Lights and Curtain Up for Arts in the Parks

Toronto is home to both artists and arts lovers. In fact, 90% of Torontonians believe that the arts make Toronto a better place to live and twice as many artists live in Toronto than any other city.

Arts in the Parks was established in 2016 to address inequities around who benefits from Toronto’s robust arts scene. In a 2015 survey, it was found that higher-income households are significantly more likely to attend arts performances in the city. Among those that experience barriers to the arts, the most notable challenges are cost, time and geographical distance.


Photo credit: Hercinia Arts in Flagstaff Park, 2021


Arts in the Parks’ outdoor, family-friendly, free, live performances in parks were created to make it easier for more people to experience and benefit from Toronto’s 9-billion-dollar culture sector. Not surprisingly, the pandemic put a wrench in park performances. But now, safe events are back in a big and safe way.


Curtain time


The pandemic has resulted in 12,000 public performances being cancelled in Toronto and $58 million in lost revenue from ticket sales. It is not an overstatement to say the sector has been decimated. This doesn’t just mean our city was less vibrant. It also means that artists and arts producers lost $16 million in salaries and fees.

During this time, The Toronto Arts Foundation continued to provide grants to artists, both to provide financial stability to performers and continue to provide people with access to virtual and other artistic performances during endless lockdowns. In 2020, Arts in the Parks introduced Arts in the Parks Anyplace. Working hand-in-hand with artists, the initiative resulted in brilliant performances from top-notch artists like Parks ‘n Wreck and Clay and Paper Theatre.

“Arts in the Parks artists were so open to finding new ways to connect with audiences. They stretched their vision beyond the park, while still bringing the park to people’s homes” says Jaclyn Rodrigues, Community Engagement Manager at Toronto Arts Foundation.

Supporting the arts

During the pandemic, the City of Toronto remained committed to Toronto artists. The Toronto Arts Foundation partnered with Toronto Arts Council, with assistance from the City of Toronto, to create the TOArtist COVID-19 Response Fund with 100% of all donations going directly to artists. A simple online application coupled with no restrictions on how the funds were used and no required reporting reduced barriers for artists who received the $1000 grants. The Fund resulted in a collective contribution of $836,347 to 982 Toronto artists.


Photo credit: Together again in Little Avenue Memorial Park, 2021


“We wanted to make it as simple as possible for artists to survive the pandemic in Toronto. There was a narrative about people fleeing the city. But when artists leave, there’s a huge impact on all our lives,” says Rodrigues.

Lights Up!

With restrictions lifted August saw Arts in the Parks back in the parks. Artists, volunteers and performers have returned to 25 North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough parks delivering safe, original programming, workshops and performances in 25 parks.

With strict health and safety protocols in place, artists are bringing socially distanced dance classes, workshops, theatrical performances, movies and festivals back to communities that need them more than ever.

“I’ve been part of Arts in the Parks from the beginning. We knew that bringing the arts to communities was special. But now, seeing audiences back in the park is everything,” says Rodrigues.


Photo credit: Nagata Shachu in Beverly Glen Park, 2021


The arts make Toronto alive. With the return of Arts in the Parks that beating pulse can be felt in parks like Amos Waites, Walter Saunders and Little Avenue Memorial. Audiences are coming together (while six feet apart) to reconnect with the sounds, sights and vibes that make Toronto a leading arts city.


Thank you to Toronto Arts Foundation for the photos. Cover photo credit: Dance Together Festival in Amos Waites Park, 2021.

Reflections from the first Montreal Park Forum

The first Montreal Park Forum, a collaboration between Park People and Les amis de la montagne, brought together 150 participants – a combination of passionate residents, representatives from community organizations, municipal employees, and planning professionals.  Although virtual, this first gathering proved that Montrealers are truly passionate about their parks.

The collective passion for parks is not surprising when you consider that more than 60% of Montrealers do not have access to a backyard and that Montreal already has more than 70 park initiatives across its 19 boroughs. 


The Forum was the official launch of the new Montreal Park People Network, a partnership between 4 organizations that share a commitment to activating the power of urban parks across Montreal. We’re pleased to share key learnings from the Forum and videos from the sessions to help you dive deeper into the Montreal Park Forum experience.


Meeting Montreal’s Park Enthusiasts

This first event of the Forum, the Early Bird Breakfast, brought together park enthusiasts from across Montreal who shared the opportunities and challenges they face in their local parks. 

Based on input during this session, it’s clear that urban parks provide happiness, peace, connection with nature, and a much-needed sense of balance to Montrealers’ daily lives. These benefits were even more deeply felt during the pandemic.

The group discussions not only provided essential networking opportunities, but also helped highlight key issues that the Montreal Park People Network will need to address in its work: the importance of protecting biodiversity and natural environments, the need to balance park use with protection, the importance of parks that address community needs, the critical need to build connections between parks, and the value of underpinning park work with solid management and financing. 

