Toronto has 858 playgrounds. They make the parks in which they are set look accessible and inviting. Young parents who have chosen to live downtown prefer the social scene by the sand pit over the loneliness of backyard sandboxes. They are among the growing number who develop a strong sense of ownership about their neighbourhood park and are pressuring the City for a greater role in determining how these “commons” should look and operate. The City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division 2013-2017 Parks Plan acknowledges this trend and commits to greater support for park stewardship and volunteer programs.
Breaking the Rules
The design of playgrounds reflects the anxieties and aspirations of a historical moment. The Osler playgrounds’ towering metal structures on which children a century ago climbed, swung or whirled their way to frequent injury have been replaced by many generations of increasingly safe designs. In the late 1990s there was a widespread removal of play structures under stringent new safety standards. The arrival of the completely risk-free play environment has dismayed many parents who want for their children the scope for play they remember enjoying.
There is an urgent need for today’s over-programmed, over-protected kids to “take back play” according to Brenda Simon, co-founder of Green Here’s PLAYbynature Project, a non-profit charitable organization that provides inspiration, support and red-tape cutting guidance for groups who want to offer children this opportunity through an adventure playground.
The first in this summer’s series of demonstrations to introduce the adventure playground concept to Toronto took place recently just north of Christie Pits in the yard of a Toronto Community Housing low rise. It was visibly unlike standard recreational offerings for children.
Instead of bolted-down, pre-fab equipment, adventure playgrounds present children with a smorgasbord of scrap materials and tools with which they can create their own objects and installations. This involves them in brainstorming, negotiating and picking up skills as needed.
This type of environment demands that children push their limits, work on a large scale and take risks. The result is that they use a level of initiative never tapped in their screen-time dominated lives. ‘If you take away all of the risk you take away the play,’ points out Brenda, ‘You need to allow kids to surprise, test and challenge themselves. Children want the unexpected; when they are challenged they build resilience.’
An adventure playground is a community effort requiring experts to design and launch it along with parents, care-givers and volunteers to run it. PLAYbynature creates the platform for this to happen. ‘What we’re trying to do is bring it into the public realm because families can’t do it for themselves, you need a community.’ In a neat symmetry, those communities that commit to creating and maintaining an adventure playground are forced to develop those very skills that the playground fosters in children.
The Lively Park
Dufferin Grove Park is famous for what park matriarch Jutta Mason, calls its “liveliness”. This intensely programmed multi-purpose city park has a history of experimentation with the physical elements and human forces that make for safe and engaging public spaces. The close documentation of over twenty years of the park’s life is the foundation of ongoing research by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS) The amenities at Dufferin Grove: wading pool, sociable spaces, food, campfires, clubhouses, community gardens, skating rinks, community architecture and a traditional playground are, according to CELOS, the features of a successful park.
Jutta Mason, recalls that by the late eighties the park had become both neglected by the city and under-used by parents who preferred to fill their kids’ non-school time with classes and organized sports. Searching for the history of the park programming that was visibly lacking, she went to the City of Toronto Archives and discovered that supervisors had been a key feature of parks going back to the days of the first “Osler” playgrounds.
Although the programming that took place there is not visible in the digitally reproduced photographs in the Archive’s online database, some recently scanned images of Dufferin Grove show the field house, smooth lawns with tennis nets, a shade-covered sand box and raised flower beds beside edged paths. The now mature trees that give the park its dense shade are visible as young trees..
The unique identity and popularity of Dufferin Grove was forged by Involving community members in animating, maintaining and supervising the park and resisting the top-down formulas of the city’s parks department. The first step that park volunteers took in a spirit of creative self-reliance was the 1993 creation of “the Big Backyard” focused around a sand pit. The story is recounted in numerous and entertaining ways on the park’s website including as a short film.
Sustainability, social responsibility and creativity are celebrated in the telling of the park’s re-creation as a citizen-run park. The narrative may now be tinged with nostalgia for in recent years the City has reclaimed much of its administrative control. Nevertheless, Dufferin Grove’s use of camp fires, bake oven, farmers market and cob kitchen, all anathema to the idea of a city park twenty years ago, has been imitated throughout Toronto.
Creating New Community Spaces with Play
In the millenial year, Hillcrest Community School parents and other volunteers built a “playscape” whose crowning feature was an elaborate wooden climbing structure. It answered the practical problem of how to equip the schoolyard that had been denuded of the play equipment deemed unsafe. But its goals were broader. It sought to integrate opposing forces in a frontier zone between privileged and under-privileged, arterial traffic route and residential district, school and attached community centre. Visible to passing traffic at the top of Bathurst Hill, it was a source of pride to the community.
Tragically four years ago an adolescent who had been playing in the school yard park was fatally stabbed shortly after leaving it by another boy he had encountered there. The school’s response, to lock the gate at the main access point for the wider community, sparked a lingering debate on the symbolism and safety of this measure. To what degree school yards can be used as recreational spaces for the community during after school hours and summer months remains an open question.
The New Playground Tradition
Installing unofficial and innovative play environments to generate neighbourhood support for a revitalized or new park is the legacy of Dufferin Grove. The tactic was used by Cookie Roscoe and Peter MacKendrick in their Wychwood Barns vacant lot interventions
and most recently practised to great acclaim by Sabina Ali in transforming R.V. Burgess Park from derelict, dirty and dangerous playground into the vital gathering space of the surrounding South Asian immigrant community.
The City of Toronto has realized that the expediencies of central administration must be balanced by a more neighbourhood-centric and citizen led vision of park management. This sea-change in attitude was affected in large measure by mothers who, eager to create safe and dynamic play spaces for their children, brought the community back to urban spaces that no longer worked.