Reflections on a park journey

January 12, 2022

Park People

This contribution from Dylan Reid is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

Editing this series has taken me on a fascinating virtual journey to remarkable park projects across Canada. It was a particular joy to “travel” in this way at a time when physical travel is fraught and limited. Through the evocative writing of our contributors, I got to experience creative, enterprising initiatives that I am eager to visit in person when travel becomes easier. Even within my own city of Toronto, the projects featured here span the entire length of the city, north, west and east, and provide future destinations for exploration.

These articles also introduced me to the remarkable range of people – citizens, activists, artists, designers, and planners – who have come together to initiate and shape these projects. Not the least, I was honoured to work with a range of committed urbanist writers, some of them favourite authors I was pleased to reconnect with, and others I discovered thanks to this project, each of whom brought their own insight, experience and local knowledge to the story they told.

The projects we’ve explored came in all sizes, from a postage stamp of greenery in Etobicoke on the west side of Toronto to a vast agglomeration across the western edge of Montreal. Many are ribbons, following the path of old infrastructure and rivers; others are irregular patches carved out of unprepossessing spaces by creative imaginations.

Of necessity, this range is just a sampling of the innovative projects taking place in parks across the country, and over the course of the series the choice of projects to be featured evolved. But our writers referenced many comparable park initiatives elsewhere in Canada as they explored these projects in depth, and for highlights of other inspiring projects, readers can refer to Park People’s annual Canadian City Parks Report.

The stories featured in this series have been more than enough, however, to stimulate some reflections on how Canadian parks are evolving and identify some common themes in the stories we’ve featured. Working on this series has revealed to me how Canada’s urban parks are dynamic and ever-changing, activated and shaped by the communities they serve.

 

Past and Future

 

Emilie Jabouin opens her article about Black Creek Community Farm with a Haitian saying that means “the work is continuous and ongoing.” And indeed, these articles have captured the way parks are continuously evolving.

 

Credit: Black Creek Community Farm Entrance

 

A goal of this series marking the tenth anniversary of Park People was to explore the past and future of urban parks in Canada. By taking this approach, our writers have been able to convey the arc of these parks over time, sharing the story of the origins of these parks and programs, where they stand in the current moment, and the future visions that build on those foundations.

Jillian Glover recounts how, as a child, she turned the neglected Arbutus corridor into a space to play. Currently, the City of Vancouver has turned it into a simple public space where people can travel and artists can experiment. And its popularity has provided the basis for future plans to develop a series of unique anchor points to support a range of activities for neighbours and visitors.

All of the parks in this series have been captured by our writers somewhere in this kind of mid-evolution. In the Meadoway, as Shawn Micallef writes, travellers on bike or foot can see the stages of planting that are transforming lawn into native meadow. In Calgary, children and adults are just breaking in new play structures. In Etobicoke, MABELLEarts is creating permanent new programs in response to the pandemic. In Edmonton, a ground blessing has set the stage for construction, while in Montreal and Quebec City, communities, city staff, and designers are putting together a roadmap for the future.

That presence of a transformative future vision, built on the past and present, is what unites all of the projects featured in this series.

MABELLEarts, kihciy askiy, and Black Creek Community Farm plan new buildings as a focus for their communities that will, as Kelly Boutsalis writes, “[put] down seeds for what they hope will be more beautiful community engagement for years to come.”

 

Credit: Painting the road as a tactical intervention, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ali McMillan.

 

Flyover Park envisioned a community resource in a neglected underpass, Vancouver’s fieldhouse program envisions ever more creative uses for old buildings, and the Meadoway envisions a new ecosystem. Montreal and Quebec City aim for connected green networks that will be, in Chris DeWolf’s words, a “generational project” of “staggering scope, complexity and ambition.”

By their very nature as a habitat for plants and animals, parks are not static, but rather always growing and changing. And what this series teaches is that the people who use parks, too, are constantly shaping and transforming them, sometimes instinctively and sometimes intentionally.

