The latest release of Canadian census data shows that for the first time in our country’s history, one-person households have become the most common type of living situation. In fact, 28.2 per cent of all households last year were people who are living solo.

What does this mean for our parks, in particular, how can our parks better serve the people who are most likely to live alone?

More older adults face social isolation:

The data in the census points to the fact that seniors now outnumber children for the first time in the survey’s history. This fact needs to be seen in the context of Canadians living alone. As the Globe and Mail states:  “older, empty nester, single-person households.” are increasingly the new norm.

This demographic shift has very important implications for our parks.

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Photo credit: Arslan 

In a recent survey of its members, CARP (Canadian Association for Retired Persons) found that

“In statistical terms, the relationship between avoiding loneliness and living near a park was four times greater than the relationship between avoiding loneliness and having children.”

In other words, you’re better off having a park nearby than having visits from your kids. That’s pretty impressive impact.

Park People’s Sparking Change report corroborates this finding by highlighting that animated parks, with meaningful and engaging events and activities, have a hugely positive effect on reducing social isolation. This obviously holds true for seniors, who are more likely than most to feel lonely and isolated.

Often, we focus on the infrastructure elements that are important in attracting seniors to parks. Features like park benches, bathrooms, easy to use paths and walkways are, of course, important to seniors. However, what’s often overlooked is that parks need programming that is developed with older adults in mind. A UCLA report on the subject states that:

“the social aspects of open spaces and parks may be more important to some elders than physical amenities.”

How can seniors be better served by our parks? First, we need to account for seniors in our park programming choices. For example, your local park might choose Ghostbusters for a movie in the park, but in certain neighbourhoods a movie like Singing in the Rain might attract a population that could really benefit from getting out with others.  What if parks offered lower impact Tai Chi in addition to soccer? What about a book club? A walking group?

Too often, we don’t consider how the programming choices we make exclude older adults. Consider how you can make a point of including older adults in park consultations or community parks groups so they can have a meaningful influence on what happens in their park.

More young adults are living solo

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Photo Credit: Sangudo

Another important sector of the population living alone are younger adults who have the financial means to live without roomates or parents. In urban centres, like Toronto, many 20-somethings live in apartments and condominiums where space is at a premium. Erik Klinenberg, writing for the Globe and Mail found that:

For young professionals, who are delaying marriage into their late 20s or 30s and taking even longer to have children, it’s a way to achieve adulthood. They see getting a place of their own as a mark of distinction, separating them from peers who live with roommates or family.

However, he goes on to say that this change has important social implications:

Instead of trying to persuade people to live together, we’d all be better off accepting that going solo is a new norm and doing whatever we can to make it a safer, healthier and more social experience.

Think about it: youth under 20 have skate parks and rock climbing, but if you’re 25 and single, what can you do in the park that reduces isolation and builds community in tower communities?

There’s an opportunity to reduce social isolation in dense buildings by using parks as a way for people to meet one another. For example, food is a great way to bring 20-something folks together in parks. Why not hold a small farmers market in a parkette for the foodie set? Host a picnic and invite everyone from the building to eat on blankets in the outdoors. You can host a dance class or reading series in the park. In short, cafés, restaurants, and gyms aren’t the only “third-spaces” where 20-something adults can meet eachother, parks can also play this very important role, and they are far more cost effective.

Women living alone in increased numbers

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Photo credit: Andrey

It’s important to note that women are increasingly living alone. Women are increasingly economically independent, the divorce rate is higher, and women often outlive men. How could our parks better reflect this reality? The United Nations’ Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence Against Women and Girls explains,

“A ‘gendered perspective’ occurs when planners, designers, decision-makers and community actors look at problems with the needs of both women and men in mind. In the planning process, this means that all policies and design interventions should be reviewed by women and by officials in order to determine whether or not they will make women’s lives safer and more convenient.”

What would a gendered perspective on parks look like? It would mean that women of all ages and cultures were part of the planning process and their voices would be included in community park groups. Of course, issues like lighting to create a sense of safety for should be considered, but that’s just the beginning.

A  blog post from Misadventures Magazine suggests that we could take on gender discrimination in parks by naming parks after women and by creating women-only activities that give women a leg up in sports that are typically dominated by men.

In short, as more an more Canadians are living alone, our parks can play a more important role than ever in bringing people together to create happier, healthier lives. We need to be very deliberate about planning our spaces with the specific needs of park users in mind.

Cover image photo credit: Bart Souverijns

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