The power of parks is created by park people, like you, who are committed to making a real, lasting difference in their community and city. Park Groups create vibrant parks that create an energy you can feel.
As we get closer to the end of the year, our Park People team wanted to say a big THANK YOU to all the individuals and groups that make awesome things happen in our parks.
We put our creativity to work by playing with plasticine and created two versions of a park–one that has dedicated people activating the park and one that doesn’t.
Scroll through to read why we are so thankful for park groups, like yours!
“I am thankful for people who don’t sit back and complain about their park, instead they step up and make a positive difference in their community”
“I’m grateful for the park groups that try new things they have never done before in parks: nature walks, native plant gardens, pumpkin parades, Arts in the Parks, movie night etc. etc”
“I am grateful to all the park groups that hosted Pumpkin Parades this Halloween (47 in all!!)”
“I am thankful to park groups for planting native plants, removing invasive species & improving the biodiversity of our cities”
“I am thankful for all the people who water the newly planted trees to make sure our trees grow big and strong in our parks”
“I am grateful for all those Friends who take the time and make the effort to grow food in their parks. Urban agriculture does so much for the community: it’s social, it’s environmental; it’s delicious!”
“I am thankful to all the park groups that put on delicious food events in parks (because I love to eat)”
“I am thankful to park group that hold movies in parks”
“I am thankful for the arts events in parks”
“I am grateful for Park Friends Groups that take the time to host events in their park to help bring community together”
Whatever your role, if you contribute to making your park awesome, we thank you for all your work, big or small. It adds up to great parks and quality of life in our communities and cities.
Indigenous History of Toronto Parks
Recently, Park People staff and many community park groups embarked on an Indigenous tour of Toronto’s eastern neighbourhoods. For many of us, it was the first time we came to understand how Indigenous people fit into the narrative of the land that the city of Toronto now occupies.
First Story Toronto, the organization that led the bus tour, has been researching and preserving the Indigenous history of Toronto to bring awareness to Indigenous contributions to the city since 1995. We started out by learning the names of the many Indigenous nations: the Wendat, Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Six Nations), and Mississaugas of New Credit First nation, that lived on this territory in succession long before the arrival of Europeans.
We learned much more on the Indigenous tour which is highlighted here:
Many sites on the Don
Photo Credit: Viv Lynch
Torontonians today are not the first to appreciate the incredible vistas overlooking the Don Valley. Some village sites along the Don River have been occupied for the last 4000 years. These villages and camps offered an excellent vantage point to see the comings and goings of animals and people along the trail that once extended all the way to Lake Simcoe along the bank of the Don River.
Photo Credit: Jon Hayes
Indigenous landscapes still punctuate Toronto’s ecosystems. The oak savannahs of High Park, the Beaches and Rosedale were managed continuously for thousands of years by the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Wendat peoples and their ancestors. Oak savannahs were created and managed using fire to prevent new understory plants from establishing, leaving an open landscape punctuated with large oak or beech trees. This made it easier to hunt and grow different plant species. The first peoples in the region called the now Don River by the name of Wonscotonach (one of the names of the Don River), which means “bright burning area,” referring to the management technique practiced there.
Before the cement paths were laid and before the European newcomers stepped foot on what is now called Toronto, Indigenous peoples walked these lands and created multiple trails around the Toronto area. One example is Davenport road which follows the base of the bluffs where the former shoreline of Lake Ontario was situated 13,000 years ago. This trail connected all the way to Hamilton on the west side and to Kingston, Ontario on the east. Next time you’re walking on an old winding road in Toronto, ask yourself if this could have been a First Nations trail.
Plan of Dundas Street, created in 1795 by Surveyor General D.W. Smith, (Ontario Archives)
The Indigenous word Gete-Onigaming, which means old portage trail, is included in the Davenport Road street sign at Spadina Road. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)
Tabor Hill Park holds a sacred and ancient history. In 1950’s when Scarborough was being developed, a Wendat burial site was uncovered. When moving their villages, the Wendat peoples (who the Europeans called the Huron) practiced a special burial ceremony. They dug out individual graves, cleaned each of the bones thoroughly, had a celebration where they dug and filled a trench with the mixed bones. The mound was created when earth was laid on top to cover the bones. These mounds can be found in different areas across Toronto, when you encounter one it is important to remember you are in the presence of a sacred space.
John Johnson from First Story shared one interpretation of the mound: where the mound represents Mother Earth’s womb where death can become re-birth in the cycle of life.
During our stop at Guild Park in Scarborough, we encountered a piece of the Temple Building from the independent order of foresters, once located in downtown Toronto. Here began the story of Dr. Oronhytekha. Dr. Oronhytekha was a Mohawk who attended a residential school. He started his university education at England’s Oxford University but was unable to finish because he had not received permission from the Church of England’s agent to leave his reserve. He persevered with his medical studies and became Canada’s second Indigenous doctor and the first non-white member and a Supreme Chief Ranger of the Independent Order of Foresters.
