Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The making and UN-making of Dufferin Grove Park

I was a frequent park goer for many years, and during that time I was able, with staff's support, to lead volunteers in the creation of an outdoor kitchen made of cob. That free program was just one of many offerings that anyone finding refuge from the city in that 14 acre green space could partake in, regardless of ability, and at almost any time of the year.

It is amazing to me that the City of Toronto seems to have so much energy when it comes to imposing rules and restrictions, but no resources at all to put towards watching, listening and learning. The visionaries at Dufferin Grove Park have been sharing their ideas and successes for years – by publishing handbooks, newsletters and a website, and by inviting city managers to come and take a look – but the city seems to take an active disinterest in their efforts.

I think city staff and managers are probably similar to most people; we all just wish our jobs would go a little more smoothly. When we walk into our workplaces, we are looking for some ease in our transactions with our co-workers, our superiors, the public. I don't know anyone who relishes the possibility that their day is going to be full of cranky customers, stressed-out co-workers or demanding bosses. However, if people actually sat down and read their job descriptions, they would probably find that nowhere on that document does it say "Just get through the day as best you can". Instead, it might say, "Do your job", whether that's providing cable service or designing buildings or running a garbage truck. All of these tasks basically boil down to different ways of helping people.

A long time ago, I had an interesting experience that put things into perspective for me. As assistant stage manager (ASM) for a student variety show at university, I was tasked with placing and removing props, putting little pieces of glow tape on the stage to mark placement of objects and people, and other related duties. It was my first time as ASM, and I found it to be a stressful and not very gratifying job, filled with high-strung performers running around back stage, invariably in some sort of crisis.

At one point, a dancer came up to me and asked me to do some little thing for her; I quite forget what it was. I do remember thinking to myself, though, "Geez, she thinks this is all about her."

I stopped short when I realized that, geez, it was all about her. The audience was there to see her perform; they weren't there to see me move props on and off stage (though I was quick and stealthy so they probably couldn't see me during the black outs anyway even if they had been looking for me, which of course they weren't). My job was to be there for her so that she could be there for the audience, and whatever I could do to support that, was part of my job.

At that moment, I began to understand that, while it's ok, and even desirable, to find efficiencies in the way I work to make my job easier for me, that must never be mistaken for doing a better job. Only when the customer's cable is restored promptly, or a building is designed to meet a client's and the environment's needs, or the garbage is picked up on time and completely even though it was left out in a box instead of a bag (it would be ok to leave a friendly and educational note, for sure), could the job be seen as done.

I write all this to say that I think there is a cultural shift required within the city, so that it can see parks and recreation facilities not as places of employment, but as the vital nexus of citizen interaction that they are. Of course they are places of employment, but that in itself does not give  meaning. Meaning comes from engagement and facilitation in order to enrich the lives of the citizenry, and make the city a place that people want to be in.

Do we want a city where citizens see themselves as part of a whole that they want to contribute to and benefit from? To get there requires active engagement from the city; the kind of engagement that Dufferin Grove Park is expert at. Come on, City of Toronto, what are you waiting for?


Marina said...

It does get odd. But the dismantling is almost invisible :(

Georgie Donais said...

The slow, by-degrees deconstruction of all that has been built there is unfortunate. Probably better to go out with a bang, so people really notice what they're missing and might then fight for it.