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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

How to Make Instagram Work for You

How to Make Instagram Work for You

Parks can be very photogenic. Whether you’re sharing a photo of a smiling volunteer at your outdoor festival or a short video of snow falling on your park’s trees, Instagram is a great platform for park people like you. In fact, because park work is often so visual, Instagram should be in the top-two social media platforms you use. Here are some tips to get you started.

Take a good look around:  

The easiest way to get started with Instagram is to download the app and look at the images others are posting. Do a search using popular hashtags like #parklife or your city’s name (#Calgary or a popular ‘handle’ like #yyc). See the images you like and see what’s popular and start to generate ideas for photos you could take in your park. Be sure to check out Park People’s Instagram at @parkppl

Follow Instagrammers with interests like yours:

Here are some ideas of others you can search for and follow on Instagram:

    • City-types: The people, publications, and organizations that take an active interest in your city
    • Neighborhood organizations: Non-profits, residents associations, business improvement associations in your community
    • People who care:  See if your city councilor or other local politicians have a presence on Instagram. Also, ask members of your volunteer group or people who frequent your park events if they have accounts
    • Niche groups: One thing that makes cities great are the number of niche groups that can find critical mass. Look around your park and consider what assets it has and how those could be of interest to these groups. Does your park have awesome graffiti? Then find local street art photographers in your city. Does it have a natural playground? Follow people with a passion for outdoor education.
    • Use the “Near Current Location” function: Use “near current location” option and see who is active on instagram in your neighbourhood. If you like them, give them a follow.

Create an identity:

According to researchers, it takes two tenths of a second for an online visitor to form an impression of your account. So, it’s really important for that first impression to be a good one! Create a name that’s relevant. It’s a good idea to use your park name or your park group name. Add a profile picture that looks good on a mobile device like a smartphone. Instagram gives you space to add a profile. Use it to explain what your group is and does. Be sure to be deliberate in your tone. You can come across as formal or silly depending on how you write. (We welcome volunteers vs. Come on out and join us!)

Post good content, consistently:

Instagram is a photography platform so it should go without saying that you should post good quality photos. Determine how often you can post and commit to that frequency. Once a week is a good amount to start. Remember, pictures tell a story. Use the caption below the picture to share that story. It can even be a short poem, a quote or a simple description of what moved you to take that photo. Be sure to use the popular hashtags others use to get their posts seen.

Nurture others:

As you’ll quickly learn, there’s nothing better than getting a friendly comment or a ‘like’ on one of your Instagram posts. Make a habit of recognizing others’ efforts and cheer them on. Comments like “great photo,” or “looks like a great event” are always welcomed and are likely to get you more followers.

Photo Credit: Hamza Butt

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Ottawa’s Park Summit Drives 3 Key Lessons Home

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  • Super cool public art in park making my visit feel so comfortable and intentional. Well done #bloor #publicart #parklife #toronto #yyz #publicspace #dominos

Great piece on potential for food in public spaces from @wrobertsfood

See all the 2017 rankings of US city parks from @tpl_org

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