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Kirwan: KPMG recommendation to reduce city parkland is 'troublesome'

This comes as the city is trying to promote active living
Greater Sudbury's 1,400 hectares of maintained parkland includes, of course, Bell Park. (Supplied)

I acknowledge that it is necessary for a municipality to conduct an ongoing rationalization of facilities and services in order to determine if there is a need for some type of reorganization that will increase operating efficiency. 

This rationalization exercise may result in policy changes which are designed to increase revenue or decrease costs through a number of service level changes. These changes will in turn provide the opportunity to direct funds to other areas of investment that may have a higher priority or fill a more urgent community need. 

In fact, I can honestly say that this kind of rationalization takes place on a constant basis all year long by our staff under the direction of our CAO, Ed Archer. 

When staff find changes that should be made, they bring their recommendations to city council, usually in the form of a business case during budget time.

The Core Services Review by KPMG, which will be presented to City Council on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, was funded by the provincial government and was conducted prior to Christmas.  

The final report is a comprehensive third party examination of all of our existing services. I would like to focus on one of the recommendations which will be considered by councillors, namely Resolution #3, which is found in the agenda online. 

The KPMG consultants have suggested that we review “maintained parkland requirements.” 

I don’t have a problem with reviewing maintained parkland, but it is the suggestion that we reduce our total parkland area by up to 45 per cent that is troublesome to me. 

We know that there is a growing need to strengthen and revitalize neighbourhood parks and playgrounds, not only for our children, but also for our seniors who need to have access to active living options. 

We have approximately 1,400 hectares of maintained parkland in the City of Greater Sudbury. The KPMG consultants point out that this is apparently 633 hectares more than the minimum amount we need according to the City’s Parks, Open Space, and Leisure Master Plan which was compiled in 2014. 

Included in the 1,400 hectares of maintained parkland are the 190 playgrounds, 14 splash pads, 73 baseball fields, 93 soccer fields, 56 outdoor rinks, and 177 km of non-motorized trails. 

The recommendation from KPMG is that the city “naturalize” up to 633 hectares of this parkland to bring it in line with our minimum requirements. This means, basically, to stop maintaining the designated areas and allow the grass to grow wild, eventually, over time, creating a natural space with long grass, various plants, shrubs, etc. 

There was a time when we called these spaces in subdivisions “vacant lots.” They weren’t the most attractive lots on the street. We have also seen some homeowners who have decided to “naturalize” their front yards by not maintaining them and letting the grass grow long, and that doesn’t go over very well with neighbours. 

So, you get an idea of what we are looking at with this recommendation which may result in a significant amount of space nearby playground structures to be allowed to “naturalize.”

This recommendation is being made at a time when we are trying to promote a population health action plan that encourages active living with enhanced services in neighbourhoods. 

We are also trying to establish a Neighbourhood Model of Care for our seniors who are aging in place and who need to have access to maintained and appropriate parkland for recreational activities close to where they live. 

I am more than just a little bit concerned with how are we going to identify which playgrounds/parkland will be “naturalized” or closed.

The KPMG report claims that by naturalizing 633 hectares, the city can save up to $1.8 million per year in reduced operating/maintenance costs. About half of that would then be used to increase the service level of the remaining parkland for a net savings of about $1 million per year. 

This may sound good on paper, but ending up with higher quality services in parkland located in other parts of the city will not sit well with the residents who are forced to lose their local neighbourhood playground, or at least a good portion of their parkland to naturalization. 

Residents are going to be extremely concerned about the service level reductions that may be taking place in their own neighbourhoods in order to improve the quality of service in other neighbourhoods. 

They are not going to want to risk an infestation of snakes and rodents in the naturalized section which will be so close to where their children are playing. 

This also says nothing about what it will do to the image of the neighbourhood and the property value of the homes in that area.

Residents, staff and city councillors have worked hard to ensure that there are excellent parks and playgrounds in most neighbourhoods in the city. Families of all sizes as well as seniors aging in place in their own homes want to be able to walk to their neighbourhood playground. 

They want to be proud of their maintained parkland. It is something that should stand out and be an identity for the neighbourhood.  

We are even in the process of revitalizing of some of our older playground structures and fieldhouses. I do not see how this recommendation will be in the best interests of our neighbourhood communities or our city as a whole. 

It is therefore my opinion that we should not even direct staff to seek public input on the recommendation. It will be just too controversial and cause unnecessary widespread anger and anxiety among residents who will want to save their playground and maintained parkland at all costs. 

I do not feel that this recommendation is consistent with the underlying theme of many of our current strategic plans and objectives, especially with respect to impact this will have on the quality of life of our seniors.

I will be urging my fellow councillors to reject the recommendation based on the intent outlined in the KPMG Final Report. There will have to be some new, objective, compelling information forthcoming at the meeting in order for me to change my mind on this issue at this time. 

I look forward to a very vigorous debate on this recommendation in particular, but I will defend the maintained parkland in Ward 5 on behalf of my constituents.

Robert Kirwan is the Greater Sudbury city councillor for Ward 5.