Parks Platform 2018: Investing in a strong park system for all of Toronto

It’s no secret that Toronto loves its parks. In the past four years, we’ve seen new investments in planning, design, and use of parks by communities. All of this is commendable, but it comes with a cost—one that we are not adequately keeping up with.

Despite continuing pressure on our parks operation budget from population growth, rising maintenance costs, and new park development, we’ve seen only slight inflationary increases in the past four years, with direction from Mayor Tory to keep budgets flat or reduced. For a bit more on that, here’s our take on the 2018 budget from earlier this year.

We must reverse this trend. Parks are not a frill, but core pieces of city infrastructure that bring critically needed benefits to strengthen our communities, our environment, economy, and our physical and mental health. As we find ourselves living closer and closer together, but also paradoxically with higher reported feelings of social isolation in Canada, our common spaces become more important as places to connect, share, learn, and create together.

Underinvestment in operations and maintenance threatens the many laudable plans and strategies approved during the last term of City Council. These include the in-progress Citywide Parkland Strategy, TOCore Parks and Public Realm Plan, Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan, and the Ravine Strategy. Without funding for construction and maintenance, these plans are nothing more than municipal thought experiments. This is a fate that has befallen many elements of past plans. For example, just to fund the remaining initiatives in the Parks Plan, a five-year plan approved back in 2013—the operations budget would need an extra $8.6 million.

The operating budget squeeze also impacts our ability to program parks, engage residents, and support community members in the kinds of activities that bring our parks to life. While we’ve seen great positive moves in making permits easier and supporting community events like Pumpkin Parades, more is needed.

In this Parks Platform, you’ll find our proposals for park funding, planning, and engagement that can take Toronto to the next level—supporting a park system that is more equitable, inclusive, connected, resilient, and animated. They were devised based on our own experience and input from over 450 people across Toronto that filled out our Parks Platform survey.

We hope candidates for mayor and council steal these ideas. Some are simple to implement and some will take political courage, but they are all practical, impactful, and necessary if we are to continue creating a great park system together.

To download a PDF of the platform, click here.

Paying for parks

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Increase the parks operating and maintenance budget and commit to clear multi-year funding for park plans

We’re asking our parks to deliver a lot more than in the past. Parks are being used by more people for more activities, extreme weather damage is more prevalent, and park designs are becoming more complex to meet these changing demands. Because of this, the cost of maintaining parkland in Toronto continues to rise, with the City projecting it will cost almost $700 more to maintain a hectare of parkland in 2020 than in 2015—no small increase with over 8,000 hectares of parkland in Toronto.

Additionally, City staff pointed out in the recently approved 20-year Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan that “frozen or reduced” operating budgets have negatively impacted staff’s ability to respond to routine maintenance issues that then grow into larger, more costly repairs.

This must be addressed, and it must be addressed through public funding. While the trend towards park philanthropy in the past four years is a welcome one—with great initiatives like The Meadoway, Grange Park, and The Bentway—philanthropy is in no way a substitute for a well-funded, robust public park budget.

1. Increase operating budgets to create dedicated park supervisors in large and heavily-used parks and decrease workload on park staff. Currently, park supervisors can be responsible for dozens of parks, stretching their abilities thin to respond to community requests and stay on top of maintenance. On the resident side, many people don’t know who to contact about their park and become frustrated.

Extra funding should increase the amount of park staff like gardeners so they can take care of a smaller area of parks. Dedicated park supervisors should be established for coordinating maintenance and programming in particularly heavily-used or large parks (such as Trinity Bellwoods or Earl Bales Park) rather than dozens of parks. Park supervisor information should be clearly posted in the park. This will go a long way in opening lines of communication between City staff and the community and ensure our most used parks are in tip-top shape.

2. Commit to multi-year funding for implementing park plans and strategies and publicly report annually on their progress. Many of the new plans are citywide and are critical for ensuring our park system provides equitable facilities and access across the entire city. Tracking our progress in implementing these plans and the funding required to do so should be clearly communicated each year.

Reform park levies to better fund park development across the city

The last time the City established policies for its park levy, officially referred to as Section 42, was more than 10 years ago when development in Toronto was very different. This tool allows the City to extract land or cash from new developments that can only be used to pay for acquiring land or developing parks. We need to increase the rate at which we collect these levies to keep up with growth.

3. Explore a tiered system rather than a firm cap on the amount of land or cash a developer must provide.The current policy caps the amount the City gets for parks based on the size of the land being developed, meaning super tall towers end up providing the same amount as smaller towers built on the same land size (see below image from the City of Toronto). This despite many more people living in the taller tower that need parks. A tiered system based on building density would allow the City to continue to collect park levies in high-density buildings, but not overburden developers with fees.

How the current cap impacts park levies (City of Toronto)

4. Explore borrowing against future expected park levy revenue based on developments in the pipeline. In a real estate market as aggressive as Toronto’s, we need to act fast on opportunities to purchase land. Waiting until enough money is collected means the City misses out on opportunities. Additionally, the longer money sits in reserve accounts, the more it depreciates in spending power as real estate prices rapidly rise.

