The Path Forward: What our City Parks Need Most

May 23, 2017

Natalie Brown

Picture your favourite city park.

Mine has a beautiful canopy of mature trees, a bocce court full of neighbours young and old, a community kitchen in a repurposed city building, and people draped over benches and lawns, relaxing and chatting. Yours might look more like the old-growth forest of Fredericton’s Odell Park, or the urban promenades of Calgary’s RiverWalk.


Photo Credit: Chris Campbell, Odell Park Trail

Imagine all of the people it takes to make these parks great. Park staff, landscape architects, urban foresters, gardeners, community volunteers and non-profits, all playing their roles in ensuring parks thrive.

In Calgary this past March, we brought together 100 of these people at the Heart of the City conference. Hailing from 36 Canadian cities, they were a diverse group with expertise in community programming, stewardship, design, operations and park strategy. One of the main goals of the conference was to learn about the challenges they face in their work so that we can design a national network that meets their needs.

Here are a few of the key things we learned:

We are so much stronger when we work together (but it’s easier said than done!):

It takes many different people to make great parks, which means a lot of partnerships, with all of the intricacies and complications that accompany them.

Delegates told us that we need best practices for building strong park partnerships that are relevant in the Canadian context.

These practices need to consider the capacity and the contributions that community volunteers, non-profit staff, city staff and other partners can make when given the right structures and support. In considering roles and responsibilities, we should centre the needs of community volunteers, who can make enormous contributions to animating and improving city parks, but who can also be pulled in many directions, leading to personal burnout and challenges with project sustainability.

While some struggle to meet an overwhelming demand for parks, others are working hard to attract more park users:

As our cities grow, balancing the multiple uses and users of parks is becoming more challenging. Over five million people visit Montreal’s Mont-Royal every year, leading to real challenges maintaining the park’s ecosystems and balancing competing demands for park space from different users. Many urban parks in dense neighbourhoods across Canada experience conflicts over use of park space, particularly when the broader social challenge of homelessness manifests itself in parks. As Ottawa’s Dundonald Park and Edmonton’s Dawson Park show, there are solutions to be found, but we can also anticipate that as our cities continue to grow bigger and denser, challenges of conflicting uses will grow as well.


Photo Credit: Mount Royal, Guilhem Vellut 

These challenges are all the more reason to realize the full potential of all parks and green spaces through thoughtful design and programming, and to take opportunities to create new parks wherever we can, like the Champs des Possibles in Montreal or the Green Line in Toronto. Community volunteers who see the potential of an under-used, under-developed green space, like, the Friends of the Pipeline Trail in Hamilton, are often the force behind the creation of new parks out of under-used urban spaces. We can support them by championing their work and connecting them to each other for advice and support.

On the flip side, some delegates spoke of their challenges attracting more people to their parks, particularly in smaller towns with ample green space. This is where many people are getting creative, with diverse festivals and events designed to reach new park users. Where these efforts overlap is in the fact that they are both working to realize the potential of city parks to deliver the greatest value to our cities and neighbourhoods.

We can (and must) make a stronger case for investing in parks.

If you are reading this blog post, you probably believe that vibrant parks, designed and programmed to meet the needs of communities, are very important. But as Mayor Naheed Nenshi told the conference delegates in Calgary, many politicians view parks and green spaces as frills, setting them up for failure in the competition against other priorities for public investment.

 But as Bev Sandalack points out, positioning parks as ‘nice to haves’ is evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of their value to cities.

As one of the deepest layers of our urban infrastructure, parks make our cities more resilient to the extreme weather events resulting from climate change, while also providing myriad health and social benefits to citizens. And parks don’t just need capital investment. They also need funding for programming and maintenance, which are both essential to making our parks welcoming and attractive places for citizens to spend time.

We need to do a better job of cultivating political allies and providing them with facts and political support to champion city parks.

At the conference, we heard from citizen leaders in Halifax, Winnipeg, and Montreal who are doing this really well. In the future, we hope to gather up lessons learned from these experiences and share them with each other across the country.

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Canadian park people are really lucky. Our cities have beautiful parks and green spaces, and we have talented parks professionals, non-profit organizations and community volunteers dedicated to animating and improving them. One last thing we learned at the conference was that bringing them together results in unexpected connections, friendships, and partnerships.

Since the conference two months ago, delegates have been attending each other’s events and programs, partnering on grant applications, visiting each others’ cities, and collaborating on new projects. Each of these stories is wonderful to hear, because they are evidence that we are headed in the right direction. The Heart of the City conference was just the beginning of Park People’s efforts to bring Canadians together to strengthen their work in city parks.

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