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The Big Backyard: Neighborhood Park Becomes Center of Community Activity in Toronto

Ethan Kent
Jan 1, 2009
Dec 20, 2017

Toronto, Ontario

Most people agree that the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park have transformed a forlorn space into one that neighborhood residents actively use and take care of. The volunteer Friends have encouraged a combination of locally-inspired activities that fly in the face of traditional park programs, from bread-baking to puppet shows, and created a community place out of a park that had been spurned by locals and neglected by a parks department suffering from cutbacks. Now, Dufferin Grove Park looks and feels more like a bigbackyard than a city park.

Project Background

Dufferin Grove Park looks more or less like a typical neighborhood park. Two blocks long by one block wide, it contains a few brick buildings, picnic tables, a garden, play areas and playing fields. Close to downtown Toronto, it abuts the Dufferin Mall, a major road, and a working class neighborhood of families from Portugal, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Poland, Italy and Germany.

In the Eighties, the park was neglected and underused. Dominated by young people from local neighborhoods, the park's indoor skating rink and other facilities seemed inaccessible to other residents. The Friends of Dufferin Grove was formed to revive activity in the park, based on the premise that local people, of all stripes, have talents and ideas that can give the park a new sense of safety and comfort. They understood that success would depend on the right mix of programs that local residents would recognize as uniquely suited to their community, a flexible design, and a willingness to experiment and take risks.

When the Friends first approached the rink house, it was an unheated, bunker-like building that was used only by hockey playing "toughs" from the adjacent high school, a major deterrent to other park users. What has happened there is a microcosm of the changes at Dufferin Grove, illustrating many of the leitmotifs that define the Friends' philosophy. "They weren't particularly dangerous, except to each other" says Jutta Mason, the founder and volunteer staff member of the Friends, a loose, unincorporated group established in 1993. But they so intimidated other residents that the rink had become a de facto teens-only clubhouse. Mason's solution was based on a combination of common sense improvements that together would change how people thought of the facility.

The Friends first broke through the walls with eye-level windows, so people outside could see what was going on inside and vice-versa. They then converted a small office into a rudimentary kitchen which they use for baking cookies which, Mason explains, has been their best measure to make the rink more welcoming to the public and safer in general. "When the kids come in after school, they're hit with the smell where they're weakest - in the stomach," she said, noting how moods elevate and aggression abates after eating the cookies and fruit her volunteers provide. Finally, she added a wood stove to reinforce the sense of coziness and hired female rink guards to offset the largely male presence.

Now, groups like the Italian senior's card-playing club are encouraged to use the rink house for daily or weekly activities.

Because recent Portuguese immigrants had expressed an interest in a traditional bake oven, a local contractor donated materials and built a massive, traditional, outdoor brick oven used twice weekly for community pizza and bread baking parties. Regulars and casual drop-bys gather to make their own pizzas over folding tables of ingredients (a shoebox is on hand for cash donations). Often, local talents play music and groups such as school classes use the oven on a regular basis. The oven has become a magnet, not in small part because of the irresistible aroma.

A 20' X 40' sandpit furnishes loose poles, rope, shovels and other materials to kids who build teepees, lean-to's, bridges, etc. Tacked on a post, photographs illustrate early trappers' cabins to give them ideas on structures they could build. Nearby, the Friends restored an oversized checkerboard that had become overgrown and forgotten. Disks cut from tree trunks, which local children painted black and while, serve as checker pieces. When benches were added, people started playing checkers late into the night and the demand was high enough to install two more boards.

A used treadle machine sits next to the wading pool, and is used by women from Trinidad and Southeast Asia who can sew and watch their children at the same time. It also attracts children who end up learning how it's done. Neighbors helped build and then adopt new flowerbeds, with plant materials donated by residents and a local greenhouse. In an inspired move, they located the beds around the basketball courts to increase interaction between teenage boys and adults, who often come with their children in tow. The Friends also installed checker tables and seats at the court sidelines, and put benches among the gardens. Now teens linger in an environment characterized not only by sports, but by intellectual activity (they use the chess tables habitually), gardens and volunteers.

The creative array of activities that the Friends have initiated seems endless, most of them based on ideas from the community: a Guatemalan woman cooks traditional meals over an open fire one evening a week. The fire draws children who help prepare ingredients ("poor kids know how to cook," says Mason). When the empanadas, donuts, macaroni and salsa start cooking, the area fills with three dozen people or more. Always sensitive to the microclimate of the park, the Friends prefer frequent small events to occasional large ones, which lack the intimacy that encourages neighborliness.

Mason credits Ray Oldenburg's book, The Great Good Place (Paragon House, 1989), as a major influence on how she thinks about public places. From Oldenberg, she has garnered many ideas on increasing the sociability of the park. For example, the park benches are moveable, which makes them convenient for impromptu gatherings. This concept, and many others, depends on a free-flowing idea of the park as a flexible space for ingenious and inexpensive experimentation. There is nothing at Dufferin Grove Park that resembles typical park planning or design, and yet the Friends continually hit upon programs or activities that are well within their reach and arguably more effective at drawing in a diverse community. Their shoestring budget (about Can $40,000 in 1996) means that bartering is common, which enhances the spirit of cooperation. For example, University of Toronto music students lacking a space for a dinner party were able to use the rink house in exchange for giving a free, public performance.

What the Friends are doing is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen," according to Leslie Coates, a landscape architect who consults with the city parks department. "Jutta has the vision to look at the social side of the park and has created a great example of how to increase use to make a park safe."

Lessons Learned

By providing physical spaces and activities that people can always count on happening, the Friends have been able to provide a constant presence in the park. They have captured local nuances, creating an almost cozy environment, emphasized by "comfort" activities like cooking and fires. They put things near each other, so that there is more than one reason to go there and more than one audience. They also have flexibility to fail, since they don't invest money in large projects that run large risks. A tacit agreement with the parks department lets them break rules that a public agency cannot and Mason theorizes that city agencies get some not inconsiderable pleasure seeing this happen.

Their ongoing challenge will be to improvise combinations that draw diverse residents together while meditating between differing notions of what things are appropriate. Most notable is the continuing conflict between teens playing loud music and adults who have other notions of what is appropriate. "Our thrust is to have the park as comfortable and pleasant and interesting as possible for people to do their own things rather than to join programs," says Mason.

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