City park philanthropy is still a relatively recent phenomenon in Canada, particularly when compared to the US park conservancy movement.

From growing food to restoring natural habitat to bringing arts programming to parks, the Weston Family Parks Challenge kick-started a more creative, collaborative approach to public space in Toronto. Park People’s latest report, Breaking New Ground, highlights what we can learn from the Weston Family Parks Challenge, and how we can apply those lessons to other municipalities in Canada and beyond.

From 2013 to 2016, Park People administered the Weston Family Parks Challenge, which included grants to support 26 projects across Toronto. The W. Garfield Weston Foundation initiated the challenge with $5 million to support vibrant green spaces. Championing innovative approaches that have the potential to be replicated and foster partnerships, the Ontario Trillium Foundation followed, adding $1.125 million to the project. With the combined support of these two funders, this initiative had the scope and scale to make real, measurable change.

As an early example of park philanthropy in Canada based on collaboration and partnership building, the Weston Family Parks Challenge can offer valuable insights that can help guide the future of park philanthropy in Canada. Here are a few of the key insights that can be found in the report.

Rethink Parks: Breaking New Ground highlights the importance of thinking beyond traditional city parks and encourages funders, government, organizations, and community members to leverage space in places like hydro corridors, schoolyards and private land to create new green community spaces. However, the report drives home that these spaces bring with them unique and complex challenges. For example, one Weston Family Parks Challenge project brought a community garden and orchard to an underserved tower community. Three private landowners had to commit to the project in order for it to move forward. Today, the towers are surrounded by a productive landscape where families can garden and grow their own food in 66 garden plots.

Friends of Regent Park–CRC Regent Park

Friends of Regent Park. Photo Credit: CRC Regent Park

Engage Communities: Strong community engagement in the design, programming, and maintenance of spaces is critical to the success and sustainability of any park project. The report highlights the importance of creating park engagement plans that are rooted in a community’s unique attributes. For example, the report identifies that in some cases, employing a paid community organizer from the local neighbourhood can help engage residents in the park. Through funding from the Weston Family Parks Challenge, CRC Regent Park was able to secure a park animator who worked with volunteers to form the Friends of Regent Park, igniting interest in park events and improvements in Regent Park. The group has now transitioned into entirely volunteer-run.

New Models to Maintain Green Spaces: While new green capital projects are often welcomed by organizations like cities, community housing groups, governments and non-profit organizations, there needs to be transparency about what happens to maintain the space long after the ribbon is cut. New parks and green spaces result in additional maintenance and operational costs that need to be accounted and planned for. One learning from the Weston Family Parks Challenge is that budgets to maintain improvements need to built into project budgets and addressed openly with all partners at a project’s outset.

Read the report and watch Leveraging the Power of City Parks featuring presentations from The W. Garfield Weston Foundation and Ontario Trillium Foundation

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