To build parks and recreation facilities, we also need to invest in people

This week, Toronto City Council approved a new 20-year Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan. The plan is a massive document that will guide how the City spends hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two decades on new community centres, pools, skating rinks, cricket fields, basketball courts, and more. If you want to read the whole thing you can do so here, but the City has also packaged it up in a nicer (and shorter) document.

There’s obviously a lot in the plan, but I want to focus in on one thing: the capital spending rate.

Wait, don’t leave. I know it sounds boring, but it’s actually incredibly important because it determines how fast the city can build what it says it’s going to build. Ever wonder why that park revitalization is taking so long or why that community centre promised years go is still just lines on some architect’s paper?

Toronto’s track record of spending its parks budget on actually building things each year isn’t great. In fact, the City regularly only spends about half of what it budgets each year. As city staff write: “[Parks, Forestry & Recreation’s] spending rates have been declining and are currently around 50% of annual allocations.” It’s projected to be 60% this year.

Why is this happening? Again, in the words of city staff: “To improve the efficiency and speed of delivery and capital spending, it is essential that capital investment be supported by an increase in staff and resources in capital planning and construction management.” Put simply: the City needs more staff, like project managers and purchasers, to deliver projects each year.

Budgets are interdependent. If you reduce staffing levels because you want to decrease your operating budget (as City divisions are often tasked with doing), then you affect your capital budget by limiting what you can realistically build that year. Conversely, if you build new parks and facilities, you are going to increase the pressure on your operating budget – every new park or facility needs money for maintenance, staff and programming. You can’t pull one end without affecting the other.

Why does all of this matter in the context of this new Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan? Because if City Council underinvests in park operations (aka staff) and maintenance, then this 20-year facilities master plan starts to look more like a 40- or 45-year master plan.

City budget time is coming up—the time of year when our politicians have the opportunity to invest in our city’s growth. Watch carefully. A key way City Councillors can support the Parks and Recreation Master Plan this year is to fund the necessary staff required to build and maintain parks and recreation facilities across the city for generations to come.

Image of the forthcoming community centre in CityPlace from ZAS Architects

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:

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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