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A woman walks down a flight of wooden stairs while shielding herself from rain with an umbrella in Toronto's High Park Sunday, April 10, 2011. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A woman walks down a flight of wooden stairs while shielding herself from rain with an umbrella in Toronto's High Park Sunday, April 10, 2011. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Marcus Gee

Blaming city hall for parks problems is barking up the wrong tree Add to ...

Toronto’s 20,000-acre system of public parks is one of its greatest glories – and one of its greatest failings. As lovely as it can be to wander among the oaks of High Park or stroll the lawns of Centre Island, many Toronto parks have a shabby, rundown look after years of deferred maintenance. It is far too common for visitors to find dirty washrooms, overflowing trash bins, broken, unpainted park benches and scruffy, weedy grass.

What to do? The classic Toronto response is to blame city hall. Demand more money for the parks budget. Tell the parks department to send out more workers.

Dave Harvey has a different idea: get involved. In a refreshing new report, he says that parks are too important to be left entirely to government. To succeed, they need the help of every player in the civic arena, from community groups to philanthropies to private companies.

Mr. Harvey is the executive director of Park People, an alliance formed last year to work on improving Toronto’s 1,600 parks. Flourishing parks, he argues, are crucial to the city’s success. About 1.3 million Torontonians visit a park once a week and 365,000 visit every day. Yet when they complain about the state of their local park or try to influence how it is run, they hit a bureaucratic brick wall.

To get around it, the Pathway for Parks report recommends setting up more community groups like the Friends of Trinity Bellwoods Park to monitor and help manage local parks. In Chicago, says Mr. Harvey, a quarter of city parks have “friends of” groups. Toronto has only a handful.

The report says the city should also encourage charitable foundations and private companies to sponsor public parks, especially in low-income neighbourhoods with lots of new immigrants. The Toronto Public Library Foundation, he notes, has raised more than $50-million for libraries. Why not revitalize the low-key Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation and make it a heavy-hitting fundraiser for parks? For that matter, why not let business people into the parks to set up more snack concessions and other amenities, then plow some of the revenue into the parks system?

Some people don’t like the sound of all this. They fear Mr. Harvey’s formula will lead to privatized or commercialized parks. Not true, he says. Parks must remain a public asset. He is against advertising in parks, even if they find a corporate sponsor.

Private money, Mr. Harvey insists, doesn’t have to mean privatization. In Prospect Park, a green jewel in the New York borough of Brooklyn, a non-profit alliance has raised millions from companies, foundations and wealthy individuals to restore the long-neglected space. It remains firmly in public control.

Another knock against Mr. Harvey is that, by encouraging others to get involved in funding and running parks, he is letting the city government off the hook. It is the same argument that people make when they claim that giving to private charity relieves governments of their responsibility to care for the poor.

In both cases, it misses the mark. Mr. Harvey insists that the city must, at the very least, maintain its funding for city parks. They already face a $237-million maintenance backlog, he says, and that is due to rise to $363-million by 2016. He says the city should spend less on new parks, more on keeping existing ones in good repair. It should also appoint a caretaker for each park so that residents have a face they can recognize and a place to go with their suggestions and complaints.

But while the city has to step up its efforts, says Mr. Harvey, “we also need to create opportunities to let the community in. Toronto residents love their parks and they are eager to help.” Why not give them a chance?

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