For years, we’ve underinvested in park operations. This election, let’s change that.
This blog is part of a short series on our recently released Parks Platform 2018, which includes 13 ideas to improve parks across Toronto. In this first blog we focus on the challenge of parks maintenance and operations. Read the entire Parks Platform here.
Politicians love to cut ribbons on new parks, but cutting the grass is equally, if not more, important to the success of our park system.
In the past four years, Toronto’s park operations budget has risen by a measly $8 million–not even enough to cover inflation during that time. By not investing in parks operations and maintenance, our politicians are asking City staff to do more and more with less and less. This is an unsustainable situation for the “city within a park”, as we proudly claim on the signs at our over 1,500 parks.
In 2015, the parks operations budget was $147 million. Four years later, in 2018, the budget had increased only to $155 million—an insufficient amount when you factor in population growth, inflation, the rising costs of maintaining parkland, increasing damage from climate-change related storms, and new and revitalized parks to maintain.
You can see the breakdown of the parks operations budget in the images above (note that the budget and funding source pie charts switch sides between 2015 and 2018). Source: City of Toronto.
The directive by Mayor Tory and supported by many on City Council, to keep budgets relatively flat or reduced, and property tax increases below the rate of inflation, has resulted in continuing pressure on park operations–as well, of course, on many other City operations.
Here’s how this impacts Toronto’s parks:
Slipping maintenance in parks because City staff are spread too thin to keep on top of issues. In the recently approved Recreation and Parks Facilities Plan, City staff note that “flat or reduced” budgets mean they are unable to keep up with routine maintenance, leaving small issues to spiral into larger more costly repairs.
Lack of ability to implement park plans and strategies, which contain important service enhancements to create a more equitable and resilient park system. For example, the Parks Plan, a five-year plan approved back in 2013, still has many unfunded recommendations. In fact, it would take more than $8 million in additional money to fully implement just these recommendations–almost the exact amount of the entire increase in the budget over the past four years. This doesn’t bode well for plans we approved in the last four years, such as the Ravine Strategy, Pollinator Strategy, and the TOcore Parks and Public Realm Plan.
Inability to spend the money we budget in our capital plan each year on new parks and upgraded park facilities. In the past few years, the City has spent only about 50 percent of the amount it budgets for capital each year (new and revitalized parks), partly because a lack of staff means it’s hard to keep projects on time and moving forward. This means we wait longer for projects to be completed.
Shifting the burden from property taxes to user fees, like park permits. In 2015, property taxes accounted for 86 percent of the parks operating budget, but four years later that percentage had dropped to 79 percent. During the same period, user fees, like park permits, rose by about 40 percent from $12.7 million to $20.3 million. Charging events for park permits to help recoup maintenance costs makes sense, but it does create inequities with which of Toronto’s communities are able to afford permits to put on smaller community events.
This election we are calling on candidates for mayor and city council to commit to meaningfully increasing the parks operating budget. Specifically, we are recommending City Council:
Hire more park supervisors and gardeners to allow staff to focus their energies on fewer parks. Currently, park supervisors stretch themselves across dozens of parks. This has a direct impact on maintenance and the ability to respond to communities. Increasing staff will allow them to take care of a smaller area of parks and ensure that maintenance issues are quickly addressed before growing into larger problems. Additionally, all staff information should be clearly posted in the park, so people know who to contact.
Hire park supervisors dedicated to particularly high-use and large parks, such as Trinity Bellwoods and Earl Bales. As we’ve written about before, stationing staff at specific parks will allow more direct attention paid to these parks. Having a dedicated advocate will help our most loved parks stay on top of their game and in good repair because this person will be in the park every day. A constant staff presence can also build better relationships with the surrounding community.
Create a free Community Event Permit for small locally-led gatherings of less than 75 people. These small-scale community events have a limited impact on park maintenance, but a large impact in terms of community building. Currently, anyone organizing a public event for more than 25 people must apply for a permit costing over $130. This new Community Event Permit would ease the burden on communities to apply and pay for park permits to put on programming in their local park for their friends and neighbours. Larger events for more than 75 people would still be charged permit fees to help recoup costs for park maintenance and staff time.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
2018 Toronto parks budget proposes little change
Another year, another dollar. It’s budget time in the City of Toronto again and this year—an election year, mind you—we’re seeing another budget that keeps our heads above water, but doesn’t invest in new or enhanced services for our parks.
The budget must still go through the political process including a final vote by City Council, so expect some changes, but here’s our key take-aways from what is proposed right now:
Our city and park systems keeps growing, but our operating budget? Not so much.
