New funding scheme aims to make park development more equitable

· The Pulse
By and

Proposed changes to the way Edmonton funds community parks are intended to distribute amenities more equitably, but some worry the changes will remove valuable community-building opportunities and put further pressure on the budget.

The Community Parks Framework is under consideration to replace the Neighbourhood Park Development Program (NPDP), which has been in place since 1983. Under the NPDP, a neighbourhood that wants to build a playground or upgrade a park has had to raise tens of thousands of dollars to receive matching funds from the city.

"It's almost 40 years old, it has really relied on resources and funding from communities," Suzanne Young, director of open spaces planning and design for the City of Edmonton, said of the current parks funding program. "And so those communities that have the capacity, and funding capacity, basically have been able to advance park development in their communities, whereas other communities that don't necessarily have the resources or funding haven't."

Some neighbourhoods have accessed NDPD funding four times since 2009, indicates a map included in a presentation on the proposed framework, while others have received no funding during that time, despite having assets in poor condition.

Parks are the only city asset managed and delivered in this way, said Young, and the new parks framework would bring it in line with how other infrastructure across the city is delivered. The city anticipates the changes would cut the time it takes to complete park development from the current two to five years to less than two years.

"Currently, when we're putting in grade, level, seed or base development, we don't put the playground in," Young said. "But if we were doing a new site, we could easily just add the playground in as part of that park development. Rather than waiting for the community, years later, we can do it upfront."

The NPDP has served its purpose, and a more equitable life-cycle management approach to parks and playgrounds is welcome, said Jonathan Lawrence, a community planning adviser with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues. But he's concerned the new framework would inadvertently remove a "passive community-building tool" by taking responsibility out of the hands of the neighbourhood and putting it with the city.

"As we come together to envision the neighbourhood that we want to live in, we develop those connections. Which in a crisis of loneliness is really important," he said.

Making parks development akin to other city-funded infrastructure would also mean adding another budget item at a time when administration has already warned city council that tax hikes or service cuts will be necessary heading into the next four-year budget cycle.

A brightly coloured playground structure behind the splash of a spray park

Since 1983, parks like this have been funded through a cost-sharing program that requires fundraising from the community to get matching funds from the city. (Brett McKay)

The NPDP brought money other than that raised by property taxes into the system, through a neighbourhood's own fundraising efforts from residents and businesses. The city has few sources of revenue other than property taxes, so funding playgrounds entirely from the city budget may not have the desired effect, he suggested.

"This is a policy which seeks to fairly and equitably distribute a scarce pool of resources," Lawrence said of the proposed framework.

Funding parks is just the tip of the iceberg in a conversation about urban planning, Lawrence said, and it reveals the instability and vulnerability of the North American development model of low-density neighbourhoods separated from commercial and industrial areas.

"What this development pattern hides, and what we see is coming home to roost here, is that residential development under these parameters per acre does not pay for itself," he said. "So that means that over (a neighbourhood's) lifecycle, as parks ... roads, lights, and utility infrastructure need replacement, there's really a need to rely on continued commercial and industrial tax revenue growth, as well as the continued expansion of residential development, as a short-term cash infusion."

Building or upgrading a playground gets even trickier when it is on school property rather than city-owned land, as is the case in many mature neighbourhoods. Jill Tucker of Forest Heights told community and public services committee on Sept. 9 that her neighbourhood has been trying to raise money for a new playground for five years, but has not been able to access NDPD funding, nor can it get funding from Edmonton Public Schools.

"We're being expected to provide this community infrastructure with no funding assistance at all from the city," she said in a presentation to the committee. "That situation puts enormous burden on parents in small neighbourhoods."

The Community Parks Framework is to be presented in the fall as part of the 2023-2026 budget deliberations. Community and public services committee is to continue its consideration of a report on community league funding, which includes mention of the framework, when it meets again on Sept. 26.