Casual day-to-day interactions between people–on the street, in parks, and shared spaces–is what gives us our sense of belonging. These community ties are even more important in underserved communities because, as we highlighted in our Sparking Change report, people in these neighbourhoods “are often more dependent on neighbourhood ties within their immediate community.”

The report goes on to say that community ties in low income neighbourhoods are critical because they “lead to greater feelings of safety, social support, and reduced feelings of social isolation. The creation of these ties contributes to social capital—the social connections, trust, and support that are important not only for strong, healthy communities, but also for developing networks that can link people to opportunities, such as jobs”

These social bonds don’t form out of thin air. Creating welcoming, safe and positive shared spaces that cultivate community well-being takes people–people who are dedicated to making shared spaces vibrant. These people are in every community, and they are the threads that help build the social fabric of our communities.

A community’s ‘auntie’

One of these exceptional community builders is a woman everyone refers to as Auntie Amal, a term coined by community kids. The most recent recipient of Park People’s TD Park Builder’s grant, Auntie Amal and her team of dedicated volunteers have sourced donated furniture to furnish over 600 apartments; run a monthly free shopping depot in her building; placed a ‘wish box’ in her building’s lobby and set about fulfilling people’s wishes; run free Arabic classes for local children–and that’s just the beginning.

Now, through a TD Park Builders micro-grant, Auntie Amal is working with Park People to realize her vision for creating an outdoor community hub. This outdoor space will be brought to life with programs like clean ups, nature walks a native plant and community garden. It is the first grant she’s received for her newly established Auntie Amal Community Centre.

A Syrian refugee who came to Toronto via Dubai, Amal arrived in her St. Jamestown Toronto Community Housing complex in 2013 to care for her aging mother. The complex she lives in houses over 1000 low income people. Amal looked after her mother for several years, until she passed away after a prolonged illness.

Inspired by the ‘love and generosity’ of others

Amal was stunned when so many of the building’s residents supported her while she was caring for her mother–500 residents arrived at her mother’s funeral.  The love and generosity of her neighbours inspired Amal to reciprocate by playing an active role in the community. Similarly, Amal was inspired by her experience as a single mother in Syria and Dubai.

“I’m a single mother It was so difficult to raise my kids alone,” she said. “It’s hard doing everything alone and raising a family.”

Amal believes that everyone needs to play an active role in supporting families and children. “We’re all mothers,” she says. “That’s what unites us.”

Manifesting a new vision

Amal shared her vision to create a communal outdoor space to help bind the community together and provide access to the outdoors. Amal pointed to a  tenant community needs assessment  of TCHC buildings which highlighted the need for recreational spaces that support physical and mental health and build social capital among tenants. As our Sparking Change report highlights, green spaces are valuable in tower communities like the one Amal lives in. 

“At a time when increasing attention is being paid to the growing inequality of our cities and neighbourhood-based inequalities,” the report argues, “it’s critical that we examine how engaging in our parks and public spaces can create cities that are more socially connected, providing communities with the opportunity to create dynamic places that best serve them.”

Amal envisions the shared space as an outdoor classroom that provides kids, who often live within closed quarters in one bedroom apartments, with places to tap into their creativity and envision possible futures, while giving mothers some time to care for themselves. When we visited the TCHC site for an initial assessment, Amal pointed to a patch of grass where the native plant garden will go, and spoke of using tree stumps as chairs, turning a fence into a makeshift art gallery, and creating a sand pit that allows for creative play. She will host a community consultation to engage more residents and to generate input that will only help evolve and improve the idea.

It’s a vision. But every good plan starts with a vision. It’s that vision which has inspired us, and has helped her community realize new possibilities. “I love them. They love me. Giving to this community is the best investment anyone could give,” she said. We couldn’t agree more.