Is there a better way to manage Toronto's more than 1,600 parks? Can we get communities more involved? Can we change the bureaucratic, top-down model in which an underfunded parks department merely struggles to keep the parks in a half-decent state?
Dave Harvey, director of Toronto Park People, has been working hard on these questions. Now he has some big money to back him up.
The W. Garfield Weston Foundation is putting up $5-million over three years to "support transformational projects that enhance Toronto's green spaces and build innovative partnership models." At a city hall committee meeting on Monday, Mr. Harvey said that, "in my opinion, it's a game changer in Toronto."
He says the donors aren't just interested in paying for a few new splash pads. They want to work with his group to make parks work better. The grants, which will support projects ranging from $25,000 to $750,000, could go to new food or flower gardens. They could support a creative new park design that goes beyond green grass and park benches. Or they could help build new partnerships to fund and manage parks.
"There really is a new energy in the city for community involvement, for a new way of trying to do parks," says Mr. Harvey, whose group, formed in 2011, held its third annual parks summit on the weekend.
It all sounds highly promising. "Any time $5-million potentially is going to be invested in parks, that's a good thing," Toronto Parks general manager Jim Hart told the committee. "Five million can never be a bad thing."
But according to at least one city councillor, it just might be. Gord Perks says he worries that injecting private money into the parks could lead to a two-tier system, one for the rich and one for the poor. While he makes clear he sees no "malicious intent" in the grant and is only trying to raise a flag of caution, he says he is worried that city staff weren't consulted about the grant and concerned about what might happen if the donor's view of how to manage or transform a park clashes with the view of the community or the parks department. "What I don't want," he says, is to have "any group of people, because they have means, jump the queue and get control. Every voice in Toronto has to have equal access to decision making."
What concerns him further is that, three times in his presentation, Mr. Harvey used the word "conservancy." Park conservancies typically bring in private-sector or community partners to help manage and maintain parks. New York's Central Park has a conservancy. Mississauga and Winnipeg have them, too.
Mr. Perks isn't keen on them. He says they take control from the public at large and that – "granted, only from my searching of the Internet" – he knows of examples where parks have been gated and "only certain people have keys."
These fears seem overdone. Under questioning from city councillors on Monday, Mr. Harvey said he doesn't want to usurp the parks department. "The idea is not to replace what the city is doing, it's augmenting it."
If the foundation funds a project for a particular park, "nothing is going to happen in that park without approval from the city."
Even if more partners are brought in, "public spaces would remain public spaces."
As for the worry about a two-tier parks system, he acknowledges that most of the people who get involved in fixing up their local parks are in affluent downtown neighbourhoods, but his organization is working hard to reach out to poorer communities. Its goal is to have "friends-of" parks support groups in all 44 wards.
Far from being a possible problem, the $5-million from the Weston foundation has the potential to modernize and generally shake up the complacent way that Toronto's precious parks are run. That can only be a good thing.