This year’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation operating budget shows a zero percent increase over last year’s budget. Last year’s budget was essentially flat as well. This despite the fact that during that time we’ve added new residents and new parks to Toronto.
While we have money to build and improve parks in Toronto (thanks to a levy on development that goes towards parks), where we fall flat year after year is mustering the willpower to invest in our parks operations.
We can’t continue to propose new parks, including big and expensive ones (Rail Deck Park), and approve new master plans (Ravine Strategy) without making a commitment to meaningfully increase operating funding to pay for these things. Something’s gotta give.
New plans and projects require political willpower to fund their implementation
Make no mistake, last year was an exciting one for parks. Not only did we see new and redesigned parks—like Trillium Park, Grange Park, and Berczy Park—we saw the undertaking of new, much-needed citywide parks plans.
This includes approval of the Ravine Strategy, which will guide investment in what is arguably Toronto’s greatest natural asset—our ravine system—and plans like the Recreation and Facilities Master Plan (approved in 2017) and the Parkland Strategy (ongoing) that lay out citywide strategies for ensuring our parks keep pace with population growth and demographic change.
We also saw big, exciting projects like Rail Deck Park continue to move forward, with City Council approving re-designating the space above the rail corridor for park use. This was an essential step to preserve this space for a future park.
But we’ll say it again: these plans and projects require a real conversation and commitment to funding their implementation. Our last citywide Parks Plan offers a cautionary tale.
Five years after our five-year Parks Plan we still have a bunch left to do
City Council approved the five-year Parks Plan in 2013 with a host of recommendations for new services and investment. Five years later as that plan reaches its end, while the City has acted on a number of its recommendations, we still have several unfunded initiatives.
Previous operating budgets kept saying funding would be considered in the next year’s budget. And then the next year. And the year after that. It’s worth noting this is the same language found in this year’s budget for the Ravine Strategy, which says that funding will be considered in the 2019 budget.
Staff outline that it would take an investment of a total $8.6 million through 2018 – 2020 to fund the remaining elements of the Parks Plan, including money for community engagement, horticultural displays, community gardens, and enhanced maintenance.
This is not frivolous spending. It’s an investment in the quality of our parks and public spaces, which can positively impact park use and neighbourhood pride—not to mention help make our city look good to tourists and visitors.
Climate change and extreme weather are causing real financial impacts
Last year was a particularly bad one for damage to our parks from extreme weather with heavy rainfalls causing floods. This was especially evident in our beloved Toronto Islands, which were closed for much of the summer and experienced a 50% drop in ferry traffic as a result. The cost resulting from storm damage is estimated to be about $8.5 million.
CBC reported that this repair work is not yet fully funded in this year’s budget. We need to repair and restore our park system no doubt, but we also need to think ahead about how we can better design our parks to mitigate the effects of climate change.
As we wrote in our Parks Solutions Brief on climate change and parks this summer, it’s time we invested in green infrastructure in our parks. These are elements like bioswales, rain gardens, and retention ponds that soak up, filter, and store rain water where it falls, rather than overwhelming underground pipe systems and causing floods.
We should be taking the opportunity to incorporate this type of green infrastructure into new parks and redesigned ones so that we can get ahead of future storms.
The State of Good Repair Backlog continues to grow
Speaking of repair work, the State of Good Repair backlog for Parks, Forestry, and Recreation is not getting any smaller. This is what the City calls the build-up of repair work that needs to be done to keep parks and recreation infrastructure like field houses and community centres in tip top shape. Staff note it will grow to $600 million by 2027 from the current $457 million.
It may not be the flashy spending that allows politicians to cut ribbons on new facilities or parks, but we need to up our game to ensure our existing facilities are kept in good repair. Keeping on top of minor repair work ensures we don’t have to spend much more later on when things really break down, a point city staff made in the recent Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan.
Make no mistake, there is much to celebrate in our park system in Toronto. The work that has happened in the last several years by the City, community partners, and non-profits has put a renewed focus on our parks and public spaces. We’ve created some great new public spaces, experimented with innovative partnerships like community-run cafes, created new permit categories to encourage arts programming in parks, and continue to think big and outside of the box with projects like The Bentway and Rail Deck Park.
But the challenges we outlined above deserve attention if we are to continue to build a strong, dynamic park system together.
You can check out the proposed operating and capital budgets for yourself here and here. We encourage you to contact your city councillor and let them know how important investing in our parks operations is to you. You can find a listing of City Councillors and their contact information here. City Council will vote on the budget the week of February 12.
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.