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posted February 19, 2006

A Clash of Cultures

by Henrik Bechmann

Recent events at Dufferin Grove Park leading to the contemplation of a Management Board for the rink again raise the question: why is there a serious "crisis" -- a conflict with the city -- once or twice a year?

There are many layers to this, but I submit that there is an underlying reason: a clash of cultures between the Dufferin Park Community ("the Park") and the City bureaucracy, specifically the Parks, Forestry & Recreation Department ("PFR"). The following are admittedly generalizations, and somewhat simplified, but to my mind and experience (I have been a software consultant to many organizations for decades) ring true.

Some Differences

Top Down vs. Bottom Up: PFR approaches it's job from the top down: Create an initiative, make a plan, translate it into polices, programs and procedures, and "deliver" the service. In contrast, Dufferin Park invites people to exert influence by doing something that they want to do. Do more, have more influence. Eventually, broader community and PFR support is solicited, based on need and interest. Dufferin Park thus operates as an incubator, relying on complex social transactions, with hundreds if not thousands of results.


Food scene around the bake ovens

Functional vs. Integrated Views of Management: PFR has recently implemented a system of "functional" management. There are 7 such line managers that would hold sway over various aspects of the Park. Wallace Emerson Community Centre up the street has recently gone from one to four supervisors. These people feel little obligation to collaborate. They report to people above them. Dufferin Park takes a multi-tasking, synergistic view of practically everything. For example food in the park involves the Farmers' Market, staff, volunteers, ovens, Friday Night Dinner, cookies, pizza, hockey, barter, playgrounds, and on and on. There is absolutely no way to isolate all this food activity (or practically anything else in the park) along vertical functional lines.

Rights-based vs. Community-based: PFR views citizenry in terms of rights, duly categorized and codified. If the right exists, on an individual basis, it must be allowed, no questions asked, without reference to a broader context. Dufferin Park takes a community-minded approach by asking: is this fair, is it moderate, is it within reasonable bounds of decency and respect? Can a consensus be achieved?

Agency vs. Stewardship: PFR views its workers as performing tasks according to protocols, policies and procedures under the supervision of superiors. Dufferin Park views staff as enablers and protectors, whose role is to support activities with a large dash of creativity, so long as the outcome provides some benefit and satisfaction to the participants and the community.

Creation vs. Incubation: PFR contemplates noble goals, (like "save the youth"), then designs programs, with the goal of going and recruiting people to fill them. Dufferin Park gives people the opportunity and encouragement to try things, and see where they go. The more these activities create a spark, the more support they get. That goes for youth as well as any other park users.

Conformance vs. Collaboration: PFR wants everyone to "play by the rules". There is a strong psychological component to this, at it creates the illusion of maintaining calm and predictability -- less stress. Dufferin Park encourages ongoing - and shifting - collaboration on practically anything. The focus is on getting the job done, dealing with the problem, using what's available, and moving on.

Which One Works?

Dufferin Park has turned into a community centre without walls (at a fraction of the cost of the walled variety), which is constantly busy with hundreds if not thousands of activities, including large and small, new and old, same and different. It has done this by providing a protective umbrella under which activities can take place. Neighbours have actively solicited PFR support where needed, and aggressively fought off PFR interference when necessary. There is no question that it works. And there are almost no formal meetings, minutes, policies, and procedures. Yet it is by reputation relatively unique both in kind and level of activity. Why here, when the city runs most other parks in its own way? The answer is simple enough: stewardship and incubation are far more potent than more structured methods for community development. Dufferin Park exceeds the City's own PFR goals for community and parks. Yet the Dufferin Grove Park community seems to be relatively unique in the application of this approach.

The Root of the Conflict, and Possible Consequences

But the Park's very success is often experienced as incoherent chaos by the PFR bureaucracy, which loses sight of its own goals in its anxiety. Local championing of the very approach that has been proved successful over more than a decade (stewardship and incubation), is frequently viewed by PFR as trouble-making anarchy. Since things are not run by strict structures in the Park, by definition the Park does not conform to PFR's conception of (bureaucratic) legitimacy. When arguments erupt, the Park's chants of "just do it" to resolve the problems (eg. shave the rink ice from 6" to 3"), clash with PFR needs to follow protocol above all else. The more intense the clash, the more PFR retreats into its comfort zone, away from the ground of reality.

Now, after years of this kind of thing, and enough substance behind the park community to occasionally cause real fear and embarrassment within PFR (through news coverage for example), PFR has recently again become just plain mad. With the anger comes the determination to bring the Park (and the community) to heel. Although it is tempting to dismiss the problems to personality clashes, I think that there is more to it, and we had better pay attention to it.

PFR has the power to destroy the nature of what has been built up here over the past 13 years, within six months to two years. And I believe they will eventually do it if they can. At each step they will refer to their protocols, policies and procedures to not only legitimize what they are doing, but indeed claim the moral high ground which they feel stems from conformance. By contrast the community, focused no doubt on specific members, will in the process be occasionally denigrated by PFR as immoral and unworthy. All this in the face of volumes of manifest evidence to the contrary. The tragedy of all this of course is that in the process of attacking the Park, PFR not only undermines the community's success (and the cumulative benefits accrued to thousands of people), but also undermines its own goals. That's perverse and thoroughly regrettable.

Counterweight

Shinny

Without PFR senior management's commitment to embracing the stewardship/incubation model for community development, the community itself must provide the counterweight to the periodic threats from PFR. Fortunately, the past 13 years have provided the opportunity for the Dufferin Park community to establish its own culture, with a degree of justified community pride in its accomplishment, and attendant strength and determination to keep going.

What to do?

This is not the first time people in Toronto have had to fight city staff over "whose public space is it anyway?" In the early 1980's, there was a revolt across a number of neighborhoods, against the way parks facilities were run. The bureaucracy had some anxiety about seeing their system taken apart and put under local control everywhere, and so a compromise was reached. The most determined neighborhoods got their facilities put under boards of management, and the rest of the system began to reorganize itself corporately, a process I am told was referred to as "the re-org."

PFR is now into its third decade of various versions of internal restructuring. Meantime the board of management centres have grown to ten, called AOCCs (Association of Community Centres). I understand that several attempts by the City to make them come back into the fold were unsuccessful.

Some of these community board of management centres are very lively indeed They may make a better template for what works in neighbourhoods than what the City is proposing to do in their latest grand (centralized) plan. If the City's treatment of our park in this most recent disagreement is anything to go by, we'd better gain some distance.

So it may now be time to take matters into our own hands, and ask City Council to approve a community Management Board for the whole park. In the spirit of "good fences make good neighbours", this approach could be used to strike a balance between cooperation with PFR, and relative autonomy and protection for our community. It's hard to imagine any workable alternative.

Henrik Bechmann is the dufferinpark.ca webmaster.


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Content last modified on November 26, 2007, at 08:34 AM EST