Leveraging Parks to Build Community Resilience During COVID-19

September 29, 2020

Jodi Lastman

For seven years, Park People’s Sparking Change program has worked with community groups in Toronto’s underserved neighbourhoods to provide them with the training, networks, seed funding and one-on-one coaching to help make their parks more vibrant and their neighbourhoods stronger. 

COVID-19 restrictions very quickly brought Sparking Change training online and weekly check ins helped Park People grasp what underserved communities were facing on the ground.

As Park People’s Minaz Asani Kanji, Manager of Outreach recalls, it was immediately apparent that people living in underserved neighbourhoods, which were also COVID-19 hotspots, were fearful: they were afraid to venture outside of their apartments and their fear was increasing their social isolation and putting them at greater risk of experiencing profound physical and mental health challenges.

With support from the Balsam Foundation, Park People moved swiftly to establish the Community Resilience Project, a pilot program to help people living in underserved communities safely access the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the pilot, Park People identified five underserved communities in Toronto that were in need of support to help community members to get safely outdoors. These neighbourhoods are: Scarborough East, Agincourt, Flemingdon Park, Rexdale and Scarlett Woods. The program was led by Reiko Ema, a Program Coordinator who first supported the Sparking Change program as a cooperative student while in George Brown’s Community Worker program. 

A park animator was hired in each of the five communities. These incredible park animators had impressive track-records of working to help their communities thrive. Together, Issaq Ahmed, Hanbo Jia, .Abdul Rashid Athar, Annisha Stewart and Sharon Glaves powered the Community Resilience project with boundless energy, compassion and leadership skills.

These park animators got people walking, doing tai chi and yoga, drumming, fan dancing and snapping photos in their parks. Over the course of the six week pilot project, 680 people spent an average of 6 hours a week outdoors in their parks. This all happened in communities where between March and June,  54% of participants reported that had not ventured outdoors at all. 

The Community Resilience project has made a measurable impact in communities and on park animators.  It’s also an excellent reflection of Sparking Change principles in action.

Community Resilience Core Principles:

The Community Resilience project is rooted in strategies that have been shown to catalyze change in underserved communities. These principles, outlined in our Sparking Change Report, were put into action in the following ways;

  1. Park engagement must be community-led: Park People identified and hired community organizers who had trusted relationships and networks in their local neighbourhoods. Park People provided these park animators with the support they needed to bring their ideas to life. Each of the five initiatives was “by and for the community.”

  2. Park development is community development: Park People invested in building park animators’ capacity to be leaders in their communities. The five park animators have a track record of being very active in their communities. Park People enriched their community development experience by providing training and support to: 
    • Explore safe and engaging social distancing activities in their community parks.
    • Identify local partners and community members to help craft the program and get the word out to encourage community participation. 
    • Understand their community members’ barriers to participation and identify interventions to address those barriers.
    • Highlight opportunities to maintain momentum and engagement in the outdoors during and after the program is completed.
    • Track and evaluate program effectiveness and adapt the program as needed along the way.
  3. Leaders must be remunerated for their work and participants need meaningful incentives: As one park animator put it: “I have been working for free in my community for years…it was good to be paid for my time and hard work.” Not only did the program provide a wage to the park animators, but it recognized and addressed barriers to participation by offering honoraria to outreach partners and offering prize incentives for participation. These prizes helped people overcome barriers to participation and help them develop new habits around outdoor recreation. Honoraria also helped support local instructors and artists who taught yoga, provided drumming and more.

Results to Date:

“Thank you for making me part of this initiative. It is fun and motivating to see all the group members doing so well. It kind of pushed me out of my comfort zone and I came to know what I am capable of doing. No matter who wins, but we are all winners as we are more active, go out and explore our neighbourhood and parks and feel healthier and happier.” – Flemingdon Participant 

It’s resoundingly clear that The Community Resilience Project has made a measurable difference in helping draw people outdoors and into their parks. In fact, one of the park animators, Abdul Rashid Athar was featured in the Globe and Mail’s Stepping Up series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.  

In our national survey, almost two-thirds of Canadians reported that they had been visiting parks at least several times a week since COVID-19 began. Conversely among the people that participated in the Community Resilience project in June, the community animators reported that more than half had not been outdoors at all since March. 

“We had stayed at home for more than several months since the pandemic. Regular outdoor activities in the parks are crucial to improve our immune system and keep healthy. We enjoy it a lot!“ – Agincourt participant

People not only ventured outdoors as a result of the program, but park animators estimated that 2/3 were inspired to visit parks more than was asked of them and the same percentage of people felt more safe and comfortable being in the park than before the project.

With support from the Balsam Foundation the Community Resilience Project will continue into the fall and winter, helping people safely get outside as communities face a second COVID-19 wave, just as the colder weather makes it more challenging to get outside. This community led program will continue to bring the health and connection to communities that need it most. 




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