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marcus gee

When the City of Toronto assumed control of Canoe Landing, it was in pristine condition. The creative new park with its signature red canoe overlooking the Gardiner Expressway was built by the developer of a vast residential complex, CityPlace. Gabriel Leung, an executive with the company, Concord Adex, remembers the painstaking care needed to make sure the park was in tip-top shape when the city took it over, making it part of Toronto's public park system.

He has photos to prove it. They show meticulous new landscaping and close-cropped lawns. The giant fishing floats that are another centrepiece of the park gleam in the sun and light up in the dark. So does the stylized beaver dam with its artificial white logs.

But within months, Mr. Leung says, company officials noticed, "to our horror," that the grounds were already looking tatty and rundown. Ever since, he has been battling with the city over inferior upkeep of the park.

He is so frustrated that he has approached city officials about having the company, rather than the city, do the maintenance. He is certain that if the city handed over whatever amount it spends on the park, he could hire a professional firm to do the work and keep the grounds in a much better state.

Canoe Landing stands as a sad example of a much broader problem: Toronto's failure to maintain its parks and public spaces. Weedy grass, chipped and rotting benches, fountains that fail to function, dead trees in concrete planters – these things give the city an air of neglect and dysfunction. It's an embarrassment. A city as big and as rich as Toronto should be able to keep its urban spaces from looking so shabby.

The problem is especially glaring in what Mr. Leung calls tier-one spaces, unique creations like Canoe Landing that are meant to stand out from the general run of public parks. Artist Douglas Coupland and landscape architects Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg collaborated on the design. Apart from the canoe, the beaver dam and the floats, it features playing fields, a Terry Fox-inspired running path and benches made to look like icebergs.

It wasn't long after it opened in 2010 that Mr. Leung started seeing maintenance problems. A city worker ran his lawnmower through the rose bushes. The landscaping and lawns started going to seed. (A city spokesman says that maintaining the grounds is a challenge in part because, sitting next to a big development, it is heavily used by people and dogs.)

When someone sprayed graffiti on the canoe, workers painted it over with the wrong shade of red, even though the developer had given the city samples of the original paint. When the O in the Canoe Landing sign disappeared, it took more than a year to replace it. Mr. Leung wonders how it can take so long "just to fix one letter." As for the beaver dam, the water feature hasn't worked in two years, so it stands dry and empty.

Mr. Leung says he has run into similar problems with the artist-designed pedestrian bridge that connects CityPlace to Front Street, spanning the train tracks. The "bridge of light" was painted with a specific shade of pale yellow, but when workers came along to cover over some graffiti, they used a shade that didn't match. In the process, they managed to spread yellow paint on the metal-mesh safety barrier.

The problem, says Mr. Leung, is that those who are taking care of these places have "no sense of ownership, no sense of pride." Parks maintenance crews run from place to place, treating every one of them the same. For special spaces like Canoe Landing, it just doesn't work.

One solution is to appoint park managers, just as the Toronto Transit Commission has appointed station managers at subway stops. That way there is at least someone in charge, someone the public can go to with complaints. Another is to involve the public through "Friends of" groups. In the United States, many special places, like New York's Central Park, are run by private conservancies. Here in Toronto, busy Yonge-Dundas Square has managed to keep its fountains running and its pavements tidy because it is run as a business venture with its own board of management, made up of local business people, citizens, city officials and others.

Whatever the solution, says Mr. Leung, there is no excuse for letting beautiful public assets like Canoe Landing decay through inattention. He calls the failure nothing short of "shameful." It's hard to argue with that.