Why a Great Self-financed Park is an Absurdity

I had two official responses to my blog post about the Canadian Air and Space Museum. Lisa Hastings, who I assume works for Downsview Park  in some sort of PR capacity and who likely was alerted to my post by her bot, and local MP Mark Adler, to whom I sent a message, both made the point that Downsview Park’s charter requires it to be self-financing, and not to accept government funding.

Whether the museum was behind in its rent, as Ms. Hastings maintains, or whether the park was using this as an excuse to oust the museum, as argued in a response to my post by Scott Boyd, is immaterial. Given this mandate, if hockey rinks can pay more than the museum, hockey rinks should get the space. Mr. Adler starts from the same premise of self-financing, accepts that the museum must go, and assures me that he is doing his all to find some other place(s) to take the museum’s collection.

The development plan on Downsview Park’s website envisages a mixture of profitable recreation facilities (hockey, soccer, beach volleyball, paintball), some greenspace, and residential development around the edges. It’s a classic case of “you get what you pay for.”

In contrast, let’s think about some of North America’s great urban parks: Central Park, Stanley Park, Mount Royal Park, the Plains of Abraham, even Toronto’s High Park. Their attractiveness comes from several sources: an inspiring physical setting (though the parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted involved some human effort to enhance nature), historical significance (in particular the Plains of Abraham), and the creation of vast open spaces for recreation.

While there may be some concessions in each of these parks that pay rent, none of these parks is in its entirety self-financing. They all represent lines in either the municipal or federal government’s budget. These cities have chosen to organize these parks as public goods for two reasons. First greenspace is at a premium in a city, and these cities value having greenspace accessible to all citizens and visitors. Second, a major park is part of a city’s charm, part of what makes it a desirable place to live or to visit.

Downsview Park does not have an inspiring natural setting. Its setting could be improved, as was the case with many of the parks Olmsted designed, but that would take funding Downsview Park does not and will never receive given the constraints of its charter. The park has one potential attraction, which is its historical significance as the location of Canada’s first and largest military and civilian aircraft factory. Preserving its historical significance would require preservation of the buildings, not just their façades. And it would require having people who are committed to their preservation, as the community associated with the Canadian Air and Space Museum is. But, to go in that direction would require a reversal of Downview Park’s decision and, unfortunately, the Harper Government does not appear willing to do that.

The Harper Government – to the extent that it thinks about cities – and the Ford administration both display a narrow counting-house mentality that privileges only those developments that can pay for themselves in the market. It is an approach that ignores our culture and our heritage. Ultimately, we as a society will be poorer, not wealthier, for it.

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