 

Learning

 

I have learned so much from this series because parks have a lot to teach us. It’s teaching that goes in many directions. At kihciy askiy, city staff learned about Indigenous values and processes, and non-Indigenous visitors will be able to learn about Indigenous culture.

As Lewis Cardinal told Emily Rendell-Watson, it will be “the place where we can do some teaching for non-Indigenous people, to welcome them to our ceremonies and to give them an introduction to our Indigenous worldviews and our history.”

 

Credit photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall

 

At Black Creek Community Farm, children and newcomers learn about urban agriculture. In the Meadoway, residents learn about rewilding. At Flyover Park, students and local residents learned about planning and landscape design; but planners and designers also learned about tactical urbanism and the vision and enthusiasm of children.

As the City of Calgary’s Jen Mazer told Ximena Gonzalez, “We learned about the power of elevating different voices.”

In every project, professionals and communities absorbed desires and possibilities from each other.

The learning extends beyond individual projects, too. Some of these projects are firsts, such as kihciy askiy and Vancouver’s fieldhouses, and all have innovations to share. Each project, as it develops, becomes a way for other cities to hear about the possibilities parks can offer – a process to which we hope this series can contribute.

 

Reinvention

 

In his introduction to this series, Ken Greenberg highlighted the need for cities to be creative in their use of space as they become more densely populated and open space becomes ever more precious. A theme throughout this series has been how communities have come up with ways to creatively re-invent neglected and underused spaces and infrastructure.

A “dingy field of gravel” under a Calgary flyover and a neglected parklet in Etobicoke become community resources. Long-abandoned farms on Montreal Island become wilderness conservation areas. A corner of ravine land in northern Toronto becomes a farm, while a former farm in Edmonton becomes a destination cultural centre. Rivers in Quebec City that were formerly a place to dump waste become a place for recreation instead.

 

Credit: Le Parc des Grandes-Rivières de Québec Map. Rousseau Lefebvre

 

Vancouver’s prosaic fieldhouses, no longer needed as residences, supply scarce affordable studio and non-profit office space – and in the process, give scope for artists to reinvent the park around them too, as play spaces, concert venues, and more. An abandoned railway in Vancouver becomes a different, much greener kind of transportation route. And remarkably, Toronto’s The Meadoway continues to be a corridor for power but becomes a corridor for humans and wildlife at the same time.
As Antonio Gomez-Palacio says of the Arbutus corridor, what were once back ends – the places we didn’t notice or even avoided looking at – have been reinvented to become a focal point for people and for nature.

 

Community

 

Local communities were the key catalysts of these transformations. These stories made me realize just how apt the concept of “grassroots” is when it comes to parks since they grow from the ground up both literally and metaphorically.

 

Credit: Mobile MABELLE. The photo was taken prior to March 2020. 

 

Sometimes the transformations began informally – people carving their own trails through abandoned farms at the western edge of Montreal and riversides in Quebec City, children and artists re-imagining an abandoned railway in Vancouver as a space to play. But most of the projects explored here were the product, initially, of the intentional hard work of a local community. A nearby neighbourhood in Calgary and in Montreal, the residents of towers in Toronto’s Jane-Finch area, riverside dwellers in Quebec City, a small artistic organization in Etobicoke, Indigenous organizations in Edmonton all initiated transformations of spaces. And even when initiatives come from more established institutions, community involvement has been crucial in giving these initiatives purpose and shaping their outcomes.

Cities may provide the soil, but it’s communities that provide the seeds that make that land flourish.

 

Connections

 

When communities transform spaces, they create connections. First of all, connections within the community itself, as members are brought together through their parks. Mabelle Park is a focal point for the surrounding public housing towers; Black Creek Community Farm for the Black community and new Canadians in its nearby towers. Kihciy askiy will bring together the many different Indigenous nations in and around Edmonton. Vancouver’s fieldhouses have a mandate to connect with the communities around them. The Arbutus corridor and The Meadoway, meanwhile, link multiple neighbourhoods.

