Janie Romoff, General Manager of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation delivered the following address at Park Summit 2018. We’re happy to share this State of the Parks update here. 

The theme of this year’s Park Summit – Let’s Play – was a perfect opportunity to reflect on our parks and public spaces and the way we use them.

Cities build parks and recreation facilities so that their people can build community – and it’s through creativity, imagination and playfulness that each of you, Park People and the dozens of Friends groups across the city, have built communities in your local parks.

As I think about our work, the last year and the road ahead, the themes of play, creativity and innovation are front and centre. I touched on this in my remarks at the Summit in four ways:

  • making it easier for you and your communities to come together and to play in our parks and public realm,
  • expanding our ideas about where we play as a city,
  • ensuring that we build and steward our parks and recreation facilities so that Torontonians today and in future generations have places to play, and
  • learning to play better together.

Making it easier to play in parks

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This is something I’ve spoken about at the Summit before, and that I hear from you often when I’m out visiting your parks.

In the four years I’ve been General Manager, we’ve worked hard to identify barriers to accessing our services and to implement new policies, processes and systems.

We are in the final stages of an RFP to replace our permitting and program registration system, and we expect to be able to award a new contract this summer.

This new solution will go a long way in addressing the issues you raised with us in our recent permit review – we know that we need to make it easier for you to book and use our parks, and replacing this system is a major step in that effort.

I want you to know that we’re being aggressive in our pursuit of a modern, innovative system that will transform our business and the way we work together. We’re working to implement tools that are digital, that offer online and user-focused solutions, and that can continue to evolve and grow as technology advances. We want to ensure that we’re not left with an outdated system in ten years, but rather that we implement a cycle of continuous improvement and innovation that puts us among the most effective and leading government services.

In the meantime, we’ve also taken smaller steps in this journey.

The Arts and Music in the Parks permits have been a huge success. Last year nearly 400 free and easy bookings were made in 55 parks, and with the support of 250 volunteers the Toronto Arts Council, Park People and many of you brought events to over 156,000 Torontonians.

And because you’ve told us that the cost of booking parks is one of the biggest barriers for hosting community events, we also extended the art and music category to include over 100 movie nights, ensuring that you have a free and low-barrier way to bring arts and culture to our shared spaces.

We’ve expanded our online booking tools to include last-minute ice and sport field booking as well as picnics and fire pits, and we’ve re-written our entire website, ensuring Toronto.ca is focused on you, the user, including all the information you need in one place using language everyone can understand.

And we’re working to replace the language and culture of “Permits” with the concept of “Booking” when it comes to your events, barbeques and programs. Every Torontonian is permitted to use our parks and public spaces, but certain uses require a booking and additional support. Booking parks allows you to ensure you’ve met all the requirements and that you can be confident that the park is available to you.

We know the language of permitting feels overly regulatory, and we’re eager to shift that culture by focusing more on our roles as stewards – balancing user needs and supporting you to successfully and sustainably user our shared spaces.

Changing where we play

This year saw Council advance planning on Rail Deck Park, the opening of the Bentway, the ground-breaking of Canoe Landing Community Complex, including Toronto’s park on top of a building, and the reopening of Berczy and Grange Parks.

In Rail Deck Park, the Bentway and Canoe Landing, we see a City willing to be creative in the ways we understand public space, and where parks and spaces to play can be created. Under a highway, over a rail corridor, or on top of a multi-use centre, we’re seeking new ways to expand our common grounds. In a growing city, buying new land for parks in densifying neighbourhoods is difficult, but a spirit of playfulness, creativity and innovation is helping us to think outside the box to grow our system.

And in Berczy and Grange Parks, we’re seeing how whimsy and playfulness pays dividends in design.

Thanks to the leadership of the late Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell, the advocacy and engagement of the local community, and especially thanks to Claude Cormier’s award-winning design, Berczy has become the most instagrammed park in Toronto and has brought smiles to the faces of thousands of residents and visitors.

In Grange Park, Henry Moore’s Large Two Forms has become a destination for all kinds of play, and looks out over am innovative interactive water feature that doesn’t necessarily look like other splash pads, but is now one of the City’s busiest places to cool off in the summer.

And let’s not forget this year’s biggest spokesperson for playfulness in Toronto’s parks – a giant yellow duck.

With the ideas you’ve discussed today, and Park People’s new Public Space Incubator, I can’t wait to see the ways we expand the limits of where and how we play together in the coming years. I want to acknowledge and thank Ken and Eti Greenberg for their willingness to lead – not just through ideas, but through their gift that has enabled this new initiative alongside the Balsam Foundation.

Building and stewarding places to play

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We want to ensure that Torontonians today and in future generations have places to play.

Council adopted our Facilities Master Plan this year – a 20-year plan to steward, replace and grow our parks and recreation facilities.

I can’t over-state the importance of this plan. We’ve never had a plan like this in the City of Toronto.

In the face of wait-lists, aging facilities that are, on average, 50 years old, unequal provision of services across the city and massive urban growth, Council has endorsed a plan that will ensure we are able to maintain our current levels of service for the next twenty years.