The Launch of the Montreal Park People Network


The Forum’s keynote presentation marked the official launch of the Montreal Park People Network. After welcome comments from all the Network’s partners and a warm word of support from the Mayor of Montreal, Valérie Plante, Adrian Benepe, and Nathalie Boucher took participants from Montreal on a guided trip to New York, Madrid, Sydney, and Shanghai with a thought-provoking presentation on the power of urban parks.

Adrian Benepe, President, and CEO of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden provided a master class on the current “golden age” of urban parks worldwide, focusing on what’s happening in parks in the United States. Drawing on his extensive experience, including his role as the 14th NYC Parks Commissioner from 2002-2012, Benepe shared best practices in urban park management and funding, innovative solutions for growing and empowering urban parks around the world, and collaborative models from conservation organizations.


‘‘Partnerships are absolutely essential not only to create parks but also to maintain their sustainability and ensure that we don’t go into decline. There are a variety of public-private collaborative systems, and they all have their values. Partnerships can provide some resources that the city could not provide on its own. During the pandemic, when we needed the parks the most, the budgets also went down and that had a big impact.’’ – Adrian Benepe

Nathalie Boucher, Anthropologist, and Director of Respire, brought Forum participants back to Montreal and provided an Anthropologist’s lens on Montreal’s urban park culture. “Parks are wonderful windows onto culture,” she said.

Boucher broke the concept of culture down into four key dimensions – sociability, representation, appropriation and disruption. 

Based on her 20 years of Anthropological research, Boucher made a powerful plea for people to recognize and value park’s critical role in building culture.

Going to a park, she emphasized, allows us to learn to see others who may be different from ourselves, and debunk the myths and beliefs that can create polarization and “othering” in our society. 

“We need to develop parks everywhere, in all possible varieties. We need to diversify (in kind and number) the facilities, the furnishings, the access to accommodate all kinds of people and needs”. – Nathalie Boucher

Inspiring Conversations on Environmental Justice in Montreal Parks

The panel discussion on environmental justice in Montreal’s parks, moderated by Karel Mayrand, President and CEO of the Foundation of Greater Montreal and Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Société du Parc Jean-Drapeau, highlighted environmental justice work in Montreal’s parks. 


Robert Beaudry, who is responsible for real estate management and planning, housing, large parks and Parc Jean-Drapeau, highlighted the City of Montreal’s new Nature and Sports Plan, which will provide $1.8 billion in support to Montreal’s parks in the next ten years. Beaudry highlighted the importance of parks’ role in environmental and health resillience, and the importance of continuing to invest in our park systems.


“The global impacts of climate change are reflected at the local level, right down to the parks, and it will be necessary to develop the parks accordingly. “Jérôme Dupras, professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at the Université du Québec en Outaouais and Canada Research Chair in Ecological Economics


“Parks are not simply expenses that are amortized in municipal budgets. They are investments that yield many quantifiable health benefits, including physical and mental health. “Anne Pelletier, Planning and Research Programming Officer, Urban Environment and Healthy Living Department, Direction régionale de santé publique du CIUSSS du Centre Sud de Montréal 


“The design of parks should be approached as an opportunity for repair, allowing marginalized communities to regain their autonomy. “Lourdenie Jean, Founder of L’environnement, c’est intersectionnel 


“Parks are friendly and welcoming spaces that are widely used where people of all generations and backgrounds gather. They are true tools for integration.” Michel Lafleur, President of the Coalition des amis du parc Jarry

It’s Your turn to Activate the Power of Parks!

We closed out the first Montreal Park Forum with a relaxed, cocktail party atmosphere. Chantal Rouleau, the Minister responsible for Transportation and the Metropolis and the Montreal region, highlighted the $223,100 investment that allowed for the creation of the Montreal Park People Network.

 Participants joined break-out rooms with a drink in hand to discuss key issues we could implement in Montreal’s parks. Accessibility, inclusivity, park design that supports nature and neighbourhoods, and the need for education were among the important issues addressed in the breakout rooms. All of the participants believed that support for community park groups, environmental stewardship programs, and the creation of new green spaces and ecological corridors were among the priority actions identified by participants. There was also broad support for the development of a master plan for Montreal’s parks. 

Participants emphasized the importance of collaboration and putting community members at the heart of the process. 

Priority actions identified in the 3 discussion groups: 


Growing the Movement 

The Montreal Park Forum, most of all,  underscored Montrealers’ passion for their parks. We’re grateful to have heard from so many participants about the issues, needs, actions and perspectives that the Montreal Park People Network will need to address going forward.

Thank you for joining and being part of this powerful event on behalf of Park People, Les amis de la montagne and the Montreal Park People Network partners. 

The Montreal Park People Forum is an annual gathering, so we look forward to seeing you next year!



Three years of Support for Sparking Change Has Helped Transform Toronto Green Spaces and Communities

With a three-year, $457,200 Grow grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) that was awarded in 2017, Park People’s Sparking Change program has helped bring training, networks, seed funding and one-on-one coaching to community leaders to help them make their parks more vibrant and their neighbourhoods stronger.


