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Early data shows alcohol complaints higher in Toronto parks not part of drinking pilot program

Over a month into Toronto’s pilot project allowing drinking in select parks, preliminary data shows the number of complaints related to alcohol is significantly higher in parks where drinking isn’t permitted compared to areas where it is.

From Aug. 2 to Aug 29, the city received two complaints related to alcohol in one of the 27 parks where people are allowed to drink. 

That’s compared to 16 alcohol-related complaints in parks where alcohol isn’t allowed, the city told CBC Toronto in an email. It also laid one charge for possessing open liquor at a park not included in the pilot project. 

Some councillors say the data makes a strong, though early, case for legalizing drinking in parks city-wide as a way for Torontonians to enjoy the outdoors with friends and loved ones. Others say it’s still too soon to know what the impact of the program will be in the long term.

Coun. Brad Bradford represents Beaches-East York, which has one park as part of the project. Bradford says never anticipated drinking in parks to be a huge issue to begin with. 

“That would confirm that this was sort of overhyped and overblown as an issue and as it turns out, something that’s probably been a pretty enjoyable experience and and net positive for the city,” he said referring to the early data. 

The data gives the city a glimpse into how restrictions may influence the number of alcohol-related complaints. For the entire month of August, the city says it received 12 alcohol-related complaints in 2022 and 17 the year prior. 

Coun. Lily Cheng represents Willowdale, which has one park participating in the pilot. She says it’s still too early to decide if the program is overall good for her community, where locals have been split on the issue.

“I think it’s a such a brief window so it’s hard to extrapolate,” said Cheng, adding she intends to consult with police and her constituents once the city’s final report goes to council next year.

The pilot project was approved by council in late July, after years of back and forth on the issue. Residents are allowed to consume alcohol in select parks from Aug. 2 to Oct. 9. 

Pilot still isn’t a ‘fair’ system: councillor 

Toronto-Danforth councillor Paula Fletcher has five parks included in the pilot, comprising almost 20 per cent of all the parks involved.

She says she opted to include that many into the program as a way to “calibrate” how well the pilot has been doing, particularly since not every councillor chose to participate. 

“At this point it’s not a fair system,” said Fletcher. “Not everybody has equal access to have their glass of wine or beer legally in the park.”

“I’m hoping that my test case will be helpful for other councillors in other parts of the city when the results come back.”

A sign outlines the pilot program and the accompanying rules.
Until Oct. 9, adults 19 years and over can legally drink alcohol in 27 city-owned parks. (CBC/Paul Borkwood)

Fletcher says she’s interested to see if the pilot leads to an uptick in littering and waste. 

“That’s really going to be, I think, the crux of the matter,” said Fletcher. 

But while councillors may be interested if the pilot impacts litter or waste, the city says it doesn’t have specific data on the waste levels in parks in the pilot compared to those not included.

The city says it has more than 1,500 parks and manages waste for some 1,200 of them, with waste vehicles collecting from a variety of different parks at a given time.

Residents weigh pros and cons of program

Distillery District resident Xiao Zhang says even before alcohol was permitted in some Toronto parks, it wasn’t uncommon to spot people drinking. Though she hasn’t seen any “troublesome” behaviour, now that drinking in some parks is legal as part of the pilot, she says she’s concerned a permanent program will normalize public drinking.

“Society is already … welcoming too much alcohol or marijuana, stuff like that,” said Zhang, adding she’s concerned youth like her 16-year-old son are especially susceptible.

Cabbagetown resident Deane Cruz can empathize with residents like Zhang, but says she recognizes gathering in parks to have a drink during the warm weather can be harmless if people act appropriately. 

A woman beside a stroller looks into the camera for a photo.
Cabbagetown resident and mother Deane Cruz says she doesn’t see a problem with people drinking alcohol in parks as long as they act responsibly, especially when around children. (Vanessa Balintec/CBC)

“As long as people are gathering, and they’re small groups and keeping to themselves and not really disturbing the peace, it’s totally fine,” said Cruz, 29.

Residents like Gillian Kerr, who walks her dog at Corktown Common almost every day, say drinking alcohol in parks isn’t top of mind at all.

“We need better navigation around construction. We need housing. We need help for the people who have to sleep in this park. We don’t need the city spending money to make it OK for people to drink in the park,” said Kerr.

“I think that’s poor priorities.”

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