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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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Latest Blog Posts

New Greenbelt & Park People collaboration to realize the potential of newly protected Greenbelt urban river valleys

New Greenbelt & Park People collaboration to realize the potential of newly protected Greenbelt urban river valleys

The Greenbelt Foundation and Park People have launched a new funding program to help connect people and communities to protected urban river valley (URVs) systems throughout the GTHA. The Greenbelt River Valley Connector Program will provide $100,000 in funding, to be matched one to one, to support five or more place-based projects a year that will help people explore, celebrate and enhance their local urban river valleys that are often undiscovered and underused.

In 2017, the Greenbelt was expanded to protect 21 major urban river valleys and associated coastal wetlands across the Greater Golden Horseshoe.  The newly ‘Greenbelted’ URVs connect watersheds in the Greenbelt with the Great Lakes as part of the regional water system.  Extending the Greenbelt into our urban centres provides people with a greater opportunity to enjoy the cultural and natural heritage of these unique areas in their own communities.

URV-Map_WORKING(web)

“The Greenbelt protects vital farmland, green spaces, and water systems across our region as we continue to experience tremendous population growth,” said Edward McDonnell, CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation. “Celebrating the protection of urban river valleys, the new Greenbelt River Valley Connector Program will build and deepen people’s connection to these valuable waterways within their own communities as well as the broader Greenbelt.”

The Greenbelt Foundation is working in collaboration with Park People. Park People’s Executive Director Dave Harvey shared his enthusiasm for the collaboration:

“Communities across the GTHA will have more reason than ever to explore and experience their urban river valleys. We look forward to seeing place-based proposals that activate these important spaces by connecting people to art, recreation, gardening, food, citizen science projects and more in their own urban river valleys.”

Community-based organizations including Conservation Authorities, social service agencies, local schools, non-profits and Indigenous communities are encouraged to apply to receive up to $25,000 in funding. Submissions for 2018 are due Friday, June 1st by 5pm. The Greenbelt River Valley Connector Program will run for three years.

TD Park People Grant Recipients: A Roundup

Today, more Canadians live alone than in any other time in our history. A recent Environics survey conducted by TD Bank Group found that 34% of Canadians don’t feel included in their communities. These figures show that we need to be more deliberate about fostering...

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The Meadoway: a 16km thriving green space and connector

When you hear the words “hydro corridor” it doesn’t necessarily stir up images of native grasses waving in the wind amongst wildflowers with delicate butterflies perched on their petals. And yet, for portions of the Gatineau hydro corridor in Toronto's Scarborough...

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An Illustrated History of the Picnic Table. Awesome cultural history of this iconic park object… t.co/JfMvYwOl2k

10 Principles for a Rain-Friendly City t.co/pQJ81CJj3x via @jillianglover

Hot docs has a great lineup of gardening documentaries coming up. They look amazing! @hotdocst.co/TvMoAekUZd

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