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People are seeing drinking alcohol at the Trinity Bellwoods Park on Aug. 2, 2023.The Globe and Mail

Toronto is expanding legal drinking to parks citywide, over the objections of a minority of councillors who wanted to keep public green spaces in their wards dry, after a pandemic-spurred pilot project that led to few problems.

Council voted Thursday to make permanent rules that had allowed drinking last summer in a few dozen parks, and also to extend the program to at least one park in each of the 25 wards in Toronto.

“It’s normal to be able to get together and responsibly have a drink with a friend in a park, or have some wine over a picnic,” said midtown Councillor Josh Matlow, who has been pushing for years for legal park drinking. “It’s normal. And no riots have broken out because of it, no zombie apocalypse.”

A number of councillors were keen to expand access to legal drinking in their wards. During the meeting, six of them secured wide council support to add a total of 17 parks to the list of 27 sites where people could already consume.

But expansion of the program came after concerns from five members of council, who raised worries such as drunk driving, rowdiness and unhappy residents. These councillors tried to exempt all parks in their own wards from legal alcohol consumption. In a series of votes, they were narrowly overruled by the majority on council.

Staff had urged against a patchwork approval of park drinking that would apply in some parts of the city but not others.

“The intention here is … a citywide approach to put the right controls in place to make the activity safe within the park system, available equitably in all wards,” said Howie Dayton, acting general manager of the city’s parks department.

Toronto has approximately 1,500 parks but only 144 were deemed eligible by city staff based on criteria including their size, having public toilets and not being on the waterfront. It remains to be seen which of these parks will be added to the legal consumption list. Those choices are to be made by staff by early July, in consultation with the local councillor.

The alcohol debate came as part of a crowded council agenda that also included the future of the vacant home tax. Earlier Thursday, council opted to continue the tax in spite of a botched year that caused panic among some property owners mistakenly hit with huge penalties.

For decades, alcohol consumption has been prohibited in Toronto parks, in line with most Canadian cities. During the height of the pandemic, though, a number of municipalities were confronted with the resulting inequity: During restaurant and bar shutdowns, homeowners could relax in their yard with a drink while those living in apartments could not.

The issue was particularly profound in the country’s biggest cities, where apartment dwellers make up half or more of households. For many of these people, critics of the alcohol bans argued, the local park was their backyard.

In response, a few cities began pilot projects or limited experiments with allowing some drinking in parks. Toronto initially resisted, arguing that the culture in the city was somehow different than in other places. Advocates of keeping the ban noted that few people were being charged, while critics countered that this opened the door to selective enforcement.

In July of last year, Toronto City Council approved a pilot project allowing summer alcohol consumption in a small number of parks, with restrictions such as drinking near playgrounds or at skateparks and outdoor swimming pools. The pilot was later extended into early 2024. Council also directed staff to monitor closely for problems.

The staff report on effects of the program, and public opinion about it, showed that the sorts of problems opponents had feared did not come to pass.

However, a few councillors made last-ditch efforts Thursday to keep parks in their wards dry.

“The people I represent don’t want it,” argued Councillor James Pasternak. “The last thing we need is the liberalization of access to alcohol and the potential for underage drinking, which is more likely to occur in a local park.”

His ward and those of the other four dissenting councillors form a contiguous bloc in the city’s northwest. All made similar arguments and all were voted down.

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