Why We Must Make Parks Safe and Welcoming this Winter

November 10, 2020

Jodi Lastman

During the first wave of COVID-19, Park People’s survey of 1600 Canadians found almost three-quarters reported that their appreciation for parks and green spaces had increased. Also, 82% of Canadians reported that parks have become more important to their mental health during COVID.

Since the start of the pandemic, city parks have played a key role in keeping Canadians safe, connected, and happy. Now, with winter nearly upon us, we must work together to identify and implement policies and programs that support Canadians’ ability to safely access the city parks that allow us to connect to nature and each other. 

Photo credit: Ksenja Hotic

In a CBC article, Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease specialist with the Sinai Health System and University Health Network in Toronto underscores that getting outdoors is not just a nice to have, it is vital to supporting Canadians’ mental and physical health. Dr. Morris says that this winter,

“We need to be changing all aspects of our life, and we need to get back to really encouraging more outdoor life and outdoor recreation.” 

It’s undeniable that Canada is a winter nation, even though we may experience different winter climates. That’s why Park People has always encouraged people to experience the full potential of our city parks during our colder months. Our resources and research highlight that there’s no shortage of creative ways to get people outside and moving around all winter long. 

This winter, Park People already has several wonderful winter programs underway that showcase creative possibilities. For example, this winter, TD Park People Winter Grants will support community park groups to safely host winter activities in parks across Canada. Also, this winter Park People’s Community Resilience Project will support local Park Animators who will help parks feel more safe and accessible for people living in Toronto’s underserved communities. 

In Canada and around the world, people are coming together to find creative, safe ways to make parks welcoming this winter. 

For example, in Toronto, a community rallied together to delay plans to renovate the ice rink at  Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park so that skating would continue for one more (very important!) skating season before renovations begin. If the equipment fails, the city is creatively prepared to step in and provide a natural ice rink, as long as weather permits. 

Park People strongly believes that cities across Canada need to do all they can to ensure parks are safe and welcoming this winter. This is especially true for people living in underserved neighbourhoods, seniors, and youth in our cities. People living in underserved neighbourhoods, which are often COVID-19 hotspots, are rightfully concerned about venturing outdoors. As a result, they are experiencing an increased risk of social isolation and related mental and physical health challenges.

Canadian cities did an outstanding job helping people get outside this summer – we need an even stronger effort this winter. The following are some priority areas Park People has identified that would make a profound impact on Canadians’ mental and physical health this winter:

Photo credit: Ksenja Hotic

Public Bathrooms: 

The Globe and Mail’s Andre Picard said: 

“In Canada, we behave as if urination, defecation and menstruation are not routine bodily functions, but are somehow optional if we are away from our homes.” Adding that: “The answer is not to refuse to build public bathrooms, it is to value and maintain them as any other public infrastructure.” 

This winter, getting people outdoors will require a comprehensive plan to help people have access to public bathrooms in parks. We encourage cities to open winterized bathrooms and provide portable toilets and handwashing stations in parks wherever possible.

Clear pathways: 

Providing access to simple exercise will be key to promoting people’s health and wellbeing this winter. Without cleared park pathways, people simply cannot safely walk outdoors. This winter, it will be critical for cities to develop snow clearing plans for all paved pedestrian and cycling pathways in city parks. Without a comprehensive plan to clear park pathways, our seniors particularly face a heightened risk of compromised mental and physical health. 

Safe Park Programming:

Finally, research has shown that each additional supervised activity in a park leads to a 48% increase in park use. As winter’s chill coaxes us to stay inside, funding safe, socially distanced, park events will help draw people outdoors where they can connect with nature and each other.

For example, through its Winter Cities program, Edmonton actively promotes and runs a variety of winter programming—from snowshoeing to winter picnicking—to invite people outdoors. A recent survey by the city found 44% of residents said they had a more positive perception of winter since the program.

Also, Charlottetown hosts WinterlovePEI every February, which is put on by a grassroots organization that promotes cold-loving events like “snoga in the park.” This kind of creativity will draw people out into parks and support people’s mental and physical health.

Be sure to review Park People’s guidelines for safe, happy and fun park programming during COVID-19 and be sure to consult the rules and guidelines provided by your local public health authority.

Park People is eager to support cities and communities to make winter warmer. We’ll continue to share ideas and best practices and learn from leading jurisdictions to make the most of winter. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on what’s happening this winter, and email us if you know of a program that is helping to create a safe, healthy and beautiful winter in Canada.

 
Cover image: ParcLaFontaine, Montreal. Photo credit: Arianne Bergeron
 

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