Parks are often touted for their environmental benefits, whether helping clean our air, mitigate the effects of climate change, or support the rich biodiversity necessary for a healthy ecosystem. They’re heavily promoted as tools for improved mental and physical health, providing places for people to recharge and exercise. And they’re also cited as economic drivers, boosting property values around their edges, for better or worse.

But the social and community benefits of parks are less talked about—perhaps because it’s more difficult to tease out benefits that are usually very personal and hard to measure—even though we may intuitively understand that parks are important tools for community development.

This is especially true in underserved communities that include newcomers and people living on lower incomes where immediate local spaces tend to take on more importance. Much ink has been spilled on the High Lines and Millennium Parks out there, but much less has been written about the local parks that are so important in communities outside of glitzy downtown neighbourhoods.

Through our new research report, Sparking Change, we hope to do that. The report, which links to our grassroots work in parks in underserved neighbourhoods, will explore the social and community impacts that emerge when residents in underserved communities are engaged in park revitalization projects.

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TD Park Builders Community Gardens Tour

At Park People, we’ve seen firsthand the incredible changes that can result from people becoming more deeply involved in park revitalization and animation projects, transforming their neighbourhood parks into outdoor community hubs. In particular, we’ve worked closely with many of Toronto’s underserved communities, mostly in the inner suburban areas, providing tools, resources, and support to resident-led groups made up of dedicated volunteers doing amazing things in their local parks.

While we’ve observed many positive benefits from these projects, we wanted to better understand the social and community impacts of this work and explore the strategies needed to support them.

While there is some research already that looks at the social and community benefits of parks for people in lower income and newcomer communities, this research mainly focusses on the benefits residents get when parks are physically improved. For example, if a park has more trees does it also see more social activity?

What’s lacking is an understanding of the importance of residents becoming more deeply engaged in an ongoing way—through a Park Friends group, for example—and continually working in the park to make change.

There’s also been less of a focus on the importance of programming—the events and activities that bring people together—in favour of capital improvements like new playgrounds and benches.

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McGregor Park Community Festival

So far we’ve spoken with two dozen community organizers and neighbourhood volunteers who’ve been involved working on park revitalization and animation projects in their neighbourhoods in Toronto, but also other cities like Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, New York, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.

In Toronto, we focused on parks that we had been involved in what were in one of the City’s designated Neighbourhood Improvement Areas—or one of the former Priority Areas. These are communities that the City has identified for additional services and community support to address challenges such as poorer mental and physical health and lower incomes.

It’s been inspirational to listen firsthand to stories from people who’ve become involved in their local park and are doing amazing things for their communities. But these conversations have also highlighted key challenges, such as barriers to access from confusing and costly permits, that seem to be shared across cities.

 

We hope the report helps illuminate the importance of parks as tools for community development, especially in underserved communities, and what policies and supports can help further this goal. Stay tuned for more.

The Sparking Change Report is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and TD Bank Group.

Jake Tobin Garrett is Park People’s Manager of Policy & Research.