In Trinity Bellwoods Park on a sunny afternoon, you might pass people sitting under the shade of sequoia trees sharing a picnic and a glass of wine. Bottle collectors circulate and pick up empties; a group of punks play croquet; young mothers gather for stroller fitness and neo-hippies blow large bubbles into the park.
The park on Queen Street West, near Shaw Street, is one of the city’s most popular and a gathering place for different subcultures. There are crowds playing soccer and baseball while fashionable twentysomethings park their fixed-gear bikes to enjoy a drink or two.
Stefan Randstrom, who lives next to the park, has seen the park’s crowds grow and change significantly since he moved there 17 years ago. He describes the culture of the park like a music festival. “It’s like Woodstock with less nudity,” he said. “Most of it – 98 per cent – is civilized.”
Yet an organized group of residents whose homes surround the park see a different side of Trinity Bellwoods at night. They cite unacceptable noise levels, excessive garbage, public urination and safety. Their complaints – along with those of residents at Christie Pits, Alexandra Park, Bellevue Square and Dufferin Grove Park – motivated Toronto Police to organize a summer-long crackdown on public drinking and drug offences at city parks in the urban core called Project Green Glasses.
One woman who attended the meeting said she has lived beside the park for 30 years and argued that police need to be involved. “There is a lack of facilities and people use the park as their toilet,” she said, adding that she has “been woken up every weekend” this summer in the middle of the night by noisy parties in the park.
At Trinity Bellwoods, this reflects a collision of different ideas about public space – and different experiences of the city, pitting homeowners against a young, largely childless crowd for whom the park is their only backyard. As the city’s downtown absorbs tens of thousands of people each year and continues to be relatively short on green space, it’s a debate that will continue to grow.
The area’s city councillor, Mike Layton, held a community meeting Thursday at Trinity Bellwoods Community Centre to discuss residents’ concerns and possible solutions. Some area residents complained of noise after dark. “Some people, who have kids, are being kept up at night,” Mr. Layton said.
More than 100 people showed up to discuss possible solutions, including more bathrooms, more garbage cans, even personal liquor licences. It was deemed a discussion about public drinking in the park; while the drinking issue galvanized many, it also opened up a wider debate about the spirit of the park.
The police have no end date in sight for Project Green Glasses, and while there is a zero tolerance rule for drinking in parks, Toronto Police spokesperson Wendy Drummond said that officers generally have discretion when they issue tickets. The fine for public consumption of alcohol is $125.
The varied community that frequents Trinity Bellwoods is a point of pride for many in the neighbourhood; some feel that stronger law enforcement will only serve to hurt the culture at the park.
Carolyn Wong is a long-time volunteer with Friends of Trinity Bellwoods Park, a community organization that works to promote the culture of the park. She says the crackdown pits police against everyone else.
“There are people that actually live on the park and they want to go have a picnic outside their home in the park. Now, should they be busted and fined? … It’s a very grey area.”
That grey area was one that Mr. Randstrom’s wife Karen MacKenna fell into last month. Ms. MacKenna, was drinking wine with some friends and their children in the park when they were stopped by a police officer, who she described as a “real nasty guy.”
The discussions at the town hall meeting opened up a wider conversation about a densely populated urban area where green space is limited. In an interview, Lynda Macdonald, the area manager for the city’s planning department, explained that Trinity Bellwoods Park is in an area of the city with a “parkland deficiency.” That means that there is less than 4200 square metres – an area smaller than a Canadian Football League regulation playing field – of parkland available for every thousand people.
The area is very densely built; even many people who live in single-family houses have very small yards. Mr. Randstrom and Ms. MacKenna are among them; they use the park like a yard, Mr. Randstrom says.
Richard Ubbens, the city’s director of parks, acknowledges the pressure on green spaces in the intensely populated core of the city. “If you’ve ever been [to Trinity Bellwoods] on a weekend, it’s busy,” he said. “Every square inch gets used.” The park has more people living around it now than it did a decade ago, and “that puts stress on any neighbourhood,” he said.
David Ginsberg has lived on the north side of the park for 10 years and owns the White Squirrel Coffee Shop, which faces the south end of Trinity Bellwoods. He is relaxed about the growing crowds, who also include many of his customers. “Most of the fun is fairly wholesome,” he said. The noise level has gone up, he added, but he’s happy the park is getting busier.
Recently, the city’s parks department presented a plan to city council to update the city’s park acquisition strategy because land in the downtown core is becoming more expensive and demand is growing. Under the Planning Act, the city mitigates the lack of green space through a park levy imposed on developers who do not incorporate parklands in their plans.
That money is then used by the city to acquire parkland. A piece of land near Queen and Dufferin was purchased with park levy funds; a community design process has recently finished.
In the meantime, Trinity Bellwoods continues to draw crowds at all hours. Can they coexist? Ms. Wong, of Friends of Trinity Bellwoods Park, suggests that the answer is simple. If revellers in the park could quiet down by 11 p.m., the current debate about the park and public alcohol consumption would end.
“I honestly believe we wouldn’t be here if there was consideration that [the park] is surrounded by houses,” she said.