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Latest Reports

How do we pay for parks?

How do we pay for parks?

Exploring innovative and creative ideas for parks and public spaces–in how we design, manage, and program them–is important, but these discussions often end up with this question: “Sure it sounds great, but how are we actually going to pay for that?”

In Park People’s latest report, Financing City Parks in Canada: What Might Be Done?, author Harry Kitchen, professor emeritus at Trent University and an expert in Canadian municipal finance, delves into the world of park financing in Canada. Kitchen lays it all out on the table, assessing the benefits and drawbacks of different funding tools and how they could work (or not work) in Canada.

The paper is part of three park discussion papers that Park People developed as part of our Heart of the City conference in Calgary–the first national city parks conference in Canada.

As Kitchen points out, unfortunately, parks are often at the top of the pile when municipalities look for ways to wring more savings from their already extremely tight budgets. Unlike fire, police, water, and electricity, parks are not seen as an “essential” service and have no mandated service levels.

While Canada’s park funding scene is not as grim as the United States or Britain (where some municipalities have cut a staggering 90% from park budgets in recent years), we still find ourselves, year after year, often with flat or modest increases in park funding, just to keep up with the needs of growing populations. In short, we are treading water in many cases, keeping our heads afloat.

So the question of how we are going to pay for new, expanded, and improved park systems as we grow, is a critical one to answer.

As you can imagine, the answer is not easy (if it was we wouldn’t be having this conversation). But Kitchen does outline a number of tools that Canadian cities can take advantage of for both funding the capital construction of parks and their ongoing maintenance and programming.

A few points emphasized by Kitchen:

  • Growth pays for growth. Many Canadian municipalities use growth-related development levies to fund the acquiring and development of new parks. These include charges paid per unit by developers into a fund that builds and improves parks. In Toronto, for example, park acquisition and development is paid for through a park levy that has in the last ten years raised over $500 million for parks.
  • Park operations are squeezed. Park operations, however, are largely funded by property taxes. This workhorse of municipal finances is the most appropriate revenue source to fund park operations, Kitchen writes, because parks are shared spaces that are common and open to all and so commonly funding them through taxes makes sense (as opposed to a user fee, like garbage pick-up). However, the property tax is also a highly visible tax (people get a bill for it), making it politically difficult to raise–leading to budget squeezes each year as municipalities attempt to do more for less.
  • Creating a separate park fund could be a good practice. Creating a separate, dedicated property tax levy that goes specifically into a fund for park operations could be a way to raise support for better, stable funding for parks. Drawing a direct connection between the money paid through taxes and a special park fund can be a way to gain public support. In fact, Seattle recently created a park tax district that levies an additional percentage on the property tax for park purposes and was a voted in by residents.
  • Other funding tools are heavily context dependent. Tools like philanthropy, donations, and corporate sponsorships–which are sometimes managed through partnership-based governance models like park conservancies in the United States–are not widely used in Canada, but are a growing area. These are important tools for funding parks, but only work in specific larger, signature park spaces (like the conservancy that was created to operate, program, and raise funds for Toronto’s Bentway linear public space) and are not an overall strategy for funding a park system.

As Kitchen’s paper makes clear, there is no silver bullet for park funding. As our common grounds, public tax dollar funding is, and should remain, the key tool for paying for our parks, but there is room to experiment with different, creative funding tools where they make sense. Kitchen’s paper provides a crucial base from which to have deeper conversations about how we can sustainably fund park development and operations in Canada.

You can read Harry Kitchen’s full report here.

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Why this park person is a community’s ‘auntie’

Why this park person is a community’s ‘auntie’

Casual day-to-day interactions between people–on the street, in parks, and shared spaces–is what gives us our sense of belonging. These community ties are even more important in underserved communities because, as we highlighted in our Sparking Change report, people in these neighbourhoods “are often more dependent on neighbourhood ties within their immediate community.”

The report goes on to say that community ties in low income neighbourhoods are critical because they “lead to greater feelings of safety, social support, and reduced feelings of social isolation. The creation of these ties contributes to social capital—the social connections, trust, and support that are important not only for strong, healthy communities, but also for developing networks that can link people to opportunities, such as jobs”

These social bonds don’t form out of thin air. Creating welcoming, safe and positive shared spaces that cultivate community well-being takes people–people who are dedicated to making shared spaces vibrant, turning them into engines that power communities. These people are in every community, and they are the threads that help build the social fabric of our communities.

A community’s ‘auntie’

One of these exceptional community builders is a woman everyone refers to as Auntie Amal, a term coined by community kids. The most recent recipient of Park People’s TD Park Builder’s grant, Auntie Amal and her team of dedicated volunteers have sourced donated furniture to furnish over 600 apartments; run a monthly free shopping depot in her building; placed a ‘wish box’ in her building’s lobby and set about fulfilling people’s wishes; run free Arabic classes for local children–and that’s just the beginning.

Now, through a TD Park Builders micro-grant, Auntie Amal is working with Park People to realize her vision for creating a community hub with more park programming. It includes clean ups, nature walks, a native plant garden, adding to the community garden, outdoor cultural events… and more benches. It is the first grant she’s received for her newly established Auntie Amal Community Centre.

A Syrian refugee who came to Toronto via Dubai, Amal arrived in her St. Jamestown Toronto Community Housing complex in 2013 to care for her aging mother. The complex she lives in houses over 1000 low income people. Amal looked after her mother for several years, until she passed away after a prolonged illness.

Inspired by the ‘love and generosity’ of others

Amal was stunned when so many of the building’s residents supported her while she was caring for her mother–500 residents arrived at her mother’s funeral.  The love and generosity of her neighbours inspired Amal to reciprocate by playing an active role in the community. Similarly, Amal was inspired by her experience as a single mother in Syria and Dubai.

“I’m a single mother It was so difficult to raise my kids alone,” she said. “It’s hard doing everything alone and raising a family.”

Amal believes that everyone needs to play an active role in supporting families and children. “We’re all mothers,” she says. “That’s what unites us.”

Manifesting a new vision

Amal shared her vision to create a communal outdoor space to help bind the community together and provide access to the outdoors. Amal pointed to a  tenant community needs assessment  of TCHC buildings which highlighted the need for recreational spaces that support physical and mental health and build social capital among tenants. As our Sparking Change report highlights, green spaces are valuable in tower communities like the one Amal lives in. 

“At a time when increasing attention is being paid to the growing inequality of our cities and neighbourhood-based inequalities,” the report argues, “it’s critical that we examine how engaging in our parks and public spaces can create cities that are more socially connected, providing communities with the opportunity to create dynamic places that best serve them.”

Amal envisions the shared space as an outdoor classroom that provides kids, who often live within closed quarters in one bedroom apartments, with places to tap into their creativity and envision possible futures, while giving mothers some time to care for themselves. When we visited the TCHC site for an initial assessment, Amal pointed to a patch of grass where the native plant garden will go, and spoke of using tree stumps as chairs, turning a fence into a makeshift art gallery, and creating a sand pit that allows for creative play. She will host a community consultation to engage more residents and to generate input that will only help evolve and improve the idea.

It’s a vision. But every good plan starts with a vision. It’s that vision which has inspired us, and has helped her community realize new possibilities. “I love them. They love me. Giving to this community is the best investment anyone could give,” she said. We couldn’t agree more.

How to take great pictures in your park

Having great photos of your park or park event can help you attract volunteers, build your social media profile, strengthen your funding proposals and make your posters really pop.  Here are some steps to help you take awesome shots that show your park in the best...

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