This blog is part of a short series on our recently released Parks Platform 2018, which includes 13 ideas to improve parks across Toronto. In this second blog we focus on the important of long-term engagement and programming in parks. The first focused on the challenge of maintenance funding. Read the entire Parks Platform here.

Parks are important for our economy, health, and environment, but they can also be important sites of positive social change—both for neighbourhoods and for individuals. As we deal with rising inequality in the City of Toronto, parks can and must be part of the solution.

Research has shown—both our own and academic studies—that providing people with the tools and means to engage in their local park helps drive further civic engagement, build leadership skills, widen social support networks, encourage collaboration across difference, and even promote local economic development.

But there is a catch. It’s often not enough to simply provide a park for these benefits to come to life. It takes investment in public engagement and programming that invites people to not only come out and meet others, but stay involved and help shape the park.

We spend millions of dollars in Toronto each year on renovating existing parks and designing and building new ones. In fact, the budget was over $150 million in 2018 alone. However, we spend little to no money for engagement and programming that goes beyond hosting a public meeting or two–an important step, but one that doesn’t support longer term involvement in the park.

In our Parks Platform for Toronto’s municipal election, we are calling on candidates for city council and mayor to support investment in long-term engagement and programming.

Here’s how this impacts Toronto:

We build amenities into parks that risk being under-used because there is no programming budget for them. New parks are often built with amenities to support community gatherings and programming, like stages, bake ovens, fire pits, power hook-ups, and more. But without funding to program these spaces, they risk being left under-used. For example, a recently completed park in Queen West, Lisgar Park, was built for arts and culture programming with special infrastructure for lighting and installations in a larger plaza space, but no budget for programming. When residents complained about the park, the local councillor organized a meeting to help form a community group to take on programming the space–but they’d have to raise their own funds.

Residents must often rely on donations to pay for park programming themselves–a situation that contributes to inequities across the city. Since there is little City funding for park programming and animation, residents often raise money themselves to fund park activities like community dinners, BBQs, movie nights, and harvest festivals. For some wealthier neighbourhoods, it’s easier to raise the necessary funds to deliver this programming. Park People tries to address this through our Sparking Change program, which provides micro-grants and support to lower-income neighbourhoods to support park programming, but a more systemic solution is needed.

Park permits, while getting easier, still create a financial barrier to engaging in parks. For years, Park People has advocated for more fair park permits that reduce the financial and paperwork burden on local community groups who are putting on small-scale, free activities in their park. Residents often must apply for a Special Event Permit that can cost more than $130 and requires an 8-week lead time. We’ve seen much improvement in the last four years with the introduction of free music, movie, and arts in the park permits, but we know that more must be done.

In order to address these challenges, we recommend:

Include funding for long-term engagement and programming within the budget for park revitalizations and new parks. Providing funding for City staff to work as community animators in parks across the city, and re-deploying Recreation staff we already have to work outdoors in parks, would help address the inequities of relying on resident-led park programming and ensure that amenities, like bake ovens, are well used. We also recommend the City support resident-led programming by introducing its own micro-grant program for activities like nature walks, adopt-a-park-tree programs, and community festivals.

Create a free and easy Community Event Permit. Permits are important to help regulate over-use of parks and to help recoup the cost of hosting larger events in parks on park maintenance, but they are not working well for smaller-scale local events. Currently the smallest category for permits is one for up to 200 people–far larger than most community events. We suggest creating a new, free permit open to local community groups who are hosting events of less than 75 people in the park. This would recognize the large benefit these groups bring to their neighbourhoods by animating their park and the small impact these events have on park maintenance.

To read more from our Parks Platform, click here.

The title photo is of the lovely Sean, who works as Park People’s manager of administration and also volunteers with the Friends of Regent Park where he makes killer butter tarts in the park’s bake oven.

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