 

Credit: Fieldhouse Norquay Park, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

As Ken Greenberg writes, parks connect communities but also geographies. Calgary’s Flyover park and Quebec City’s rivers strategy connect neighbourhoods to nearby rivers from which they were long cut off. The Meadoway connects Toronto’s ravines, not just for people but also for plants and wildlife. Montreal’s Great Park of the West will connect multiple isolated natural areas into an integrated corridor.

Parks create more conceptual connections, too. They can connect people to the natural world, as in The Meadoway’s re-wilding, to the source of their food, at Black Creek Community Farm, and to the soil itself, symbolized by the ground blessing ceremony at kihciy askiy. And kihciy askiy connects its users to the past, through the area’s historical use by Indigenous peoples and the continuation of Indigenous traditions, and to a future of hoped-for reconciliation.

 

Collaboration

 

When communities connect, they collaborate to make things happen. It’s striking how collaboration is at the heart of all of the projects explored in this series.

In many cases, community organizations are the managers of the land, such as for kihciy askiy, Mabelle Park, and Black Creek Community Farm. Sometimes the parks are developed on land managed by independent agencies, such as the Toronto Community Housing Corporation for Mabelle Park or the Toronto Region Conservation Authority for Black Creek and The Meadoway. Other times an independent park agency is involved, as in Vancouver and Calgary. The Meadoway was started off with funding from a foundation, while Montreal’s Great Park of the West incorporates land belonging to a university. Flyover Park too involved partnerships with schools and universities. And all of these disparate groups work with local communities, municipalities, and national and international professional designers to make visions a reality.

 

Credit: the Meadoway. TRCA. 

 

Collaboration also takes the form of balancing different uses – recreation, conservation, agriculture, arts programming, industry, not to mention the plants and wildlife who have their own agenda.

As Micallef writes, a park is a “melding of the human and natural landscape.”

Such collaboration inevitably brings challenges – the time and patience it has taken to shepherd many of these projects is a testament to the work involved in coordinating many moving parts. But the collaboration also brings rewards – the richness of concept and enthusiasm of participants that comes through in these stories is a direct result of the many perspectives that came together to make them happen. And the buy-in that comes from developing these relationships is what ensures the long-term health of each project.

 

Conclusion

 

The parks featured in this series reveal vibrant and creative ways to think about creating green spaces in the city. As Greenberg notes, these are not what might be thought of as the stereotypical parks of the past – a few blocks of space set aside by the city or a philanthropic donor, provided with a few amenities and landscaping by the municipality, and then waiting passively to see who will come and use it.

In the parks in this series, many different people, organizations and institutions have come together to take an unprepossessing space and reclaim and re-imagine it. Together, they have created active spaces, ones that draw people in with farming, arts, teaching, nature and play to bring the park to life.

 

Credit: Fieldhouse Sharing Garden, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

In the most recent issue of the magazine I edit, Spacing, I wrote about “city-growing” as an alternative concept to the well-worn idea of “city-building.” Taking a cue from nature, it’s about nurturing what emerges from the grassroots rather than imposing structures from above. Ecosystems, whether natural or social, are strongest when they develop organically, and the park projects explored in this series encapsulate that principle.

To reiterate what the City of Vancouver’s Marie Lopes told Christopher Cheung about that city’s fieldhouses,

“Stop thinking about your unused spaces as problematic. They’re opportunities. Look for collaborators where everybody wins. The community benefit is just boundless.”

 

 

 

 

About Dylan Reid

Dylan Reid is a senior editor at Spacing Magazine. He has also written articles for NOW magazine and the uTOpia books.

He was co-chair of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee 2007-2010, was one of the founders of the Toronto Coalition (now Centre) for Active Transportation and is a co-founder of Walk Toronto. Dylan is also a Fellow at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto.

 


 

This contribution from Dylan Reid is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

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