Jennifer Deyell & Rachael Mackenzie-Neill have big dreams for their park at the corner of Euclid Ave and Ulster Street in Little Italy. Since 2008, they have been pursuing various improvements to this small shaded plot of land on the former grounds of the Sisters of the Church convent as a member of the Friends of Healey Willan Park group. Together, they’ve been the force behind improved playground equipment, better accessibility, and a fresh coat of paint for the aging splashpad.
But Jennifer had her sights set on one very small but important improvement – the drinking fountain. “We had the standard issue drinking fountain – and there were lots of problems”. There were issues with the water pressure and a steady flow from the spout, and kids were clogging the drain with sand from the nearby sandbox. “Kids just want to make a better sand-castle, they didn’t mean to clog it, but obviously this was causing problems for everyone.”
Park People caught her attention as a way to find out more about park stewardship and creative solutions, so she attended the inaugural Park Summit at the Evergreen Brick Works in 2011.
When the topic of park improvements came up at one session she raised her hand and brought up the problem she’d been having with her water fountain – namely, the sand-clogged drains. There was a promise of follow-up made by a city staffer.
After an inspection of the fountain they explained that, from their perspective there was nothing wrong with the fountain – it was working even if it did get clogged periodically. Jennifer countered that it wasn’t the functioning of the water fountain that was the issue, it was the design that didn’t prevent kids from clogging it unintentionally. The matter dropped for a few more months, until Jennifer made a trip to New York and encountered the water fountains on the High Line park.
“I saw the fountain of my dreams, it was open and high functioning, didn’t look super expensive, and you could see right away in the design that it would never clog. It drained right into the ground.” Jennifer added that the structure of the fountain itself prevented clogging, and even kept the nearby plants well hydrated with the runoff.
Sensing that this was the solution she was searching for, Jennifer approached a neighbour in Toronto who she thought could be an ally in the campaign to get the drinking water flowing. Heather Rolleston is an architect and says “I didn’t know about these particular fountains but I really appreciated Jennifer’s energy and interest in making the parkette a better place. And as it happens, I knew the design firm in New York who made the fountains, Diller Scofidio. I got some information and contacts about the innovative fountain design.”
Meanwhile, Jennifer had been in conversations with Toronto Department of Parks, Forestry & Recreation about getting a replacement fountain, and not surprisingly, their primary concern was cost. Undaunted, Jennifer hosted annual fundraisers in the park to raise money for a replacement, but “after the event costs, permits & insurance, we made little to no money. Even after three years of fund-raising.”
After pricing out the fountain, the group made the amazing discovery that it cost considerably less than the standard issue Toronto drinking fountain. Rachael then approached their local councillor’s office. “We asked Councillor Layton if he could use some Section 37 money to pay for the replacement fountain and do some advocating on our behalf.” With the fountain model details and specs already sourced, as well as a confirmed cost-saving, the city came on board. “Without Councillor Mike Layton’s office, this wouldn’t have happened. We’re really glad they took a chance on this new idea.”
The new fountain has been installed, just in time for the heat of summer. It’s a shining example of what can happen when cities tap into the potential of volunteers and park stewards. Sitting on a park bench nearby, Jennifer observes “people can get a drink of clean water AND the run-off can be used for kids playing with sand and buckets. Dogs can even lap it up. The fountain looks great and it saved the city some money!”.
Heather is excited about the final product as well. “The fountain is such a great design because it is virtually impossible to clog with sand or other debris. It also encourages everyone who uses the fountain to interact with water to a greater degree.” She adds that they chose the galvanized finish on the fountain because it required no maintenance. “There is a didactic quality about the design. You see the water run towards the drain in the ground in a playful, whimsical and well-designed way. It reminds us where the water goes and in this way I think it also asks us to be environmentally responsible.”
As Jennifer stands by the fountain, and watches the water stream down the side, she ponders the potential influence that her small park can have on the rest of the city’s 1600 parks. “I think every park in Toronto should have this fountain.”