Booze, benches, bathrooms: a simple plan to elevate Toronto’s parks
A few small changes to the city’s neighbourhood parks would make them so much more enjoyable, writes Edward Keenan. But can the city stay clear of over-regulating any changes?
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Right now, the city is conducting a survey about its parkland strategy (you can fill it out online or attend public meetings about it around the city). At the same time, it is entertaining a proposal from Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, chair of the parks committee, to allow people to buy and drink beer in public parks.
So it seems an opportune time — as we enjoy the last few weeks of prime Toronto park season and reflect on our experiences of the summer — to offer a few suggestions. These are small ones — nothing so grandiose as a plan for new parks, or even new types of parks, and nothing so expensive, either. But from my picnic blanket under the trees, they seem like they’re small things that would make a huge difference to our enjoyment of park spaces.
First off, yes, let people drink beer (or wine, or whatever) in parks. But don’t bother limiting it to some kind of rotating “beer truck” special events — as the proposal seems like it might — or otherwise bog it down in quicksand of overregulation.
As my colleague at Metro, Matt Elliott, recently wrote, there’s every danger that the city will put up all kinds of fenced-off beer holding pens in corners of parks, or put so many rules and permits onto what can be drunk or sold and how that they suck all the fun out of what should be a way for people to have fun.
Golf courses already include all the playing areas and the grass around the clubhouse —essentially the whole course. So why not let people wander around with a beer while they play?
The same seems like it would work just fine in public parks.
Right now — famously at Trinity Bellwoods, but also even at my local family playground — many, many people routinely bring a bottle of wine or a tall can of IPA to the park. And it causes few problems that anyone can see. All the city has to do is change the law to conform to a relatively uncontroversial common practice.
And then, to complement this, the city can go ahead and license sales concessions — truck-based or otherwise — as a service to park users and a source of cash, too.
It was after I had kids that I realized parks serve roughly the same purpose in a community as pubs: they’re convenient local places to relax, blow off steam, celebrate, meet people, and catch up on neighbourhood news and gossip. Seems like there are relatively few reasons not to add another similarity to the list by letting people do those things over a beer if they want.
Which brings us to my second suggestion. You know what else bars have? Bar stools. Chairs. Places for people to sit down while they socialize and pass the time.
You know what Toronto’s parks don’t have enough of? Places to sit down, or things to sit on. Sure, there are a few wooden benches affixed in place here and there, and the odd well-placed rock. But as I wrote last summer, there really are relatively few places to have a seat in our public places, including in our parks.
In New York City and Paris, cheap, movable chairs are a ubiquitous and well-used fixture of parks and public squares. And they are better than park benches specifically because there are lots of them and you can move them around — into the shade, or into conversation circles, or whatever — as you like.
“People don’t care about the architectural design of a public space,” writer Jonathan Rowe observed, summarizing the work of legendary urbanist William H. Whyte. “What they do care about is one simple thing: places to sit.”
We need more of them in our parks, particularly local neighbourhood drop-in parkettes where people stopping in spontaneously are less likely to have packed a picnic blanket or beach towel with them.
Finally, if people are sitting around enjoying themselves and having a drink, they need something else. Something very basic in which the city has, in my experience, failed spectacularly.
They need a decent place to go to the washroom.
“A 5-year-old little girl needed to use the washroom,” a Toronto resident named Betty Lynn wrote me recently about a trip to High Park — one of the city’s flagship destination parks. “She went ahead of me and I was surprised to see her back off, and so hesitant to go into a stall and wouldn’t enter. I looked in and agreed . . . and, frankly was horrified at the sight. Not only unflushed and horribly smelly, but with huge amounts of toilet paper all over the floor, little clean toilet paper, water all over the floor and no lock on the doors! Of the wash basins only one had water (cold), the sinks were filthy and rusted and the floor looked like it hadn’t be cleaned (never mind painted) in decades.”
If you’re from Toronto, it’s likely nothing about Lynn’s description will surprise you. It seems like in our public parks in particular, there are two states in which you find a public washroom.
The first state is disgusting. As Lynn describes.
The second state is locked. For much of the year, the toilets in many parks are closed unless they are attached to a specific facility like a pool or a skating rink that is open. I recall with amazement this spring, while the cherry trees were blooming in High Park, on the same weekend as the park’s baseball and soccer leagues opened their seasons, the park was full of people. Police had gated the entrances to car traffic because there was gridlock on the park roads. The walkways were like Union Station during the morning rush hour. The park was predictably full for the event-packed weekend. And the public washrooms were . . . not yet open for the season.
Almost every fast-food joint and mom-and-pop diner in the city manages to keep restrooms open, and relatively clean, stocked with toilet paper, with functioning sinks and locking stall doors. It isn’t difficult or unreasonable to expect the city to manage the same thing in public facilities.
There’s the three-point plan: let people have a drink, let them have a seat while they do it and give them a decent washroom facility for when they need it. It isn’t a grandiose parkland strategy, but it is an easy way to make our existing parks much better.
Edward Keenan writes on city issues firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow: @thekeenanwire