Fluffing up the park

I was recently invited, as an arborist, to attend a one-day park refurbishment event sponsored by Home Depot at Matty Eckler Park across from Gerrard Square, the location of one of the company's newly opened stores.

Arriving on a Tuesday morning, I quickly realize that this is not the usual community initiative. A flatbed truck is stopped in front, with a forklift unloading pallets of cedar mulch and garden soil. Metal barriers with a notice indicating the park's closure block both entrances. Over 200 people outfitted in bright orange shirts are amassed in a baseball field listening to speeches by local politicians and Home Depot executives.

The star is Bob Nardelli, CEO of Home Depot, who mentions that he flew in from L.A. the night before, and closes his short motivational speech with "God bless ya'll for helping to fix this park." A store manager then leads the volunteers in the Home Depot cheer, indicating that most of them are company employees.

The event is part of the Home Depot Month of Service, a North America-wide initiative that encourages employees to contribute to the community in which they live and work. The media release refers to the park refurbishment as "a one-day blitz of public space."

And a blitz it is. Within minutes of Bob's blessing, wood is being cut, rust sanded, concrete painted, and holes dug. A frenzied orange tornado of goodwill has been unleashed on the park, wielding the newest models of power tools on offer from the other corporate sponsors.

One male volunteer is authoritatively operating a gas-powered roto-tiller, used to turn soil in garden beds. Unfortunately, he is doing so directly under large trees, an action arborists caution against because it damages a tree's fragile roots. Realizing there is no place for me in this tightly orchestrated whirlwind, I leave and return once the activities have subsided.

By 5p.m., the volunteers are gone but the fruits of their labour are evident: dozens of colourful chrysanthemums and tall grasses are bursting out of the newly dug flowerbeds; the once-rusty metal fence is now shining black; new wooden benches and picnic tables abound, their wood stain still drying; the grey concrete wading pool is now a vibrant blue; and trees and shrubs line the perimeter of the park where none existed before. Members of the community who had been turned away earlier by the fences are returning to view the outcome and appear impressed by what they see.

But as I look a little closer, several things became apparent. The flowers, the most obvious improvement, are primarily annuals that will die at first frost and not grow back next spring. The majority of trees are not native species and are of poor quality — without substantial care few are likely to survive. A grouping of Norway maple trees are inexplicably planted in the outfield of the baseball diamond, so players must now dodge them as they chase down fly-balls. The additional wood benches do not appear to be built to the same standards as usual park furniture. The shrubs in the front beds are planted much too close together and will not grow well as a result, while those along the perimeter of the park are so small the aggressively growing grass will likely smother them next summer. Not to mention the damage done by the roto-tiller.

In effect, the park has been "fluffed" — like the cheap, superficial improvements people make to a home to increase its sales potential before they put it on the market. The changes are for the most part cosmetic and made with little consideration of the long-term implications for the park.

This is the problem with a one-day blitz — it is a single isolated event, a spectacle so dramatic and quick that it is jarring. I imagine that is one of its goals: the wow factor. Wow! The park looks better. Wow! Home Depot is generous. Wow! Look at all the great things you can do with power tools, paint and wood. Wow! There is a big store acrossthe street where I can buy that stuff.

"Community building," "sustainability," and "neighbourhood" were words said often and with conviction by the executives, yet they still rang hollow. There is an appreciable difference between wowing potential customers and being a healthy member of the community.

It takes many years and much nurturing to grow healthy trees and the same holds true for community. It is heartening that so many individuals volunteered on that fall day, but if they wish to truly build community and improve a park, they need to do so in a locally based organization with a sustainable model. The speakers often referred to what they were doing as "making the park" or "fixing the park." Yet there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the park — it just needed more regular maintenance, something it still does not have. Now it just has more stuff that needs to be maintained.