Should Toronto loosen up on alcohol in parks?


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Trinity Bellwoods park, where cold ones are quaffed from time to time (Image: Steven Ley)

In June, some sports groups using the city’s green spaces received a letter from the City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division sternly reminding them of Toronto’s zero-tolerance policy for alcohol in public places. Unauthorized drinking after a game would, threatened the letter, result in the culprits losing their permit to play sports in city parks and put them on a blacklist for the future.

The letter is a further illustration, as if any were needed, of the city’s disinterest at the thought of adults enjoying alcohol in any public place that’s not strictly regulated and supervised. In Toronto, public drinking violates a municipal bylaw, and getting gently sloshed in parks and green spaces will land you with a $125 ticket, courtesy of Toronto police.

Toronto’s finest are currently on something of an anti-drinking binge, having embarked on Project Green Glasses, a clamp down on alcohol in certain parks over the summer. This year, the project has been given extra impetus following a well-publicized public meeting of residents around Trinity Bellwoods Park in the city’s west end. The residents complained that the space had become overrun with beer-swilling twenty- and thirtysomethings who liked to get drunk and urinate everywhere.

Although Green Glasses focuses on parks downtown, Const. Wendy Drummond, a media relations officer for Toronto Police Service, said officers keep a close eye on all green spaces in the city, especially during the summer.

“We have officers on bikes that go in and, in cases where vehicles can go in, we do that as well,” she said.

But Toronto has no shortage of people who look enviously at Montreal’s more liberal drinking laws and who would like to see a change in the law. They point to scenes such as those in High Park, where 40-year-olds watching Shakespeare with a picnic surreptitiously sip from wine hidden in Starbucks cups, and they decry the infantilizing effects of a bylaw that has more than a whiff of Prohibition-era morality about it.

“The North American norms toward alcohol are very different to those in Europe.”

Beer blogger Ben Johnson has set up an online petition at Change.org that has attracted more than 3,700 signatories. Pointing out that Toronto is increasingly a city of condo dwellers with little private outdoor space, Johnson’s petition calls on the city to stop ticketing people just for drinking in parks.

Ward 21 councillor Joe Mihevc is among those who would support reviewing the law. He said his office receives the occasional complaint about drinking in parks, mainly by young people, but that it was not a pressing concern. Although he believes that the police usually act with discretion and judgment, he said there may be room to at least refine the enforcement regime. Pointing out that the bylaw is primarily intended to stop unruly behaviour in public places, Mihevc said, “It’s a bit of a blunt instrument right now.”

A map compiled by the Toronto Star showing where tickets are issued for liquor violations reveals hot spots in the downtown core and out toward the west end, tailing off once you move north of Bloor Street. Police issued 1,900 tickets in the patrol zone that includes Trinity Bellwoods, compared with 928 tickets for the stretch along the Yonge Street corridor from Bloor Street to Lawrence Avenue.

Nicholas Austin, a resident of Lawrence Park who takes an interest in the area’s green spaces, said Blythwood Ravine appears to be used regularly by people drinking outdoors. He said the most common problem they seem to cause is littering, with empty bottles and cans strewn around the park.

One idea that has been making the rounds is to put in place a permit system to authorize people to drink in parks responsibly. Austin sees merit in the idea, saying it could be a way of relaxing the law in a controlled way.

“If you have a permit to have a picnic or barbecue, then you could add a licence [to drink alcohol] to that, so at least you know who’s going to be accountable for it,” he said.

However, he was cautious about moving toward a European-style liberalization of the drinking laws, saying, “The North American norms toward alcohol are very different to those in Europe.”

Aleks Pandyra, a medical researcher and former resident of Toronto who now lives in Germany, said the attitude across the pond is much more relaxed.

“I take the train every day from Düsseldorf to Essen. On Fridays, when I leave home, there are people openly drinking right on the trains. Usually, this is not a big deal and there is no problem with this. There are lots of families around who also walk around with beers, picnicking, strolling the streets — and it’s pretty relaxed.” She added, “Having barbecues in the parks or, especially, on the Rhine in Düsseldorf is really great when accompanied by beer and wine.”

With the province only inching slowly toward more liberal drinking laws at festivals, and Toronto showing no sign of amending its bylaws, it could be a long time before Torontonians are legally picnicking in the park with a beer in hand.

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