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There's nothing like outdoor skating
A project of CELOS
posted March 22, 2022
13 of the city's outdoor rinks closed for the season on Feb.27. The remaining rinks on the city's outdoor rinks web page closed on March 20.
March is not a good time to run outdoor rinks, so the rinks were often closed, or had poor ice quality, even though their cooling machinery was running at the max (and using los of fuel). The March sun is too strong even if the temperatures are cold.
Find your outdoor rink
What makes rinks run well? See our animation
New covid-related rules for outdoor rinks change everything.
Montreal rink, by Rebecca Catching
The details are in the Bid Award Report here.
Call Issued: June 18, 2019
Call Closed: July 23, 2019.
As usual, CIMCO/Toromont was the only bidder.
In June 2018, the city put out a procurement contract "request for quotes." Unsurprisingly, CIMCO got the contract -- but not until Nov.8 -- two weeks before most of the city's rinks were scheduled to open. CIMCO is really the only act in town. So why the delay in hiring them?
Peter White, the Parks manager, didn't know. Some sleuthing was needed -- always a tricky prospect at city hall. It's really more luck than sleuthing that led me to Elena Caruso.
The contract was for $1,165,732.00 for looking after 45 outdoor rinks for 17 weeks. The services to be delivered are in this link. It will be interesting to see how long the link remains live, since another manager told me today that it's not the city's policy to keep such links once an RFP or RFQ closes (meaning -- I think -- is awarded). Apparently it clutters up the city's website. In July 2019, the city is changing to a cloud-based provider called SAP Ariba. But it seems unclear how much information will be publicly available then.
There are some links (but it seems, focused on vendors, not on the people paying for the contracts, i.e. the taxpayers) here. Contracts are discussed and awarded by the city's Bid Awards Committee, which is not a committee with any councillors on it. But the General Government and Licensing Committee seems to have oversight. And all contracts over $20 million need to be run by City Council.
So much money. Some contract notes are here.
No response from city
Ontario’s accessibility act specifies that it applies to “Ontarians with disabilities,” but many people are not fond of such a negative descriptor. Just because I have arthritis in my knee and have trouble walking, for example, doesn’t mean I am defined in some broad way as DIS-abled. I just need to use a bike to get around instead of walking long distances. So I need curb cuts and good snow clearance in winter, when I bike to the park. Then I can get to where I want, just like people who get around by walking. Stopgap’s Luke Anderson, who uses a wheelchair, told us he prefers the expression “people who use wheels” to “wheelchair-bound.” When he spoke at the September 30 park meeting, Luke pointed out that the people who use wheels include parents and caregivers of babies, who use strollers – and therefore need curb cuts and good winter snow clearance and kneeling buses and subway elevators as well – or they can’t get around like people without strollers. Such adaptations are a win-win for everybody.
Nobody would think of telling a woman or a man with a stroller to stay off the bus, even if it’s a bit inconvenient for other passengers, and even if everybody has to be careful not to trip over the wheels. But if parents want to take two children to skate at an outdoor rink, and one child is a baby in a stroller, the rule is “go away, and come back when you no longer need to use wheels.” Access denied. “No fun allowed here for you, parents and children.”
Toronto is the world capital of mechanically-cooled outdoor rinks (we have almost 60), so that’s a lot of access – and fun – not allowed.
At Dufferin Rink, it never made any sense to the people who ran the rink to bar parents or caregivers of young children. So good skaters with babies in strollers have been able to skate here for most of the last 20 years. In that time, there has never been an accident involving a stroller. There’s been a lot of family fun, though.
Dufferin Rink had a real-time experiment showing that strollers are not causing accidents – wonderful. But now strollers are once again not allowed on the rink.
The law says Ontarians have the right to equal access if possible, and the 20-year Dufferin Rink experiment shows strollers are fine. It’s time for city authorities to change the rule everywhere. If not, then maybe it’s time for parents and friends of young children to make common cause with Luke Anderson and other people who use wheelchairs with the slogan – remove the barriers to participating in the social life of the community – for everyone.
That could be interesting.
Shortly after this blog was published, the Dufferin Grove rink staff told a woman to get off the ice with her child in a stroller, that there was a long-standing rule against strollers on the ice. The skater and her sister, both at the rink with their families, complained to their two different councillors. After some back and forth, Councillor Paula Fletcher's assistant wrote back:
Excellent! Access for families with small children is back.
Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) was completely restructured in 2004. It takes time to turn a city department around, and this revolution took more than 10 years, getting everybody lined up going in the same direction. But now most of the job is done.
Here's how this affected the city's 50 neighbourhood outdoor rinks. Recreationists, who in wintertime used to run skating classes and little hockey leagues and flip burgers at neighbourhood skating events, were renamed "community recreation programmers" and were set in front of computers to do data entry. Becoming virtual data entry clerks made many of them unhappy. But their wages were increased enough that pushing against this transformation -- with the risk of being fired -- raised the stakes. Most went along, the rest left.
The staff re-structuring went with a re-definition of the "core values" -- now usually referred to as the "council-approved core business" -- of Parks and Rec. Consultants that were hired by the city recommended that most staff resources should go to registered fee-based programs rather than to drop-in places like outdoor rinks. Drop-in places were to be allocated only "minimal staff supervision."
The recommendations seem to have been approved by city council as part of a bigger package. The "core business" approach translated into turning most front-line rink staff into -- essentially -- security guards. Their job is not to set up fun things at the rinks but to sit at a rink office desk or to patrol the rinks. They do a bit of cleaning and otherwise monitor the behavior of the rink users, recast as "customers."
Since most rink users don't come to make trouble, new rules came out to keep the staff busy. Staff have to keep a close lookout for shinny hockey players and kids under 6 who are not wearing special CSA-approved hockey helmets, or who are taking photographs at the rink (not allowed). If skaters don't want to use a city-sanctioned helmet, or still try to take a photo, staff will eject them from the rink, and feel proud to have done their job exactly as outlined during their training.
Having the outdoor rinks run by security guards has taken away a lot of the fun. Attendance is often sparse. This fact appears to be only slowly dawning on city management. It comes up at meetings, but so far, there's not much action. There's no signage at rinks for opening dates. The city's outdoor rinks website is often unreliable during unstable weather, but the city won't publish rink phone numbers so that people can check if the rink they want to go to is really open. At some rinks, change rooms and washrooms may be locked on holidays. Some are not open on weekdays before 3, meaning school classes won't come. Change rooms are made only for skate/footwear changing, not for sitting and chatting with neighbours, or having a hot chocolate as part of the outing. With the exception of three rinks in Ward 18, no neighbourhood rinks have skate lending, because that's not part of the city's "core business."
So a new kind of rink has started up as an alternative: the tourist attraction. The Bentway skating trail is an example. There's plenty of seating, skate lending, hot drinks and alcohol in a cafe/bar setting, warming tables with cozy gas fires, food trucks on weekends, DJ nights, performances, art shows. Tourists, from both outside and inside Toronto, are expected to come in large numbers.
But it costs over a million dollars a year to run such a rink. Therefore, skate lending and drinks, priced to help cover that cost, add up to more than many ordinary families can afford. Plus: there's no shinny hockey! And the emphasis is on spectacle, not on making a community gathering place where near neighbors can meet in winter, as the outdoor rinks were meant to be.
There are simple, cheap ways to make the neighbourhood rinks work as gathering places and make them more fun again. Those ways don't need more money, in fact the rinks will be cheaper to run than now. But the remedy does require Parks and Rec management to admit that their 2004 restructuring didn't work. Learning from mistakes is an honorable way to get good at things! (Jane Jacobs: "if people could just look at their mistakes, and be honest about them, and learn from them, what a lot we could get done.")
There's no sign that this reckoning has begun. Too many city staff are invested in the power that they have under the current system, top-heavy in management and meetings. So the waste of our rinks, and the more-than-$6-million-a-year in taxes to pay for them each year, will continue for now. City councillors will continue to be distracted by the glitter of mega-projects, instead of checking the pantry for useful resources we already have.
A letter from Lauren Archer:
Attendance for drop-in shinny hockey at the city's mechanically-cooled outdoor ice rinks has been going down despite good ice. Fewer skaters are coming. The reason I mentioned declining attendance is actually not unrelated to climate change. It's kind of fascinating how much people rely on their news feeds (as well as the weather forecast apps) to make their plans. It's not unusual for people to say that they're sure the artificial ice rinks must be on the decline because it's too warm, and so they are switching, already now, to some other kind of physical activity, usually inside a gym. But the compressor-cooled outdoor rinks are not declining at all -- their ice is good most of the time.
