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City outdoor rinks: community gathering places or tourist destinations?

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.

Attendance is often sparse

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.")

Dufferin Rink, a chess-and-cookie break from skating

Dufferin Rink clubhouse: skating makes you hungry

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.

Too bad.


Amplified music and ads from the Nathan Phillips skating rink, booming all over our civic square?

Family Day


Climate change and mechanically-cooled outdoor rinks

A letter from Lauren Archer:

"I am a cultural heritage specialist and conservationist who works in and around the GTA. I am preparing a paper to present at a heritage conference in Ottawa later this year on the impact that climate change is having on the Hockey Cultural Heritage Landscape.... Do you feel the weather has affected the viability of outdoor rinks or other hockey landscape features?"

Our answer:

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 :-)


Here are some "lighter, quicker, cheaper" (LQC-type) fixes we proposed in our 2016 Outdoor Rink Report for some Toronto outdoor rinks.

Scarborough Civic Rink in 2015

Scarborough Civic Rink in 2018?

Giovanni Caboto Rink now

Giovanni Caboto Rink in 2017?

Knock out a wall, add some windows, snacks, and loaner skates.

Mel Lastman Rink now

Mel Lastman Rink next year?

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.

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Content last modified on February 02, 2018, at 12:09 PM EST