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 We want to ensure that we’re not left with an outdated system in ten years, but rather that we implement a cycle of continuous improvement and innovation that puts us among the most effective and leading government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.

—–

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.

 

Ottawa’s Park Summit Drives 3 Key Lessons Home

Whether you’re 5 or 55,  when you move to a new place, one of your first thoughts is about the people you’ll find: “Will I be able to make new friends? Will they get me?”

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Park People’s first Park Summit in a new city happened on Earth Day with Ecology Ottawa. We knew from our experience hosting our national conference in March, that there’s something about “park people” that makes for easy connections. However, we were elated and, frankly, moved to see 125 incredible Ottawans gathered together for their first-ever Park Summit. While we’ve hosted six Toronto Park Summits in the past, this event in a new space gave us fresh perspective on what happens when you put park people in a room together. Here’s some of what we learned.

“If you build it, they will come.”

Our goals out of the gate were ambitious but achievable. Ecology Ottawa and the steering committee organizing the Summit hoped that 80 people would turn up for this inaugural Park Summit. After all, it was the first-ever city parks event in Ottawa. Also, it was being held on Earth Day, a day chock-a-block with environmental and community events. We were overwhelmed to find that 125 people showed up. This felt like a strong signal that people across Canada want to talk parks and connect around the issues connected to their public spaces.

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The 125 people at the Ottawa Park Summit represented 50 different community organizations active in parks. Some groups were ‘park friends’ similar to the model in Toronto, but most were not. Ottawa has a very vibrant network of citizens’ associations, community garden groups and ‘adopt a park’ groups that were well represented at the event.  It was cool to learn about these different models and methods that Ottawans use to engage in and steward their parks and public spaces. For example, some citizens’ associations have a parks and green space chair on their board. This person is responsible for thinking about all of the parks and green space in the whole neighbourhood from a citizen perspective. They organise park adoptions, tree planting and events, as well as advocating the city and developers to protect and enhance parks and green space.

Small is beautiful

The Ottawa Park Summit was full of opportunities for interactive participation and networking, including a ‘world café’ showcasing citizen-led park projects from around Ottawa, like a community garden by and for children, a park revitalization project rooted in inclusion, and a biodome! Attendees had the chance to connect and learn in small groups, leading to meaningful connections and conversations, and they got to vote with their feet by visiting the café stations that featured topics they were most interested in. While the Toronto Park Summit brings a grassroots focus to park work in the city, the world café was more intimate and helped create new connections among attendees. This point was noted and will definitely inform our approach to future park events.

Park people need connection:

By the end of the Summit, it was clear that Ottawa’s park enthusiasts were determined to keep the conversation going. The group talked about establishing a local city parks network newsletter similar to Park People’s local newsletter, more face-to-face gatherings, online resources, a councillor relations strategy, and an awards program to recognize great work in local city parks.

The experience of launching a Park Summit in Ottawa not only reminded us that there are Park People in cities across Canada, but that there’s a collective need to recognize and strengthen the work that’s already happening in our city parks.

Read more about Park People’s Ottawa adventures:

 

The Changing Nature of Parks — Interview with Adrian Benepe

JTG: Your work at the Trust for Public Land really takes you across the United States. What are some of the inspiring actions you’ve come across that may not get as much media attention as the High Line and other high-profile park projects?

AB: What I’m seeing is a lot of community-based, small-scale, often even pop-up, interventions. Particularly in crowded cities where real estate acquisition costs are high. Maximizing the use of public spaces by creating multiple benefit public spaces.

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In many cities, you’re seeing people converting part-time schoolyards into fulltime community playgrounds. And that’s particularly important in cities that are very densely developed, where you don’t have any more open land to develop into parks. In the conventional model, schoolyards were only used by students during the school day and were locked up in the afternoons, weekends, and holidays. In the new model—something the Trust for Public Land has been doing in a number of cities—you upgrade the schoolyard with the proviso that it must be open to the public anytime it’s not used by the school. So that gives you a very quick and inexpensive ability to create more and better public space.

The other thing you’re seeing is the adapted reuse of marginal lands, of brownfields, former factories, abandoned rail lines, abandoned piers. That’s something that’s common across America. And, in fact, as you know, is common in Canada as well.