This won’t be easy, and we’re still working on funding and implementation plans, but the plan commits to important investments in our future:

  • Eliminating the state-of-good-repair backlog and increasing our annual investment to meet industry standards will help to ensure our existing facilities continue to serve the city for generations.
  • Building 17 new community recreation centres will help us to meet growing demand, and fill in the blanks where communities are not receiving the same level of service as other areas of the city.
  • And replacing 11 existing community centres will help us to meet need while maximizing current land and resources, making good use of our financial resources.

 

We’re also reviewing our Playgrounds Enhancement Program to maximize its potential to build communities and engage organizations like yours. In the next 10 years, we’re on track to replace over 300 of Toronto’s playgrounds, and we’re working to ensure your communities are able to build and grow upon these projects through consultation, enhancement, and conversations about new and innovative forms of play.

And our Parkland Strategy is continuing to grapple with the challenges of parkland acquisition and provision in a growing city. At its core, the Parkland Strategy aims to guide our future parkland acquisition, identifying priority areas in the city for new parkland, and outlining the policies and funding tools necessary to meet future needs.

And one thing has become clear through this work – Toronto has led the way in terms of parkland provision, but if we don’t expand our park network, our quality of life and the green, welcoming City we know and love will be lost in the face of continued growth. Toronto needs more parkland – in the downtown and throughout the city.

The strategy is also leading important conversations about park function and programming.

The strategy is helping to demonstrate that where we can’t acquire new land, we need to redevelop and improve the function of our parks, and we need to enhance their usability through programming. Again, Berczy Park is a good example of this – in a fast-growing neighbourhood a renovation of an existing park goes a long way in addressing parkland needs.

Council has adopted and advanced more strategies on parks and recreation this year than we have since amalgamation – the ravine strategy, the tree planting strategy, the facility master plan, the parkland strategy, the recreation growth strategy.

These conversations are helping us to ensure that we’re expanding and stewarding our parks and public realm so that we have places to play today and for decades to come, and they’re helping to build momentum and support for our work and the facilities and services we manage.

I want to acknowledge and thank Mayor Tory, Mary-Margaret McMahon, our chair of the Parks and Environment Committee, and all of City Council. They have been steadfast supporters of these strategies and ensuring that we have the resources necessary to make them a reality.

Playing better together

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Park People often say that when communities get involved, parks get better, and over the past year we’ve seen plenty of examples of philanthropists, non-profit organizations and other partners working alongside us, playing together in the proverbial sandbox, to make our parks better.

The Bentway marks Toronto’s first official conservancy and our largest single gift for public space in Toronto thanks to the generosity of Judy and Will Matthews, but across the City we are supporting, developing and negotiating partnerships that are making our parks better.

Toronto is leading the country on collaborative governance models that bring government and communities together to improve, operate and enhance parks and public realm, and each one of those partnerships and models is unique – we don’t have a one-conservancy-fits-all model, we’re actively working with each partner to create solutions that fit and that maximize our shared potential.

  • This year, Council approved the City’s first Ravine Strategy, a document that at its core is about how we work together – our division, Toronto Water, City Planning, the TRCA as well as charities, advocates and others – to make our Ravines signature parks and green spaces. Meanwhile in the Lower Don we are demonstrating the power of the Ravine Strategy, improving bridge and trail connections with the support of our partners at Evergreen who are also delivering some incredible art programming in the valley.
  • In High Park, the High Park Nature Centre is preparing to kick-off a capital campaign to renovate the Forest School, a historic and aging facility that has served the park for decades.
  • At Grange Park, a large capital campaign led by the Art Gallery of Ontario and generously supported by TD and the Weston Family not only made renewal possible, but is funding enhanced staffing on an ongoing basis.
  • In partnership with the Toronto Park and Trees Foundation we’ve launched our first-ever granting programs to encourage private tree planting across the City in partnership with community and corporate partners.
  • In Allan Gardens, a refresh is taking hold with the Friends of Allan Gardens leading the way and the Friends’ first staff member now on the team.
  • As we prepare to reopen College Park, we’re working with the Downtown Yonge BIA to determine the best ways to animate and manage this new signature space.
  • In Edwards Gardens, the Toronto Botanical Gardens are taking a new leadership role to help realize the vision of a master plan that will see significant enhancements to the space.
  • The Jays Care Foundation is preparing to build the City’s first fully accessible baseball diamond in Scarborough.
  • Drake has dedicated a million dollars to our basketball courts
  • And Maple Leafs Sport and Entertainment and the Jump Start Foundation continue to make major investments in our recreation infrastructure.

Building, stewarding and animating our public space requires us to play well together. On the large scale and at the local level, and we’ve committed to working closely with you and everyone who wants to make our City’s parks and public realm better.

Thank you to Park People and all of our partners for everything you do to make Toronto’s parks such vital civic infrastructure – our common grounds, where we come together to build a healthy, welcoming city.

I’m looking forward to celebrating another year of shared success, and to playing together in Toronto’s parks.

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Janie Romoff became General Manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation in 2014, after serving four years as the Director of Community Recreation for the City. Janie previously served in senior positions at the Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion and at the cities of London, Ontario and Burnaby, British Columbia.

As General Manager, Janie leads a diverse portfolio of public services including community recreation, parks, horticulture and forestry programs, park and open space planning, capital development and environmental initiatives. Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation is the largest parks and rec operation in Canada with over 10,000 employees and a combined capital and operating budget totalling of over half a billion dollars each year.

 

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