While he had spent much time in a Victorian society, Dr. Oronhytekha maintained a strong connection to his Indigenous roots and advocated for Indigenous peoples’ right to vote and for women to be treated more fairly. When he passed away in 1907 his body laid in state for 3-4 days and over 10,000 people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people paid their respects. To learn more about his story, check First Story’s blog.
We want to thank First Story, a program at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto devoted to researching and sharing Toronto’s Indigenous heritage through a variety of popular educational initiatives and our guides Jon Johnson and Amber Sandy for sharing such important histories of the past and present indigenous history in Toronto.
For more information visit First Story’s website for information on free tours, download their app, or have them lead a tour for your organization!
Plant an urban fruit orchard, grow a vibrant city
As we’ve talked about before, the positive impact of people sharing food in public space simply can’t be overstated. Many park people across Canada have introduced fruit orchards into public spaces to improve food security, promote food literacy, reach environmental goals and increase community cohesion. This summer I spoke with Anita Georgy, Executive Director of Richmond Food Security Society, and Catherine Falk, Community Greening Coordinator at the City of Edmonton, about their on-the-ground experiences running programs that utilize urban fruit trees for public benefit.
Community food growing contributes to food security and food literacy
Food grown on public lands can play a huge role in building the ‘food security continuum,’ a term Anita uses. The term describes a range of positivie food-related interventions from giving food to people to food system re-design and systems change. Community food growing like fruit orchards can provide numerous roles along the specrtum: from providing food to neighbours in need to greatly advancing food literacy for a whole neighbourhood.
Anita has an eye-opening way of explaining the different impacts vegetables and perennial fruit crops can have in public space.
“You can think of your vegetables (tomatoes, cucumber, kale) as a cash bank account you can withdraw from regularly. A food forest produces more and more food over time. You can think of it as an RRSP. Planting perennial vines and fruit is a solid long term investment in food security.”
Fruit tree recovery responds to food waste and addresses food security
Planting fruit-bearing perennials in parks can help municipalities reach canopy goals
In 2013, the City of Edmonton launched the Root for Trees campaign to establish a 20% canopy cover over 10 years while engaging and educating the community. The program is focused on increasing the canopy with native species only. Fruit-bearing plants like cranberry and serviceberry are regularly planted as part of the program.
Catherine, who coordinates the Root for Trees program explains, planting a food forest helps the city satisfy habitat planting goals while contributing to food security. The Food Forest is located along a busy river valley trail system and because of that, it is available for anyone to utilize the growing bounty of fresh berries. Because the fruit-bearing perennials they plant are native to the region, the project worked as a restoration project and provide food to passersby.
When there’s food involved, community members want to be a part of it
The initial idea for the Edmonton Food Forest planting came when a local school teacher with a strong interest in urban agriculture approached the city with an idea to include only food-bearing native plants in the river valley. Since the initial food forest planting in 2014, over 4,000 fruit-producing shrubs have been planted and the city has expanded the food forest to 1/4 hectare. The Forest brings people to the space and fosters awareness of watersheds and environmental stewardship while improving food security.
There is a large community interest in the Food Forest planting that has attracted volunteer planters from as far away as Calgary to join in on the project. Neighbourhoods across Edmonton are now requesting their own food forests. If you are interested in volunteering with Root for Trees to plant at the Food Forest or another event, you can register on our webpage, www.rootfortrees.ca.
When asked about fruit trees many urbanites will list problems with messy fruit, wasp allergies, and wildlife bandits. In spite of this, edible parks and public food forests have been popping up in urban centers and small cities alike. This new perennial community gardening trend has taken off across the world from the Canada, to the US to New Zealand.
What makes edible forests, and edible hedges, so attractive to these groups? I spoke with Nicola Thomas who, inspired by her experience growing up in England where berries were readily available to pick and eat while walking through the neighborhood, founded a community organization called Grand River Food Forestry. Nicola has spent the last 3 years planting six community food hedges throughout the Waterloo region, with eight more to be installed this year.
Nicola told me about her experiences in helping communities to build food hedges (coined “fedges”) and here is what I learned:
Identifying a community champion is critical
Nicola believes that if you don’t see the neighbors come out to help install a project, you’ve failed. You need to get the community out to the planting day and make sure that the involved group reflects your community’s diversity. In her experience, unless people are involved right from the project installation, it’s difficult to recruit volunteers later.
When someone asks the question: What if people come and pick all the fruit? Nicola replies “Then there’s obviously a need, and we need to plant more!”
