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E-BLAST: Piloting Alcohol in Parks & Changes to Employment Services

As per usual, I sent out my E-Blast last Thursday and shared updates on two of the biggest items we had discussed on at Council so far. However, two more important items were determined on Friday, the last day of our monthly Council session. Those two items were alcohol consumption in parks and changes to our city's employment services. DRINKING IN PARKS I want to start by talking about alcohol in parks. You may have been aware of this item coming to Council and might already have an opinion on it. This is a controversial issue that Council has been grappling with for the past three years, and I believe it's time we take action and move towards making a decision on this topic.

Over the past year, staff have undertaken significant research and conducted polling throughout the city to help me and my Council colleagues understand where community members stand on drinking in parks. As you can imagine, there was a wide range of opinions on the issue: some want it legalized and managed, some want it but only under certain conditions or in certain parks, some said they already drink in parks and nothing needs to change, and others said they never want to see it. Knowing that this would be coming back to the Economic & Community Development Committee, which I chair, I've done some research of my own as well.

Before I introduced a motion asking staff to explore options for a pilot program, I looked to Calgary and Vancouver for examples as they had recently permitted alcohol consumption in public parks. Both used a pilot approach to start, and then used what they learned from those pilots to set the rules. Calgary piloted a model where residents can only consume alcohol in picnic table areas and must sign out a permit to do so, which will continue this summer.

A sign on a picnic table in a Calgary public park. It shows that alcohol consumption is only permitted from 11 AM to 9 PM, and that groups can only stay for up to two hours. Vancouver is permitting alcohol consumption in parks city-wide this year, and their pilot helped them arrive at allowing it only from 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM. They've also posted rules to protect areas that are for children, sports, and other specific park uses: For most parks included in the program, drinking will be allowed throughout the park, except in areas like: - Playgrounds - Wading pools and splash parks - Sports fields and courts - Community centres - Ecologically sensitive natural areas - Parking lots - Off-leash dog areas Maps of where alcohol can be consumed will be posted on our website and on signage installed at each location.

My own in-laws tell me that the Vancouver system is working quite well. The rules make sense to people and the established culture of the parks they regularly use has not changed.

I also looked at cities outside of Canada where drinking in parks has been allowed for some time. London was my favourite example. They have a very English mix of prim and permissive in their rules: alcohol may be consumed in all parks at all times, but city police and community constables may confiscate alcohol and eject citizens from any park when they encounter "anti-social behaviours resulting from the consumption of alcohol." As you might expect from a city that is over 1000 years old, London has figured out how to get straight to the point.

Of course, there is no one-size fits all approach to drinking in parks. That's why I believe it's important to run a pilot. By testing out a model for allowing drinking in parks, we can figured out what works here in Toronto and what doesn't.

Ultimately, the pilot model acknowledges that people are drinking in parks, and there is a desire to be able to do so responsibly and safely, but that not every park might be suitable to allow drinking. By conducting a pilot in select parks across the city, we can figure out if there is a balance that works here in Toronto.

Kitsilano Community Centre Park in Vancouver, which has always looked like this in the summer and still does.

The motion that passed at Council last week directs Parks staff to meet with each Councillor and discuss guidelines for a pilot program. This will give Councillors a chance to discuss conditions they would like to see included and decide which park in their ward they would like to include in the pilot, which would run from August 5th to October 9th of this year if approved. Based on these discussions, staff will bring a report to Council and our new Mayor in July, and Council will decide once and for all if we wish to proceed.

This gives us a lot of time to think about how we want to move forward right here in Don Valley North. I would love to hear more from all of you to help me choose which of our parks to include in the pilot. So much of our green space here in DVN is ravine lands, and these are not suitable locations. If you were going to have a birthday picnic in July and wanted to celebrate with a glass of champagne, where would you want to do that? How do you feel about limiting the hours when drinking would be permitted and limiting the areas in the park as other cities have done?

Take some time to think about this, reach out if you have family in other cities where drinking in parks is allowed to gather a few different perspectives, and let me know what you're thinking. By working together with you, I am confident we can select a park that is suitable for this pilot program and will help us determine whether or not Toronto should move forward with this policy in years to come. CHANGES TO EMPLOYMENT SERVICES Another impactful item we discussed at Council last week was the provincially-driven transformation of employment services here in Toronto. Since amalgamation saw a number of services downloaded to municipalities, employment services have been delivered by Toronto Employment and Social Services (TESS). These services are funded by the Province but delivered by City staff, in partnership with neighbourhood agencies.

Back in the 90s, it was determined that municipalities would be better at delivering these services as we are more deeply engaged in the local economy and better connected to employers. In 2021, the Ontario government changed its mind about that. Premier Ford announced that employment offices would be managed by the Province and delivered by private contracted operators. Municipalities do have a chance to submit a bid, but the Province has also significantly pared down the services these offices will provide even if municipalities continue to carry them out. This spells trouble for every municipality across the province, and especially for Toronto.

One of our Toronto employment centres.

Workers tend to gravitate to cities with the most economic opportunity, and Toronto is one of those cities. However, not everyone who comes to Toronto is employment-ready. TESS has been invaluable in supporting those further from being ready to secure a job, and has an excellent track record in getting many of its clients employed through a range of supportive programs. This essential work, which greatly supports our local economies and communities, is being threatened by the Province's changes.

For the past year, TESS staff have been trying to make the Province understand that we would love to submit a bid to deliver employment services, but we need assurance that we will be able to enrich the baseline services with programs for those further from the labour market. Last Friday, Council voted to have staff try making one last case with unanimous Council support. Those who are the hardest to employ need TESS's programming and it must be properly funded. If the Ford government's answer is no, I will be writing about the impacts on our community in future E-Blasts.


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