JTG: One of the things that we’re doing at Park People is building a national city parks network across the country, that connects community members, city staff, non-profits, and other organizations working in the public realm. The Trust for Public Land acts a little bit like a hub of a US city parks network. What do you think is important about creating a network of park enthusiasts across a country?

AB: We are not that [hub] by ourselves. We’re working with the City Parks Alliance, which is a fulltime urban park advocacy group in the United States, and with the National Recreation and Park Association, which is the business affinity group of park professionals. And with the Urban Land Institute, which works with decision-makers, land owners, and developers who care about public space.

We’re engaged in two areas right now. One is developing something called Park Central, which would be a virtual online community of information about parks, park funding, park management structures, financial measures. That’s part of our overall plan to provide information that allows people to help themselves, whether they’re in government or non-profit, citizens, elected officials. We’re working to develop this Park Central portal with the City Parks Alliance and the NRPA.

We have another partnership with ULI and NRPA, running a 10-minute walk campaign. It’s a grass tops campaign that gets mayors and civic leaders to endorse the concept of making sure that every American living in a city has access to parks within a 10-minute walk of their home.

What we’re finding is a really strong response in cities that mayors are making this part of their agenda along with other vital city services and seeing how important parks are. The one thing we’ve been able to do is convey to mayors the multiple benefits that parks engender. Obviously the public health benefits, environmental benefits, the ecosystem services, the increase in property values, community cohesion, and finally, the intangible that people really need in their lives, which is places for beauty and relaxation.

JTG: I know the Trust for Public Land puts out a lot of really interesting research on subjects like you just mentioned, around the state of parks across the country, the economic value of parks, and their social and health impacts. What’s the importance of putting out this research at a national scale?

AB: If you don’t understand the multiple benefits that parks convey, you can sort of put them at the end of the line of city services. But once you start to understand that you can monetize those values, and show the savings in storm water capture, and show the improvement in health, the reduction in use of air conditioners if you can plant lots of trees and cool the air—once you can gather the data and share them, decision-makers and leaders are much more likely to put funding into parks.

The perfect example is that prior to my coming to the Trust for Public Land [when Benepe was the New York City Parks Commissioner], we used a forest service study to show that for every dollar invested in a street tree in New York City there was a five dollar return in terms of environmental and other benefits. And that was the convincing factor that allowed Mayor Bloomberg to fund the Million Trees project.

JTG: There’s a lot of talk right now about the future of cities. I keep reading articles about smart cities and how driverless cars are going to change things. And how we’re going to have embedded sensors measuring everything. What do you see as the emerging future of city parks?

AB: The elusive holy grail for park managers and advocates, is something I’ve been obsessed with for quite a while. When I was running the New York City parks system, I always wanted to know on a given beautiful day in June how many people were out in the parks and on the beaches and swimming pools. We could only get accurate numbers in places where we were forced to count, where you could monitor access like swimming pools. And then every once in a while people would have a very expensive study done like in Central Park where they figured out there’s about 42 million annual visitors a year.

But for the rest, there’s simply no way of counting people. Now there’s a very simple technology that we’re anxious to try out. Pretty much everyone has some kind of smartphone in their pocket sending out a signal. The technology is right there for the taking to figure out how many people are in the parks on a given day. Where are the busy entrances and where are the busy places? That’s enormously important, because if you’re a park advocate and you can say to a mayor: did you know that last Sunday two million of your eight million residents were out enjoying your parks. That’s pretty powerful. Because nothing is more important to elected officials than votes and voters.

JTG: It kind of reminds me of what we have now when we’re looking up directions on Google and we can see which roads are congested, based on information google has from people’s cell phones.

AB: That’s exactly right. So if we can gather it on the roads we can certainly gather it for parks. And you know, some people say what about privacy issues? Those same privacy issues apply to the cars. It can all be done anonymously. It’s tremendously important. I will give a big award to the telephone or technology company that does a pilot project on this.

JTG: Alright well we’ll see if this throwing down the gauntlet leads to any action on that.

AB: Maybe Canada will do it first.

top photo by Seth Sherman

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

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