Patience, patience, and then more patience
When working with municipalities and granting organizations, expect long timelines. The buzz around local food projects has created congestion in the bureaucracy, which Nicola says is her greatest barrier:
“Volume! It’s tough for the city to keep up with the volume of requests for a new trend like community food hedges. Working together with (the city) is important. If it is particularly frustrating, know that you are blazing a trail for the next person who requests a similar project. The reason that they are taking so long is because they’ve never seen a request like this before, or so many requests at one time, they don’t have the processes in place to accommodate.”
Keep it low maintenance
Nicola advocates for permaculture because it is pretty much self-sufficient. She describes it as working on a model of biomimicry: “A permaculture hedge or forest is planned to mimic a mature forest. Once you plant a permaculture food hedge you can count on it to still be there in 7 generations with little to no maintenance if the plants are selected appropriately.” Nicola makes the distinction that permaculture is not a “sustainable system, sustainable systems can still be bad systems, it’s a restorative and regenerative practice. Restorative to the soil and ecosystem.”
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” – Bill Mollison
Don’t get discouraged
Nicola describes a time when a community wasn’t able to install a food hedge because of contamination at a site. In lieu of a food hedge, they chose to plant a pollinator hedge. Instead of accepting the defeat, Nicola sees the bigger picture and explains, “A pollinator hedge can provide food and habitat for pollinators and wildlife that will ultimately benefit the food gardens that may exist in the neighbourhoods nearby.”
How to Organize a Shoreline Cleanup: A Quick Start Guide for Your Park
Since 1994, there have been 19,400 cleanups that have collected more than 1.2 million kg of trash across Canada’s shorelines.
Organizing a shoreline cleanup is an easy first event for a park group, and many long-term groups do cleanups every year. Your shoreline cleanup won’t just reduce pollution that reaches our lakes and oceans – it will also help you build relationships and foster community pride. Also, you’ll help raise awareness of the major sources of litter in your community by keeping a record of what you collect. By leading cleanups, you can be part of the solution.
Read the Last Chapter First: 3 Ways to Build Succession Planning into your Park Group
I need to break some news to you: It’s pretty much inevitable that core members of your park group will eventually move on. You already knew this, right? So why are we all so determined to avoid thinking and planning for the end of a volunteer’s engagement, right from day one?
Diane Dalkin, President of Calgary’sFriends of Reader Rock Garden Society (FoRRGS) has made a point of planning for the next volunteer board President, long before she’s ready to step away from her role with the non-profit volunteer advisory group.
Diane shared her candid advice on succession planning.
Keep the end top of mind:
From day one, Diane operated under the principle that her time at FoRRGS is finite. She openly discussed this with the Board of Directors and has used it as a guiding principle in her role.
Diane admits that this approach fundamentally changed how her group operates. Built-in succession planning pushed her team to be deliberate about codifying practices and documenting historical information. For example, FoRRGS had a long-standing verbal agreement with the City of Calgary whereby the City provides the group with free access to space and marketing materials and in return, FoRRGS leads educational programs on the site and helps raise funds for the park.
Soon after starting, Diane requested that this verbal agreement be formalized with the City and suggested an annual Letter of Understanding with the City, to ensure that future members of the group and City staff could understand and benefit from the mutual agreement, regardless of staffing changes.
Diane believes that leadership potential can come from anywhere in the organization and that welcoming new people is key to succession planning. That’s why she implemented strategies that made it easier for people to join Friends of Reader Rock Garden Society. Here’s her advice:
Reduce barriers: Diane and her group changed the member structure to allow people to join the Friends of Reader Rock Garden Society without joining the board. This way, new members can ease into the organization, contributing time and talent in small, convenient increments and learn the ropes. This also helped new members fall in love with the purpose of the group, before making the time commitment required of board members. Diane says this strategy has helped attract several new people to the group and has become a gateway to deeper engagement.
Build the brand: FoRRGS has a great story to share about this historical garden park – Diane realized this early on and helped get that story into important marketing platforms like theirwebsite. Recognizing that technology is such an important vehicle for today’s communication strategy (i.e. social media), Diane made it a priority to find tech-savvy members to create their website and social media content. Diane believes that the group’s strong online presence featuring the park’s legacy,history,plant life,news andevents is essential to attracting a broad range of new audiences.
Go beyond the usual suspects: In the past, the group was predominantly made up of history buffs. Diane and the FORRGS team recognized that there was an opportunity to attract different park users to the group. Diane and her team enlisted plant enthusiasts, educators, photographers, bird-watchers and people who just had a love of the park to become more engaged. Today, the team is comprised of Master Gardeners, retired teachers, engineers, geologists, yoga instructors, artists, communication professionals, financial advisors, and students, to mention but a few. The diversity of the group keeps ideas interesting and helps generate programs that appeal to a wide range of park users.
