The Toronto born tradition of Pumpkin Parades have taken on a life of their own as whispers about the phenomenon have spread across the country. We spoke with Anita Grace, who brought the parades to Ottawa to get the scoop on what it’s been like bringing the Halloween after-party to her city.

 Getting started

“I wasn’t that plugged into local parks until I had kids,” Grace says. “It was because of my kids that I started hanging out in parks, getting to know families in the area and then gradually getting involved with organizing little community park events.”

When a friend shared a story about the large and successful Pumpkin Parade in Toronto’s Sorauren Park, Grace was suddenly inspired to bring the annual event to her own Ottawa park.

She held her first pumpkin parade that same year, and now, nearly five years later, the Pumpkin Parade has become a much-anticipated annual event within her neighbourhood. She has learned important lessons from year to year and put that knowledge to good use to ensure that yearly, each parade has been bigger and better than the last.

“It started out small,” Grace tells us. That first year, the parade was held at Iona Park and there were about 25 pumpkins on display.  In the parade’s second year, Grace thought she would take her chances in a busier area and moved the event to Byron Park. Byron Park is located along an old tramline that was converted into a pathway with greenspace around it. “It’s a totally accessible space with a multi-use path that a lot of people use,” Grace tells us, “hosting the parade there was really good for publicity. That second year we got close to a hundred pumpkins and people who hadn’t even heard about the event just kind of stumbled on the display as they were taking their dogs out or casually walking.”

What a pleasant surprise!

Value to the Community

 Grace says that she started running with this project more or less on her own, but that she has been overwhelmed by the positive response from the community. “I maybe have been the impetus behind these events, but the community has really taken ownership. If it was just me, there would only be my family’s four pumpkins out there, last year there were about 300,” Grace says. People show up to the parade one year and then come back the next year with more family, friends and neighbours.

The Pumpkin Parade has played an useful political role in recent years as developers have proposed projects in the area that threaten the greenspace at Byron Park. “The community has come out to be pretty vocal about wanting to hang on to this space as it is,” Grace says, “by hosting events like this at Byron Park along the pathway, we are drawing attention to this as a highly valued and utilized community space.”

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Learn as you go

 Grace admits that, early on, there were issues with the pumpkin mess that followed the parade. “There’s a hill not too far from one section of the path, kids were rolling pumpkins down the hill and smashing them,” she says. She didn’t let this get her down though. “It’s not malicious, it’s just kids having fun. Sometimes there’s just something about a pumpkin that make it irresistibly kickable,” she tells us light heartedly. To  address this issue, Grace simply reached out to the community via social media asking people who were going to be in the area to keep an eye on things. A very Jane Jacobs approach indeed.

Grace says that social media and local media have been tremendously useful tools in spreading the word and gaining support for the parade. She has made event pages on Facebook and uses Twitter to connect with local community organizations and associations who have re-tweeted her posts to spread the word. Stories have run about the Byron Park Pumpkin Parades in the local Kitchissippi times and also on CBC Radio which spread awareness of the event to new and different audiences.

She has had a lot of success in putting information up on local schools’ announcement boards and leveraging different school and parent networks.

Grace says that she got in touch with her local councilor quite early on. “Having his support has been really helpful,” she says. “I also think it’s really important to foster a good relationship with the city. They have been really great about sorting out permits and helping with the clean-up,” she says.

Volunteer support

Five years on, Grace is finally ready to recruit some volunteers. “I have approached the city councilor to see if we can write off volunteer hours for some high school students,” she says.

I was surprised to learn that until this point, she hasn’t had any designated volunteers or partnerships. “I have sort of been doing it on my own, but it has been amazing to see how many people have stepped forward to help out,” she says. Grace tells us that she has been continually surprised how many people, often whom she doesn’t even know, have seen what she’s doing in passing asked if they can help. “People have really taken ownership of this, and the fact that so many people come out and bring their pumpkins and help get them lit and then hang around and come back the next morning to help pick up all the soggy pumpkins…it’s pretty incredible. It really is a community thing.”

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