Climate change is a handy explanation for a host of unrelated problems:
1. When the cities amalgamated in 1997, rink staff had their season-start-up night-time ice-making shifts changed to daytime, i.e. they were sometimes trying to make ice in sunshine. Also, the ice-making days were shortened from 6 days to 3 days prior to opening date. Neither of those practices are considered acceptable in the ice-making industry, but they fit in better with staff holidays and trying to finish fall chores.
So the rinks are often not open on time. The reason given is once again, "climate change." CC makes such a good excuse for every kind of poor workmanship.
2. Until the cities amalgamated in 1998, the rink season in central Toronto was from mid-November until the end of February (from the time of the first A.I.R.'s in the 1970's). That's when (observation showed) the sun is weak and the rinks are best. Then in the past 5 or so years, for political reasons, the city councillors extended the rink season into mid-to-late-March. A staff report that showed low usage and bad ice in March seems to have been ignored. People see the mush and talk about how "climate change" is hurting the rinks.
The irony is that running the rink machinery under the March sun is so energy-intensive. As our website says, using all that power in the higher-sun time is both financially and environmentally indefensible. But so far, the widespread use of "climate change" to explain every kind of bad ice-making practice seems to have paralyzed both thrift and good sense in some places. In heritage terms, those are traditional virtues :-)
Scarborough Civic Rink in 2018?
Knock out a wall, add some windows, snacks, and loaner skates.
The empty market building could be used for skate lending.
Each could be done for between $5000 and $30,000. But sadly, city hall wouldn't consider our report. The councillors message was effectively "go away." So for now we'll have to stop trying to help make rinks better. But we'll still document what rink users say, and what we see on rink visits.
Stories we're following, longer term:
Simla Skating Club, in India. Their town is so high up in the hills that they need no machinery for the ice to stay frozen in winter.
"120 pairs of donated skates inspiring Regent Park residents to hit the ice." Sub-headline: "Free skate-lending program only offered at 2 events in Regent Park this winter"
....with a partial story about skate lending,saying Councillor Layton "first proposed" the idea last week. Actually we sent him and 14 other councillors our skate lending offer on Sept.11 2017. But, who's counting?
Jan.13, 2018, Tory on twitter
Jan.12, 2018: May Warren in the Star -- another follow-up to skate lending, with a headline turning Councillor Layton into the champion -- a shift from his previous stance.
Jan.11, 2018 May Warren, in Metro News, a follow up about skate lending.
Dec.29, 2017: CityTV "City website causing confusion over outdoor skating rinks closures."
Dec.17, 2017, Globe, Andrew Savory, "Toronto gets three new skating venues"
Dec.14, 2017: Maytree Foundation Newsletter: Story of Change
Dec.7, 2017: Press Reader here.
Dec.6, 2017: Metro News here.
Nov.28, 2017: Edward Keenan from the Star give the outdoor rinks a plug. They included a reader questionnaire asking who's looking forward to using the rinks -- only 267 say they are. And in fact many of the outdoor rinks don't get much use. But there's a nice photo showing three guys (illegally) playing pond hockey on Ryerson Rink.
Nov.25, 2017, CBC radio "Toronto's outdoor rinks opening despite warm, cloudy day." [8 celsius]
Nov.20, 2017: CBC radio morning news here
Nov.20, 2017: CBC radio Here and Now afternoon show piece here.
Nov.18, 2017, Metro News here
March 26, 2017 (Updated from June 26. 2012), Globe. Kelly Grant, "Auditor slams Toronto energy retrofit program"
Jan.23, 2017, CBC Radio, Metro Morning "How Toronto's skating rinks stay frozen even when temperatures rise" Quotes cityrinks.ca/CELOS information about the mechanics, and the parks director's description of a rink as a "giant refrigerator."
From: CUPE Local 79 <[email protected]>
Date: February 10, 2016 at 6:46:21 PM EST
To: Local 79 members
Subject: Bargaining update: Raise the stakes - Take your breaks!
Reply-To: CUPE Local 79 <[email protected]>
CTV News: "Skating Ban to be lifted at High Park's Grenadier Pond"
"For city hall, $200,000 for rinks is a stretch." Globe column by Marcus Gee. Some excerpts:
Comment from CityRinks: There is a fourth option: do some better housekeeping of the outdoor rinks program.
(1) Open the rinks as soon as the sun is low and people are excited about winter (mid-November).
(2) Turn the rinks into more hospitable places, so that they’ll get maximum use during the skating season. That includes keeping the change rooms and washrooms open on all the stat holidays, and having more skate rentals. Staff can move the focus from rule-enforcement to fostering people’s enjoyment of skating, of the outdoors, and of wintertime neighbourhood sociability.