Build institutional knowledge:
Diane has put practices in place to ensure that important information exists in more than one person’s institutional memory. For example, team members are encouraged to work in pairs, with a focus on information sharing. This way one member mentors the other in a particular skill. And, if one person can no longer commit to the volunteer group, someone else is prepared to step in and keep projects moving forward.
“It is always important to periodically review, reaffirm and revise strategies for plans to work – adaptability is key”, she says.
Of course, no one likes to think of endings. But, by building the end into the beginning of your volunteer role, you can make sure that the final chapter is a happy, successful one, for everyone.
Volunteerism: strengthening the backbone of your park group
Community Park Groups need a strong, core group of volunteers. The challenge is that attracting and retaining volunteers can feel like an endless and arduous task.
I interviewed Doug Bennet from The Friends of Sorauren Park to find out how his park group has been so successful at finding and keeping volunteers. Doug has been part of Friends of Sorauren Park from the beginning. The well-established group hosts a variety events such as gardening, movie nights, the adopt-a-park-tree program, and much more.
Here are some of Doug’s tips for groups who are looking to attract and keep volunteers engaged in community park groups regardless of your size or capacity.
Make time to focus on volunteer recruitment
Finding volunteers takes time and intentionality. Doug believes that the key to his group’s continued success is having a strong and diverse core of active volunteers. With 11 core volunteers, they have enough human power to host a variety of events and activities, which in turn, attracts new volunteers and diverse park users.
However, early on, Doug and Friends of Sorauren Park realized that volunteer recruitment was continually landing at the bottom of their agenda, making it easy to ignore They altered their approach to volunteer recruitment by dedicating entire meetings to the topic and deciding the key steps they would take to engage more volunteers. The strategy helped get volunteerism on their radar and keep it there.
Focus on a few events that attract many
If your group does not have the capacity and human power to host several events, Doug suggests focusing your efforts on a couple of key, popular events. If your event is well marketed and executed, it will attract a lot of people. This way you can use events to attract people interested in joining your team.
When you host events, be sure to collect e-mail address via a sign-up sheet so you can keep community members up to date on your activities. Finding new team members does not happen overnight, but the more people that know about your group and stay in the loop, your projects, and your needs, the more likely it is that they will eventually want to join the team.
Ensure volunteer roles offer varying time commitments
At the beginning, it can seem overwhelming for a new volunteer to join a committee that meets regularly. Early on, people are often more willing to take on a very specific volunteer task like maintaining a social media account or planning a cleanup event.
For example, when Doug Bennet stepped down from the Chair position at Friends of Sorauren Park, he was followed by Joël Campbell. It’s worth noting that Joël had run the group’s adopt-a-park-tree program for several years before taking on the Chair role. Joël had already built a relationship with Friends of Sorauren Park, which made it easier for him to take on a leadership role.
Make it easy for people to join your team
Picture this, someone just attended your Clean up event and loved it. They know about your group but don’t really know how to volunteer with you. How could your group leverage this momentum and make it easy for people to connect with you? Here are some options Doug shared that have helped his group keep communication lines open.
Make your group meetings accessible to community members. Choosing a recurring and regular time and hosting the meeting in a community space, makes it easier for people to join.
Make it easy for people to learn about or join your group via your website, e-mail list, or social media. For example, you might dedicate a section of your website to express that you welcome volunteers and new ideas. Test a couple of approaches depending on your community, your capacity, and the technology you have available. For example, Friends of Sorauren Park invites community members to join their regular meetings or contact them online. Previously, they had a message board for people to email with their general interest, but they weren’t getting much traction. Now they have a simple form and have noticed an increase in volunteer interest.
A genuine thank you goes a long way
Once you have your team of volunteers, don’t forget to acknowledge and thank everyone for their efforts. Volunteers care about the positive impact they are having in their community, so make sure you thank them and show them how their efforts are contributing to the bigger picture.
Friends of Sorauren Park acknowledges volunteers in big and small ways. On the large-scale side, they had a sign posted in the park thanking volunteers. They’ve also partnered with a sponsor to host an appreciation event that brought volunteers and supporters together.
Depending on the size of your group recognition might look different. However, the key is to be genuine, focus on the impact, and have some fun.
Thanks to Doug at Friends of Sorauren Park for great insights that come from years successful work with volunteers.
Remember, once you have people interested in volunteering, make sure you have a way to welcome them into the team, assess their skills and interests, and decide how you can work together. Don’t feel like you have to do everything at once. Take some time to see how these tips apply to your community park group and choose one or two next steps you can take to have more people join your team.
For more resources on volunteer engagement visit Volunteer Toronto, Grassroots Growth. If you have specific questions about challenges, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and 416-583-5776.
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