A popular midtown Toronto park recently reopened after more than four years and nearly $5 million worth of construction — and along with all the new pathways, benches and lighting, David A. Balfour Park also has a sleek new washroom building.
But it's closed for the winter and there's only a porta-potty to stand in for it — a situation that's all-too familiar to anyone who's ever decided to go for a stroll in a Toronto park in the winter months.
"When we're designing new parks, aiming for parks that meet people's basic needs is really just the baseline bar for entry," Adri Stark, a senior manager with the charity Park People, told CBC Toronto in an interview.
"A failure to provide winterized washrooms is not at all unique to Toronto. But it does contribute to accessibility barriers and restricts park use, particularly for vulnerable communities like older adults and people living with limited mobility."
Of the 187 washroom facilities in Toronto parks, only 52 are equipped for winter use. An additional 47 washrooms are available at the city's seasonal outdoor ice rinks. Two more winterized park washrooms are currently under construction, according to the city. And staff note that high-use parks are equipped with portable washrooms.
But that's not enough for some residents. During COVID-19 lockdowns, with more people outdoors, there were calls from Torontonians and city councillors to increase the number of year-round washrooms and water fountains in city parks.
The City of Toronto says there's never been a plan to winterize the new washroom building at David A. Balfour Park, which is located near St. Clair Avenue East and Mount Pleasant Road.
According to a statement from city staff, planning for the park upgrades, which began in 2015, "pre-dated discussions around introducing more year-round washroom facilities."
Resident 'not upset' bathroom isn't winterized
Making it clear she's only speaking for herself, Deborah Briggs, a midtown resident and president of the Summerhill Residents Association, says she's surprised the new building isn't winterized but "not upset" about it.
"The park has little or no winter activities. The children's playground probably doesn't get used much in the winter, if at all, and there is no outdoor rink," Briggs wrote in an email.
She notes that the park paths aren't cleared of snow during the winter either.
"That being said, I cannot speak for all residents," Briggs clarified.
But for Edith Wilson, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, public washroom access is a human rights issue.
Wilson has studied the issue in Toronto specifically and says lacking a place to go to the bathroom is a barrier to participating in society.
"When people feel like there's not enough washroom access, they have the tendency to stay home and not really be as involved in the community," Wilson said in an interview.
"Because again, no one really wants to be placed in that undignified position — like begging for access to a washroom at a business or ... going in the street or soiling themselves," she added.
The improvements to David A. Balfour Park were part of the larger Rosehill Reservoir Rehabilitation project. The bulk of the project involved structural upgrades to the drinking water reservoir buried underneath the park.
Construction began in 2018. The City of Toronto developed a plan for the park's upgrades through the Rosehill Vision Committee. The cost of the park revitalization was $4.8-million.
City staff confirm that a portable toilet will be available at the park during the winter months.
'Significant' cost to winterize park facilities
In June, city council directed Toronto's parks, forestry and recreation department to modernize park operations and improve services, including winterizing washrooms, although it isn't clear how the city will pay for it.
Among the requested improvements are more frequent and earlier grass cutting on sports fields, increased litter collection, the earlier activation of water fountains and winterizing public washrooms.
While a cost estimate hasn't been provided, a financial impact statement attached to the motion notes it is a "significant increase in service level that will incur additional costs that cannot be accommodated within Parks, Forestry and Recreation's existing budgets."
Stark, of Park People, admits that expanding winter washroom access will come with a price tag and the way the city funds the parks department will have to change.
"We need to work towards ensuring that parks budgets really are keeping pace with population growth in Toronto — as well as the elevated level of park use that we've seen since the start of the pandemic that's remained stable until now."