How do you explain to budget crunchers that there’s no money to be made in a park, yet everyone profits? 

It’s a late afternoon in early autumn at Christie Pits: it’s the weekend and the air is comfortable, though the sun is slouching towards the horizon and the leaves are flirting with shades of orange and red. A dozen or so men and boys are playing keep-up with a soccer ball near the goalposts while about as many half-interested passers-by recline on the sloped hill to watch, though players and spectators alike are momentarily distracted by the passing of an attractive dog-walker in unseasonably skimpy clothing.

Across the field, another group of teenagers is playing a slightly more organized game, using jean jackets and sweatshirts to mark the goals. Over on the softball diamond, a handful of men and women are playing a game of flag football on the gravel. You can hear arguments about penalty shots booming down from the concrete rink, where a group of locals gathers every Sunday afternoon to play pick-up ball hockey — in a few months they’ll be here on skates. A poster taped to a lamppost asks us to remember the Christie Pits Riots.

Children in the playground are swinging and sliding and chasing each other around the wooden structures while their parents chat about jobs and daycare and the weather. A solitary man reading a book is momentarily disturbed in order to retrieve a shuttlecock hit his way by a bunch of grade threes playing a game of badminton unconstrained by nets or other visible boundaries. At the south end of the park, families are packing up their picnic materials and lawn chairs to head home, but a pick-up basketball game on the court to the west continues to pick up. A Korean-Canadian teenager and his Italian-Canadian girlfriend walk arm-in-arm on a path beneath a canopy of trees as the ground rumbles from the passing of a subway beneath Bloor.

Here, in Christie Pits, is Toronto at play, surrounded by traffic and commerce but sheltered in a patch of green. The few hundred citizens here have brown or white or black or beige skin, some wear cotton ball-caps while some wear knitted rasta hats, some speak heavily accented English while others speak no English at all. Yet the divisions dissolve here on a Sunday afternoon as a neighbourhood kicks back to savour the last of the weekend and the last of the warm weather.

It makes you wish you had newly-minted Toronto Poet Laureate Pierre Giorgio di Cicco’s phone number so you could ask him to come down to write up a poem about this place in this moment: something beautiful and chaotically perfect in the middle of the city.

But I don’t have Father di Cicco here with me, I have the rather less inspiring writing of the City’s “Toward a Healthy, Active Future: Toronto Parks & Recreation Strategic Plan. A draft for review and comment.” If the title sounds like a mouthful, try reading the thing: “We will recognize the strengths of Toronto’s communities and assist them in meeting their leisure and recreation needs. We will enable communities to form partnerships, create their own solutions and achieve greater self-sufficiency; Measures and targets … will allow the Division to track progress at a high level and better position Parks & Recreation in relation to the three foundations of the Strategic Plan.” This thing has got flow charts and tables of statistics and graphs and appendices. It calls for the development of a three-year business plan for Parks & Rec. At least it doesn’t — as earlier strategic plans did — refer to the citizens of Toronto as “customers.”

It’s easy to laugh at all the pointy-heads trying to apply systems logic and business principles to unstructured recreation, but it’s not really fair. Because, as much as the draft strategic plan is a boring read for those without a taste for the ludicrous, it’s also a sad and necessary reaction to the current political climate. The plan spends much less time actually planning than it does justifying the existence of parks and recreation. It lays out — in pages of lists and tables — why trees and green spaces are important to the environment. Why physical fitness is important (there’s an unseemly insistence on building healthy bones). The ways in which playing or relaxing in the park can cure depression and enhance the social lives of “users.”

Beneath all the detail and the vague laundry lists of ways the department will “initiate, educate and advocate,” there’s the voice of a terrified bureaucrat trying to persuade a balance-sheet-focused political culture that the department’s $160 million per year budget is justified.

So perhaps it’s a blessing that someone at City Hall is at least thinking about the value of public spaces devoted to playing. Though you’d think it would perhaps be better to just take council out on a field trip to Christie Pits. Or to Bluffers Park in Scarborough, which is a sort of communal cottage country and perpetual fish-fry for the largely immigrant population of the east end. Or to Alexandra Park near Dundas and Spadina, where the kids in sports jerseys and baggy pants (who the police call gang members and the City calls “at risk”) divide their leisure time between the community centre and the potholed, beaten up basketball court. Or to Dufferin Grove Park, which hosts a farmers’ market and harvest festival and has become home to a pseudo-political civic centre. Or to virtually any park or garden or public recreational area in the city. When you’re out there, the value of public spaces devoted to play become obvious. But when you’re instead in a meeting room working out a cost-benefit flowchart…

From a meeting room, it no doubt made perfect sense to tear down a huge chunk of the city’s (and the entire public school board’s) playground equipment in response to a non-existent insurance risk. Or to delist the phone numbers of the city’s hockey rinks and replace them with a useless rink hotline full of recorded messages. Or to deny a request from a popular indoor skateboard park for funding for new equipment (even while a city report recently noticed that the city is desperately short of skateboard parks) while spending $70,000 on a new staff safety manual when the old one was less than 10 years old, and spending $2 million per year on meetings, training and advertising. (I am indebted to The Friends of Dufferin Grove Park website for the above specific examples of the dangers of applying business logic to public parks.)
The results of this type of logic can further be seen in a (ever-so-slightly more readable) 2002 United Way report entitled “Opening the Doors: Making the Most of Community Space.” It showed how budget pressures that led to the introduction or increase of fees for the community use of school buildings for organized activities like Boy Scouts and after—school sports and summer day camps led directly to the closing of many such programs. “The fiscal pressures on school boards and the City of Toronto, along with the limited resources available to our community organizations stand as substantial barriers to our on-going community use of public space,” it concludes, “and put at risk the services that contribute to healthy and vibrant communities.”

You can’t make play time — for grown-ups and kids alike — appear valuable on a balance sheet. It doesn’t bring in any money. Yet it is important. Consider that child developmental psychologists recognize the value of play — and especially of unstructured and unsupervised play — to children. Kids have recognized the value of playing forever, and fought — usually in vain — to have their parents see the value of it, too. In those situations kids learn to use their imaginations and expand their sense of curiosity. It’s also where they learn how to properly socialize with their peers, to organize themselves, and to resolve disputes. The same could be said of society.

It’s precisely in the places that a community plays — parks, schoolyards, beaches, community centres — that it most becomes a community, drawn together despite economic or ethnic or artistic differences, and because of a common interest in blowing off steam or competing or relaxing. You can’t get that at the mall.

If we lose access to public spaces for recreation, consider the consequences: those who can afford cottages will go to them, those who can and want to join sports leagues will, those too poor to do either will find ways to play in the street or in their homes. And mostly nobody will notice, but those disparate groups of people with their varied interests will find life a little more expensive and unpleasantly structured and, more importantly, will not encounter their neighbours who do not share their specific means and interests.

And if you’re sitting in Christie Pits running all of this over in your mind, the question remains: how do you put this beautiful, pure and unifying thing in front of you into a city hall report?
How do you explain to the budget crunchers that though there’s no money to be made here, everyone profits? And how do you explain the potential costs of saving money by cutting spending on places for society to play? Perhaps they should fire the bureaucrats and hire a poet. Or a child.

Originally published in Spacing in Spring 2004.

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