Ottawa park plan must avoid serious flaw

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Jonathan McLeod, Ottawa Citizen

Who doesn’t love the park life? Girls and boys, men and women, it’s universal; we all enjoy a day of leisure. Parks are so important to the health of our city, we demand them from developers. With each new development, a portion of the land is to be dedicated to parkland.

But this doesn’t always work. In some areas, land is scarce and it would be quite a hindrance on developers to have them provide parkland, hence the city’s Cash-in-lieu of Parklands Fund Policy. If developers are unwilling or unable to provide the necessary park space, they can provide the city with money so that we may develop those spaces ourselves. These funds are split 60-40 between the ward in which the development occurs and a general fund for the entire city, with the spending of funds in the ward’s account being directed by the local councillor.

This program brought about a mini-scandal in March. River Ward, new councillor Riley Brockington learned, had no money in its account. The outgoing councillor, Maria McRae, had spent $600,000 during her last year in office, with tens of thousands of that going to bronze plaques emblazoned with her name.

The news of such spending prompted a review of the cash-in-lieu program, and a set of recommendations are being considered by the planning committee on Tuesday. Some of the proposed changes, such as prohibiting commemorative plaques and providing more transparency on the use of these funds, are welcome, but, unfortunately, there is one change that could gut the essence of the program.

These funds have always had strict usage guidelines. First and foremost, they had to go to creating new parks or providing new and upgraded amenities at existing parks—either we increase our parklands or we increase the capacity of existing parks. The funds could not be used for repairs or simply replacing existing recreation equipment.

And here’s the issue. City staff is proposing that cash-in-lieu funds be used on parks and recreation lifecycle replacement, as well as repairs and renewal of existing facilities. The problem is clear: where we should be getting new parks or new capacity to complement new developments, we could be getting maintenance and repairs. Councillors would be able to divert these funds to maintaining the status quo, rather than building more and better public spaces for residents.

In areas where land is plentiful, developers will still be able to offer parks in lieu of cash, should it be more desirable to them. As a result, certain areas will get more parks, while other areas may get the proverbial fresh coat of paint.

The proposed change will set up conflicts between building new parks and fixing up old, neglected ones. But these will be artificial conflicts, manufactured by bad policy. It is the city’s responsibility to properly fund the maintenance of our parks. Upkeep of our current parks should not come at the expense of increasing parklands.

If we begin to divert cash-in-lieu funds to general maintenance and repair, we will be robbing residents of the public spaces that help make our communities so enjoyable. We need parks, parkettes and plazas to create liveable neighbourhoods, and we must ensure that development does not come at the cost of that livability.

Ensuring a ward cannot have a negative cash-in-lieu account balance is good; adding transparency to the process is great; eliminating vanity projects is wonderful; but the cash-in-lieu program must ensure that our park space and recreation facilities keep pace with development. The proposed hollowing-out of the program will make our communities poorer — lonesome streets with a little less charm.

Jonathan McLeod is an Ottawa writer.