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Toronto’s bone-dry fountains send the message that nobody gives a damn

Toronto has a wealth of water fountains, enlivening its parks, squares and boulevards. Quite a few of them just don't work. They stand dry through the summer months, filling up with leaves and dirt and generally looking ugly.

Consider Canoe Landing, the creative park near Bathurst Street just north of the Gardiner Expressway. Designed with the help of artist Douglas Coupland, it features a big red canoe, a collection of giant fishing floats, a Terry Fox running track and a man-made beaver dam that is supposed to act as a water feature. It hasn't worked in two years. Faults in the "water feeds," a city spokesman explains. The dam is dry. The logs are missing. Weeds and grass grow in their place.

A short walk away, outside the Rogers Centre where the Blue Jays play, a fountain called the Salmon Run has fish shapes leaping up a waterfall. Plagued by failing pumps and leaks into the garage below, the thing has worked only intermittently. When dry it has often been strewn with litter, an eyesore for the throngs of tourists who visit the ballpark, the aquarium and other attractions. Now it is surrounded by a construction fence and under renovation.

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Up by City Hall, the Trinity Square fountain at the west side of the Eaton Centre is out of order. Normally, water flows in a long watercourse down to Bay Street, forming a rushing urban stream. Now it's bone dry and barren. The stream was leaking into the adjacent office building. The city reports that, "This is a significant repair beyond our operations team's capacity. It has been referred to the capital-projects team for planning and budget allocation."

Over in the Beach neighbourhood, a lovely little park, Ivan Forrest Gardens, runs through a small ravine on the north side of Queen Street. A little pool flanked by boulders is one of its centrepieces. Only a tiny drip comes from a pipe leading into the dry pool. Flies buzz around a patch of mud and old leaves. The city says fixing the plumbing would be costly, but it thinks it can put in new surface pipes instead.

At Market Lane Park, near St. Lawrence Market, water is supposed to flow out of a pump head framed by a marble backdrop. Nothing emerges. The fountain will stay dry through the big redevelopment of the north market hall.

Toronto's fountain failures are a symptom of something bigger. Too often, the city invests in fancy new public spaces and then fails to maintain them. Good maintenance is a sign of civilization. Poor maintenance is a sign of government failure. Go to any poor country and one of the first things you notice is that things aren't kept up.

It can happen in rich countries, too, if they don't watch out. Public spaces that aren't properly maintained fall into disrepair. They look shabby and neglected. They give the impression that nobody gives a damn.

Toronto has lots of creative new parks and squares, many of them featuring running water. These are expense efforts in urban design, but many end up looking rundown almost as soon as they open. What's the point of hiring all those pricey architects and landscape designers if their creations are left to go to seed?

Look at the brilliant new Fort York library branch. The building is beautiful, with big windows giving views of passing streetcars on Bathurst. The landscaping plots outside are choked with weeds.

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At the parkette right behind City Hall, next to Bay Street, the paint is peeling off the old green benches and the concrete walls smell of urine. Though thousands work and live nearby, it is mostly deserted except for the occasional homeless person stopping for a rest. Down at Canoe Landing, two portable toilets and a weathered wooden storage shed stand right next to those neat fishing floats.

Lack of money is no excuse for this sort of neglect. If Toronto can afford all these great new public features, surely it can afford to keep them in good repair. Keeping the water flowing in a water fountain doesn't seem too much to expect.

Fountains can be a delight, when they work. The spouts that now leap from the pavement of Nathan Phillips Square are popular with kids, who run through them in hot weather as parents smile or take pictures. They even light up at night.

Even though they are new, they were busted for a while, too. Mayor John Tory watched the repairs from his office window and got annoyed. A little more annoyance is in order. Dry fountains signal incompetence and, worse, indifference. Toronto can do better.

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