Who are “Park People?”

The Friends of Dieppe Park may well not have gotten started without the help and advice from Dave Harvey of Park People.  We were concerned about; liability, red-tape, conflict with the city, stepping on the toes of City employees, lack of community support, etc.  Park People showed us that we are not alone in our desire to look after our local park and that others have found ways to work with the City, their local Councilor and the Forestry, Parks and Recreation department – without tears.  Here’s a short article written by Dave McGinn of the Globe, about how Park People got it’s start – Ed Horner

COMMON GROUND
By Dave McGinn The Globe and Mail
April 16, 2011
When green space meets red tape, it’s good to have allies writes Dave McGinn. Park People hopes to bring together the city’s park groups to improve Toronto’s public spaces.

Stories of community groups meeting with what seems like unnecessary bureaucratic interference are easy to come by in Toronto, whether it’s the city cracking down on pizza nights organized by a group in Christie Pits Park or trying to force a dozen senior citizens to pay for a permit to walk on the trails in Humber Bay Park.

At a panel discussion on the state of Toronto’s parks held last week at the University of Toronto, the large crowd’s enthusiasm for green space was only matched by their frustrations at dealing with red tape at city hall without being able to present themselves as a unified force.

Anna Hill

One of the panelists, Anna Hill, from Friends of Trinity Bellwoods, said that when the city was going to sequester G20 protesters in the park, which would have seen its green space trampled, the group helped lobby to defeat the proposal.

Later, during a question-and-answer period, a man from another “Friends of” group – volunteer organizations that work to improve particular parks – stood up and noted that it was funny Ms. Hill raised that example, because, as it turns out, the protesters ended up in his domain, Queen’s Park North.
“That’s why you need Park People,” said Dave Harvey, the group’s executive director and one of the evening’s panelists.

Launched in December with funding from the Metcalf Foundation, Park People was created to provide a city-wide voice for Toronto’s many diffuse park groups. By uniting, they will be able to share vital information with one another, everything from how to navigate the permit process to who to work with the city to install new equipment, helping to cut through the barriers so often thrown up by city hall.

It is a resource parks groups say is a desperately needed, especially at a time when park use is on the rise and the city’s budget simply cannot afford to fund initiatives that community groups would like to see. On Saturday, Park People is hosting the inaugural Toronto Park Summit at the Evergreen Brick Works, where more than 100 people, including park advocates, community groups and city councillors, will begin what Mr. Harvey calls a conversation to improve Toronto’s parks.

“A good park, or a better park, is one that is very linked with the community,” Mr. Harvey says. “You’re not going to get that if the city does everything on its own.”

Mr. Harvey, 48, has spent more than 25 years working in government, most recently as Dalton McGuinty’s communities policy advisor before leaving Queen’s Park in 2009.

Shortly afterwards, he received a Metcalf Foundation fellowship to investigate problems facing the city’s parks, which, he concluded, are “languishing”.

“There’s really good local park groups in the city,” Mr. Harvey readily acknowledges. As he worked on the report, Mr. Harvey simply assumed all those groups shared knowledge with each other. But in fact they rarely, if ever, do.

“A big part of what we’re trying to do, and this is what a big part of the summit’s about, is building those networks,” he says. “Even something as simple as putting a list together of the different “Friends of” groups – that list doesn’t exist.”

That kind of list would be a huge benefit to parks groups, Ms. Hill says.

“A group like ours that has been around for 10 years has learned a lot about how to reach out to the community, work with our councillor and work with Parks and Recreation. And we’d love to pass that on to new “Friends of” parks groups,” she says. “At the same time, other groups have probably figured out ways of problem-solving that we could learn from.”

Tupper Thomas, the former president of the Prospect Park Alliance, a group credited with helping turn the park in Brooklyn, N.Y. into one of the most vibrant in the city, will deliver the keynote address at the summit. Her talk, she says, will focus on bringing together all the many voices clamouring over parks.
“The trick to combining the private sector, the public sector, and the community all together is that each one has a role in that park to help out and to make sure that it remains a strong park for the city of Toronto,” she says.

Half of the people in Toronto visit one of the city’s more than 1,600 parks at least once a week, and 14 per cent visit a park every day. And with the city expecting to add a half-million new residents over the next 20 years, park usage is only going to increase.

But considering the Parks, Forestry and Recreation department’s budgetary realities, the city alone can’t do the work of improving parks.

Richard Ubbens

The department already faces a $300-million state-of-good-repair backlog, says Richard Ubbens, Toronto’s director of parks.

Often, he says, community groups will raise money to pay for equipment without including funding for maintenance.

You can pave the streets with gold,” he says, but they still have to be maintained.
Pino Di Mascio, a partner at Urban Strategies, a Toronto-based urban design firm was hired by the city in 2005 to consult on a parks investment strategy.

“Just the size of bureaucracies generally make it difficult to actually provide the kind of programs that you need at a local level. Or you actually have people running it themselves who live in the community. That’s where I think the parks system needs to go,” he says.

Booting public-private partnerships to fund parks initiatives is one of the issues Park People will advocate for, Mr. Harvey says.

Under Mayor Rob Ford, who favours private-sector funding in a range of areas, such arrangements would be easier to make than they may have been in the past.

Ms. Thomas spearheaded such partnerships through the Prospect Park Alliance.
“Many philanthropy groups who would like to help the city out but are concerned about how to do that find that these public-private partnerships are the ideal way,” she says. “It’s just a much easier way in terms of fundraising.”

However tense relations can be between the city and parks groups, Mr. Ubbens welcomes the idea of an organization such as Park People.

“Respectful and honest communication is always positive, it always leads to good results,” he says. “If there’s a better way to educate and get people excited about parks, we’re all for it.”

Jane Farrow

There is a better way, says Jane Farrow, executive director of Jane’s Walk, a Toronto group that organizes free walking tours held on the first weekend in May to help people connect with their communities.
Ms. Farrow has met many community groups who have tried and failed, to deal with the city.

“All of this goodwill towards, ‘Hey, we want to help plant the flowers, or want to water the trees, or we want to have a family skating day’…every [one] seemed to be an amazing amount of effort and work,” say Ms. Farrow, who will be moderating a discussion at the summit this weekend.

A group such as Park People is “much needed”, she says. “Otherwise, people are isolated, alone.”
In building a network of park groups and advocates, Mr. Harvey says the plan is to work with the city, not against it.

“We all want better parks,” he says.

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