 from the current $457 million.
It may not be the flashy spending that allows politicians to cut ribbons on new facilities or parks, but we need to up our game to ensure our existing facilities are kept in good repair. Keeping on top of minor repair work ensures we don’t have to spend much more later on when things really break down, a point city staff made in the recent Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan.
Make no mistake, there is much to celebrate in our park system in Toronto. The work that has happened in the last several years by the City, community partners, and non-profits has put a renewed focus on our parks and public spaces. We’ve created some great new public spaces, experimented with innovative partnerships like community-run cafes, created new permit categories to encourage arts programming in parks, and continue to think big and outside of the box with projects like The Bentway and Rail Deck Park.
But the challenges we outlined above deserve attention if we are to continue to build a strong, dynamic park system together.
You can check out the proposed operating and capital budgets for yourself here and here. We encourage you to contact your city councillor and let them know how important investing in our parks operations is to you. You can find a listing of City Councillors and their contact information here. City Council will vote on the budget the week of February 12.