(2) Then close the rinks when the sun gets too high for good ice, fuel costs go through the roof, and attendance drops off anyway (early March).
Globe editorial "Skating rinks are an essential service."
Globe: "Toronto moves toward making more outdoor rinks available." Excerpts:
Globe: "Last-minute donation needed to extend Toronto's skating season." Excerpts:
The Star: editorial "Toronto should find money to keep its outdoor ice rinks open."
The Star: "Corporate donors keeping 12 rinks open"
The Star: "Eleven Outdoor rinks will remain open until March 16"
The Star -- Councillor Sarah Doucette will ask staff for a report
The Star - a story about writer Richard Sanger's yearly adventures on Grenadier Pond
CBC story and poll about skating on the pond.
National Post editorial about skating on Grenadier Pond
"Get out there and skate" by Peter Kuitenbrouwer.
Star editorial about skating and tobogganing
What is shinny hockey? A little film clip from Campbell Rink.
Our rinks are community rinks. All members of the community are welcome to skate, play hockey, or meet their friends here. Rink staff would be pleased to answer any questions you may have about the programs and policies.
Please observe the following rules so that everyone can enjoy the rink:
In case of a serious disagreement between rink staff and a rink user about any of these rules, the staff may ask the rink user to leave the rink until the matter is discussed with the Recreation Supervisor. If the rink user refuses the staff's request to leave the rink, a letter of trespass may result.
City of Toronto website links
Contact number listed is: PF&R Client Services: 396-SERV (7378) Hours: Mon-Fri 8am – 5pm
Ice Time Rentals at City of Toronto's Arenas, Rinks and Dry Pads For the Fall/Winter Season, indoor arenas are booked in 1 hour blocks for a twenty-six week season. Ice is available for tournaments and special events on an ongoing basis. Outdoor rinks across the city are also available for long term contract and special functions and in the off-season, you can book a Dry Pad at select facilities for your league or event.
Permit information : Permit Season - Indoor: September to March & May to August, Outdoor: December to March
A story by Wendy Leung, the Globe's Health Reporter, about helmets: "Synthetic head may aid concussion research." Quotes:
December 2019: It looks as though the CSA's monopoly on hockey helmet accreditation is about to get in bigger trouble, with the new trilateral trade agreement: Read more
Helmets have lost some of their luster in both the medical and the sports media. It turns out that they have some important limitations in preventing concussions -- which is really their main purpose, as far as many skaters are concerned. The City of Toronto has hung on to its mandatory helmet policy, requiring all shinny hockey player to put on head armour. Little kids under 6 are also required to wear ONLY CSA-certified hockey helmets -- for pleasure-skating. Hockey helmets are designed to absorb impacts from pucks, sticks, and body-checking.
CELOS, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (the sponsor of this website) has collected quite a bit of material on all sides of the helmet question.
A Rink Safety Story
The approach of mandating hockey helmets for little kids effectively blocks families from using the rinks if they don't want to buy another set of helmets in addition to the bike (or trike!) helmets most kids already have.
Read this rink user's story
Noncompliance by shinny hockey players continues to rise citywide. The city's inability to enforce its own policy should be a flag to rinks management.
It's time to revisit the helmet rules, but with a different procedure than the last time. Instead of a staff decision made at a closed meeting at City Hall, the city should welcome wide-ranging rink-user input. Read our latest letter from Kelvin Seow, City Manager for PFR, and the latest letters to and from Jim Hart, General Manager for the PFR, City of Toronto.
Click on correspondence for everything we've received from city management through the years.
Problems with the City's Helmet Policy
City Rinks Special Edition on Helmets
Additional Web links
From Ken Dryden's book Game Change:
"Some helmet skeptics had argued for decades that head protection made a player more, not less, vulnerable. Without a helmet, a player can sense danger even from behind; with a helmet, it's as if his radar is jammed...Helmets lessen the risk of a fractured skull, but do almost nothing to prevent concussions."
Toronto has more outdoor mechanically-cooled rinks than any city in the world - 53. But our civic knowledge of the physics of ice maintenance hasn't kept pace with our collective rink wealth. Many people seem to find it amazing, even shocking, that outdoor rinks can be skateable when the air temperature is above freezing, as high as 11 or even 15 - during the low-sun months.