5. Commit to maintaining the 50/50 redistributive policy that directs half of park levies funds into a citywide account to fund parkland acquisition and improvement in areas of the city that do not see as much development. This is a critical equity policy.

People in parks

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Wrap funding for engagement and programming within park development budgets

Toronto needs to up its park engagement game beyond the standard open house meeting and support longer-term engagement and community programming in parks long after the ribbon is cut. This will help decrease the chance that new amenities, like bake ovens or stages, are created in parks with no support to actually program those spaces. It will also help ensure that parks are well-maintained over the long term, as communities that are more involved in their local park can help reduce incidents of vandalism and keep an extra eye on maintenance issues.

6. Include funding for long-term engagement, including community programming, within capital budgets for new park designs. We routinely spend millions on new park development, but very little to none on long-term engagement or programming. Even dedicating a small percentage of capital budgets would go a long way to supporting ongoing involvement by community members in their local park.

This funding would support a more equitable park system because currently residents must finance park activities through their own money or by soliciting donations. Funding could go towards City staff working as community animators and grants directly to community groups or non-profit partners to support activities in parks like nature walks, stewardship events, community festivals, and adopt-a-park-tree programs.

Series of images of a volunteer tree planting event

photo by Matt Forsythe

Better enable community programming

For years, one of the top requests we hear from community members is to reform the park permit system, which can be costly and confusing for people when organizing activities in their local park. In the last four years, the City has made this easier by introducing free park permits for arts, music, and movies in parks. But we know still more work is needed. We know that community programming contributes to greater levels of civic engagement, connections within communities, leadership skill-building, and more.

7. Establish a free and easy “community event permit” open to local community groups that are not necessarily a registered non-profit who are organizing open activities in their local park for less than 75 people. Currently, the lowest level of special event permit for events under 200 people costs more than $130–money that residents must pay out of pocket–and requires an eight week lead time. Approving this lower-entry community event permit would create a more equitable way for residents to organize park activities, recognizing that their capacity is different than non-profit organizations and other groups putting on larger events.

Planning for parks

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Prioritize park system connectivity

One of the pillars of the new Citywide Parkland Strategy is ensuring that we are building a connected park system. This is important for people moving through it, but also for ecosystem health and wildlife movement. We already have a great backbone for this system based on our ravines, but we can do more to connect parks together.

8. Prioritize investment in projects that increase park system connectivity across the city, such as the Green Line, Rail Deck Park, Meadoway (pictured above), and the Core Circle proposed in the TOcore Parks and Public Realm Plan. Linear parks and parks that bridge gaps, like rail corridors, help increase connectivity, provide more green space, and promote safe cycling and walking.

9. Identify a series of priority “greenway” corridors outside the downtown where improvements to parks, streets, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure can create greener and safer connectivity between parks to increase access. Look to Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway, San Francisco’s Green Connections plan, or more locally to the Mobility Greenway, a community initiative proposed to link green spaces along Finch Avenue West.

Invest in parks that create a more climate resilient city

As we’ve seen for several summers in a row—and as we outlined in our Resilient Parks, Resilient City report—extreme weather from climate change is leading to more flood events that damage parks and other city infrastructure. We must move away from simply investing in grey infrastructure, such as underground pipes, to investing in green infrastructure: natural elements like bioswales, retention ponds, and rain gardens that soak up, hold, and filter rainwater where it falls. Green infrastructure increases biodiversity through native plants, increases green space, and reduces neighbourhood flooding and sewer overflow incidents that release raw sewage into the lake.

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10. Approve a stormwater fee based on area of impervious surfaces and direct a portion of revenues towards the construction and maintenance of green infrastructure in parks and along streets. Many other cities have successfully created such a fee, such as Mississauga and Philadelphia. Toronto had a chance to institute such a fee in 2017, but Mayor Tory’s Executive Committee shelved the idea. This was the wrong decision.

11. Direct green infrastructure to be included within new park development and redevelopment projects. With new parks developed or redeveloped each year, this is an easy way to increase the amount of green infrastructure across the city to help mitigate neighbourhood flooding. While we have great examples of parks with green infrastructure embedded in them, like Corktown Common, this is not the norm and should be standard practice to create a more climate resilient city.

Build more seating and more variety of seating in parks

One of a city’s simplest pleasures is finding a good park bench. Unfortunately, in many of Toronto’s parks it’s often difficult to find a place to sit. This is particularly important for people with disabilities and for older adults who may not be able to spread out a blanket on the grass.

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12. Speed up implementation of new benches and get more creative. Our parks should follow the lead of New York and establish long benches along central park pathways and introduce social seating areas with curved, group, or moveable seating to enable social interaction. Seating should include backrests and arm rests to make them accessible and comfortable, but “defensive” elements like middle arm rests should not be standard.

13. Institute a “no net bench removal” policy that dictates that if a bench is removed for any reason from a park, it must be replaced with another in the same park.

For a PDF copy of the platform click here. To get in touch with us write to Park People at info@parkpeople.ca.

 

State of the Parks 2018

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 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:

 

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.

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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