Ensuring Inclusive, Accessible and Welcoming Large Urban Parks in Canada
June 2, 2022
With support from Parks Canada, Park People recently hosted a series of stakeholder engagement sessions to help inform a future national network of urban parks.
In these sessions, participants responded to one very important question:
What are the key components of an inclusive, accessible and welcoming national urban park network?
The participants were selected to reflect diverse perspectives, voices, areas of expertise and geographies. We heard from stakeholders from nature-based groups, as well as city-based organizations serving people with physical and developmental disabilities, youth, adults experiencing homelessness, newcomers, Black, Indigenous and people of colour.
Taken together, participants’ answers helped Park People identify 9 key elements that contribute to more inclusive, accessible and welcoming large urban park experiences.
We know these 9 elements will be of great value to our Park People Network, and we are pleased to be able to share them with you.
Mont-Royal Park, Montréal
1. Diversity of Spaces and Experiences
Here’s what participants told us about the kind of spaces and experiences they feel help create inclusive, accessible and welcoming urban parks.
- People who visit urban parks do so for a wide variety of reasons. Participants most commonly said they go to parks to:
- Be outside,
- Connect with nature,
- Socialize with friends,
- Engage in physical activities outdoors, and
- Clear their minds.
Bird Watching. Credit: Stanley Park Ecology Society
Because parks serve such a diverse range of needs, session participants told us that parks need to be flexible spaces that can simultaneously serve a number of different purposes and functions. Participants highlighted that if parks are to serve these purposes, they must have:
- The right mix of amenities such as washrooms, picnic tables, trails and designated dog areas,
- Diverse types of green spaces for people to enjoy such as a mix of manicured grass, natural cover and forests,
- Green spaces that support deeper nature connections including the opportunity to encounter natural elements in parks as well as both biodiversity and wildlife,
- A healthy mix of programs such as active and passive recreation, stewardship opportunities, and more.
2. Expanding the role and definition of a park
The participants we spoke to shared their reflections on the terms “park” and “urban park.”
In these conversations, we heard that the term ‘park’ is broad enough to reflect a wide range of users’ needs and interests.
The participants shared their reflections on the term “urban park.” In these conversations, participants found the term “urban park” confusing because the term “urban” may suggest that a park space has fewer natural or wild elements. They felt that this terminology might make more sense in Toronto or Vancouver, but is less applicable to parks in places like Winnipeg or Saskatoon.
3. Park Accessibility
When visitors enter a park they are likely to encounter many “unknowns.” The session participants we spoke to told us that these “unknowns” or unexpected elements or experiences can pose a significant barrier to visiting or enjoying a park visit. In some instances, they emphasized, these unknowns can pose very real safety risks.
Participants talked about the need for parks to be accessible to people with a range of abilities.
They particularly highlighted that to truly be inclusive, accessible and welcoming, parks must address the needs of individuals with varying mental and physical ability requirements, and people who experience language barriers.
Credit: Gustavo Fring
Physically accessible trails, green spaces and amenities were all seen to support more inclusive and welcoming park experiences. The participants we spoke to emphasized that these amenities should be complemented by a variety of wayfinding experiences, including signage with text, pictograms and QR codes.
4. Nature Connection
People had different preferences when it comes to the natural elements and nature-based experiences they want to see in urban parks. Some participants expressed that they prefer to experience “untouched” or pristine nature, while others enjoy experiences that invite people to engage directly with nature through activities like nature-based education and programming.
Some participants cited the need for greater integration of technology in nature, such as free wi-fi and tech-supported ways of finding and learning to build nature connections.
An emerging theme among participants was the need to balance the ecological integrity of urban parks with the social needs of individuals and communities. Participants in the sessions emphasized that education, programming and communication tools can help strike a balance between the ecological integrity of a park and its use and enjoyment.
Walk in the Park Vancouver, Walk Leader Training Trout Lake, 2021
5. Navigation to and Within Parks
Participants voiced the need for easy access to and within urban parks. Various transportation requirements that were highlighted as helping people access parks were car access and accompanying parking spaces as well as public transit, biking, scooter and walking routes.
Not only do visitors need convenient ways to get to parks, but they need to easily move within the park so they can travel to and from amenities and activities.
Although participants used the term “access” broadly, taken together, their comments suggest improvements in the following areas:
- Distance: Public transit stops situated closer to parks or located within parks, particularly for equity-deserving communities.
- Frequency: Frequently scheduled transit routes and parks with trail systems that can help people navigate around park spaces.
- Higher quality: Safe and secure bike parking stations, clear and diverse forms of wayfinding that highlight details such as trail types (paved, gravel) and level of difficulty.
Park People Evergreen Biking in Ravines. Credit: Thomas Chang, 2021
6. Safety and Belonging
Participants shared how a sense of belonging is integral to park use and enjoyment. In order for people to feel they belong in a place, they need to feel safe, welcomed and able to easily envision themselves there.
Often racialized and Indigenous park users as well as those who have lived experience with homelessness encounter park rangers, police and bylaw officers who communicate and enforce park rules. The presence of park enforcement is seen as an extension of the long history of oppression and racism in policing practices generally. In this context, the presence of park rangers, police and bylaw officers often makes BIPOC and unhoused park users feel both unsafe and unwelcome in parks.
7. Connectivity and Park Systems
Participants pointed out several ways that parks can be more integrated into the fabric of neighbourhoods and communities. We heard that parks would feel more integrated into people’s daily lives if places like libraries and community centres promoted park activities such as programs or volunteer opportunities.
Also, participants emphasized that community organizations and groups should be encouraged to host their programs in local parks.
2021 InTO the Ravines Champions, Riffat Fatima & Lubna Rehman at E.T Seton Park ravine
8. Knowledge Sharing
Participants discussed the opportunity to better learn about and better integrate Indigenous stewardship practices and environmental education into parks.
Some participants shared their belief that the use of technology should not be encouraged in natural settings, while others said that technology can better connect people to nature. Participants mentioned that technology could be used to enhance safety and information sharing in parks, and felt that self-guided park tours and access to wifi, especially in no service zones, would be welcomed.
People mentioned that the data generated through park-based technology could help build insights to improve park activities, build more engagement in parks and could be leveraged so that park users can share any issues they encounter while in the park.
Cuisine ton quartier, Parc Jarry, Montréal, 2022
Participants told us that they want to see more creative partnerships in parks.
From concept, to design, to activation and governance, park users want to see more power sharing, collaboration and joint decision making between various levels of government and park-based NGOs and grassroots organizations.
Heart of the City Conference, 2018. Credit: Charles Olivier
The key findings from the stakeholder engagement sessions offer rich insight into how Canadian park-aligned organizations envision the future of large urban parks. We heard that Canadians are eager to see new approaches to parks that prioritize park users and diverse communities, offer a rich array of activities and amenities, and provide opportunities for both environmental stewardship and nature connectedness.
There was strong support and enthusiasm from stakeholders around Parks Canada’s efforts to better connect people to nature in cities through their future Urban Park Policy and Network. It was especially rewarding to hear from urban stakeholders who have not traditionally been part of past park engagement efforts.
It is abundantly clear that there are many opportunities ahead for all of us to build on these relationships and deepen engagement efforts as part of creating more inclusive, accessible and welcoming urban parks.
Cover photo: Manulife Walk in the Park program, Walk leaders celebration in High Park, 2019