What's the surprise? Collectively, as taxpayers, we spend about $500 a day at each rink to fuel the machinery that cools the rink pad. The rink compressors vary between 100 and 200 horsepower each. You can hear their noise through the compressor-room doors at the sides of the buildings. A brine (salt water) or glycol solution is pushed through a big tank of cooling ammonia, and then out into the extensive grid of PVC pipes underneath the concrete floor of the rink. The cold liquid brings the entire big concrete slab to well below freezing, so any water that's put on the surface of the rink pads sets up as ice right away. The brine liquid in the pipe grid circulates back into a large pipe in the "header trench" right next to the building, underneath where everybody stands when the zamboni is doing ice maintenance. From there the brine gets pushed back into the machinery room, where it passes through the freezing-cold ammonia tank, and out again into the pipes under the concrete, and so on.
The angle of the sun: The only serious match for this powerful cooling system is the sun. In the months on either side of the December 21 winter solstice, the sun is very weak. It doesn't get to spend very much time above the horizon, and that suits the machinery just fine. By March, though, the sun is getting much higher in the sky, and the machinery often has trouble keeping the ice frozen at minus 4.
Even on a sunny day at the end of February, when the air temperature is minus 8, the ice gets really mushy near the reflective boards, and a bit soft in the middle. The ice-making plant is losing ground as the sun prepares to bring on spring and summer. But on a low-sun Monday in November, even at 11 degrees, a thin film of water forms on top of solid ice, and the shinny hockey and pleasure-skating are brilliant.
Ice thickness: Many rinks are often closed for parts of days for "ice conditions" from mid-February on, even though above-zero temperatures don't shut them in early winter. Not only is the sun much stronger in February than in the November-January low-sun time, but also, by now, many of the rinks have ice so thick that it insulates the cooling pipes underneath, and the rinks are essentially natural ice rinks.
The remedy for too much ice is for the ice maintenance staff to zamboni the rain off the ice surface as it's raining, throughout the winter. Then the rain doesn't freeze onto the ice surface and the ice stays thin enough to let the cold of the pipes come through.
It's not only rink users whose rink literacy is in some need of upgrading. Over the years, some of the city's rink staff have also shown confusion. In our travels around the city's outdoor rinks, we have heard some zamboni drivers say in low-sun November that they can't make ice because the temperature is above zero. And there are still some staff who maintain that the thicker the ice is, the better -- on the same principle as natural ice on a pond. But it's not the same principle.
Over the years, the city's Parks management has blamed a multitude of ice-making sins on the temperature, global warming, etc. Convenient - but most of the time, not true. The mechanically-cooled rinks can do their job, and having all those rinks can take some of the sting out of the dark months of winter for Torontonians. But if the zamboni staff tell you that their zamboni sinks into the mush in early March, you'd better believe them -- or just take a look yourself.
Here's an interesting history of mechanically-cooled ice rinks, written in 2004 by Ted Martin, then the general manager, Ontario Operations, with Cimco Refrigeration in Toronto.
Read about better ways of stewarding our mechanically-cooled outdoor rinks here.
Parks and Rec Master Plan, 2019 - 2038: outdoor rinks
Rink information log
shovelling by skaters
Rink-related injury claims against the City of Toronto, 2010 to 2014
Strollers on outdoor rinks correspondence and pilot
A History of Toronto's outdoor ice rinks, by Jutta Mason
An excerpt from Jutta's rink history: the issue of turf struggles
Many of Toronto's 52 compressor-cooled municipal outdoor rinks are bare-bones sports facilities, but some are also important wintertime social spaces for their neighbourhoods. People expect to meet acquaintances there, to chat and catch up on news as well as skating together. Double-pad rinks are more likely to have this function, since pleasure-skating is anytime there, not only in restricted time slots. A few single-pad rinks have also become social spaces, either because of a particular location in a neighbourhood or because of programs (such as a weekly community supper) that maximize the friendship possibilities of the rink.
Double-pad rinks that are also neighbourhood social spaces (to widely varying degrees): Rennie, High Park, Dufferin, Wallace, Harry Gairey, Otter Creek, North Toronto Memorial, Hodgson, Ramsden, Dieppe, Greenwood.
Harbourfront's Natrel Rink (not municipal) is both an entertainment venue and a social space where friends often arrange to meet.
The wintertime social meeting-up function of rinks needs to be better recognized, and fostered, than it is at present.
The science is there, the history is there (pre-amalgamation), professionals say it can be done, Harbourfront is doing it, even volunteers have done it. This list supplies the fundamentals of ice making.
Contact cityrinks.ca at [email protected] to :
Contact the City of Toronto