For decades, Toronto has looked down on Detroit, a neighbour that’s gone from hot prosperity to hard times. But architect Mark Nickita lives in both cities, and he has a surprising message: When it comes to city parks, Toronto looks lousy in comparison.
“If you’re a tourist and you visit the two cities,” says Mr. Nickita, “It would be very clear that the parks in one city are at a much higher level of maintenance. Those in downtown Detroit are on par with what you’d see in London or Paris. And I don’t see that here.”
This message is one that local public-space advocates have been repeating for the past few years: The money Toronto spends on maintaining its parks is simply not keeping up with a growing population and needs. Certainly, everyone agrees, in theory, that parks are important, not least as living space for the many locals who don’t have yards.
Mr. Nickita’s experience of Toronto has been as a part-time resident. He lives and is an elected official in the Michigan suburb of Birmingham; his architecture firm Archive Design Studio is located in downtown Detroit. But he and his wife bought a condo at King and Yonge streets back in 2000, and they, their kids and dogs have been back and forth ever since. “This is our cottage,” he says. “We’re city people.”
Accordingly, he and his family have made intense use of parks in Toronto’s Old Town, and Mr. Nickita sees disorder. “Right away, I recognized that all of these public spaces around us were very poorly kept,” he says. “There are weeds and dirt areas where the grass isn’t taken care of. Where there are fountains, the fountains wouldn’t be turned on until June. Things not trimmed, garbage everywhere – as far as civic space in a downtown core where you had a lot of activity, it wasn’t well kept.”
This continues to be true. I see it daily. And the situation isn’t getting better.
“We’ve got more parks, we’ve got higher-design parks, and we’ve got more people using the parks,” says Dave Harvey, head of the advocacy group Park People. The group’s Parks Platform notes that the city’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation budget for parks maintenance has grown only $8-million in the past four years, “which hasn’t even kept place with inflation,” Mr. Harvey points out.
He also adds that “there are some great new parks – Berczy, Corktown – and they’re expensive to maintain.
“It’s more expensive to maintain a Rolls-Royce than a Chevette.”
That includes Berczy Park in Mr. Nickita’s downtown neighbourhood. Its recent reconstruction is elaborate and beautiful, funded almost entirely by charges on private development in the area. “Growth has allowed the capital budget to keep up,” Mr. Harvey notes, “but the maintenance budgets are another story.” Indeed: A lot of the grass is dead. A couple of young trees look raggedy. The unusual paving stones specified by landscape architect Claude Cormier are being pulled up for utility repairs. Will they be replaced correctly? Probably not.
Despite a widespread sense that the downtown is getting a disproportionate share of tax dollars, it’s not. It’s getting private dollars for flashy new projects, which, too often, are left to fall apart.
Money is part of the problem, but not the only one. As a cost-saving measure, the city, under former mayor David Miller, adopted so-called “flying squads” that move from park to park, doing similar jobs across a wide area.
One-offs don’t do well under this system, Mr. Nickita correctly points out. Customary features – grass, city-standard benches and picnic tables, generic paving stones and poured concrete – often get fixed up. Anything non-standard tends to fall apart. At David Crombie Park on The Esplanade, there is a long pathway paved with red bricks; somebody patched it up with concrete pavers. Did somebody not know which bricks to buy, or from where? Or did they not care? That sort of detail, by the hundred, makes great places much less great.
By comparison, the city has staffed the recently completed Corktown Common with dedicated horticulturalists, and that complex park looks just as it’s supposed to.
One solution to this is the presence of non-profit conservancies. Mr. Nickita cites a few of the most important parks in downtown Detroit, including the central Campus Martius – its operations are funded by a partnership of local businesses. Toronto could, and should, embrace that model in some cases.
But the bigger fix is a public service that is adequately staffed and adequately funded. That means more public money. “Toronto should have great public spaces,” Mr. Nickita says. “Toronto deserves that.”