“With this kind of long-term support, we’ve really been able to have a deep impact on communities and provide the training needed to help create a new generation of community leaders,” said Minaz Asani-Kanji, Park People’s Manager of Outreach who underscored the importance of OTF’s long term commitment to underserved communities.


Photo credit: Edith George. A planting tree activity in Rowntree Mills Park, in 2019

With support from OTF, Sparking Change supported 31 groups in 27 Neighbourhood Improvement Areas (NIA) across Toronto. Park People provided direct support to community groups to help them play a direct role in turning their parks into powerful engines of community development by building the capacity of park group leaders.


“I want to change the reputation and face of my community,” said Constance Boakye, a Sparking Change program participant from Friends of Fountainhead Park in North York. “I want people to know that it’s full of families and hard-working people. I want to show people in various social settings that the park is where people from various backgrounds, ages, et cetera, can congregate and have fun.”


Photo credit: Anne Ng, Black Creek, Toronto, 2019


“By animating our local parks, residents like Contance play an integral role in making our parks more vibrant and their neighbourhoods stronger,” said Tom Rakocevic, MPP for Humber River—Black Creek who recognized the impact that Constance, and Sparking Change, has had in his community.


The Sparking Change program has supported the creation of new community park groups that have led activities in parks and green spaces from tree planting in Toronto Community Housing properties to climate change workshops and park cleanups.


Feedback about the program underscores the value Sparking Change has brought to communities across Toronto:

Winter for the Birds: Learning to Love Birds this Winter

One of the vignettes in Alan Zweig’s beautiful documentary 15 Reasons to Live features a Toronto musician who falls madly, head over heels in love with birds. He goes from disinterested to virtually obsessed with his bird brethren. In the doc, Jack Breakfast explains his obsession with birds saying something like:

“If the birds only came once a year, on bird day everyone would stop what they’re doing and just marvel at the birds.”

It’s true. Because they’re so ubiquitous, we take the birds that surround us for granted.

Turns out, winter is the ideal time to start your love affair with birds. Here’s what Kazeem Kuteyi, lead organizer of Flock Together Toronto, an urban birding collective for people of colour, and Andrés Jiménez Urban Program Coordinator at Birds Canada advise for kicking off your winter bird adventures–no khakis required.


Don’t let ‘birding’ be intimidating


The first bit of advice Andrés is adamant about is to avoid labels. ‘Birder’ is cumbersome terminology that seems to be generally reserved for seniors in khakis with binoculars strung around their necks. And, frankly, it ups the intimidation factor and inhibits curiosity about birdlife.


Photo credit: Flock Together, Kazeem Kuteyi


Drop the moniker and instead, think of birds as curious outdoor companions you can become more familiar with overtime.

Kazeem has very similar advice based on the intimidation factor that comes with the ‘birder’ handle. Pre COVID, you’d find Kazeem DJing and promoting music events to 20-somethings who see him as an insider on Toronto’s club scene. He was the furthest thing from a birder.

When COVID hit and the clubs closed, Kazeem pursued his latent curiosity about birds and invited his community for a walk to check out the birds in Toronto’s High Park. He embraced the fact that he and his community didn’t look like typical birders:

“The idea is to take up space in a place where a lot of us have been conditioned to not feel comfortable in or feel like we belonged,” he said.

Flock Together embraced a decidedly ‘freestyle’ approach to birding. The members of the collective didn’t know a single bird name and had ten-dollar binoculars that they shared among themselves. They didn’t take any particular path to watch the birds. Rather, they meandered to their hearts’ content. Most of the 15 or so people who gathered in High Park that day just used their eyes and ears to experience the birds. Most importantly, Kazeem and his community ditched perceived notions of what a birder was to embrace their version of birding.

As Kazeem said in a recent interview: “We did talk about birds, but also about music, art, life. The same conversation that might happen in a loud club or over dinner. This way you get to be in this beautiful, peaceful setting. And it’s free.”

Andrés echoes this sentiment. He firmly believes that when you first try connecting with birds, your goal should simply be to become more attentive to your surroundings and let your curiosity guide you. You may end up photographing birds or sketching them, you may just listen to their sounds and not bother investing in binoculars until later. The point is to ditch the idea that you need to be an expert and instead just build a relationship with the birds that are around you. If that leads you to a deeper interest in birding, then so be it.


Winter Birding: A Traveling Exhibit


Andrés Jiménez, Urban Program Coordinator at Birds Canada tells me:

“We should stop calling the people who go south for the winter ‘snowbirds.’ The real snowbirds are the birds from the Arctic who usually hang out with the polar bears and come to Southern Canada once a year for warmer habitat and easier access to food.”

In other words, every winter, Canadians can get a fascinating view of birds that are just temporary visitors to Canada. Imagine, you can participate in a wondrous travelling exhibit of birds that descend from the Boreal like snow buntings, redpolls, snowy owls, and rough-legged hawks, just by stepping out your door.


Photo credit: Flock Together, Kazeem Keyeyi


Kazeem says he was looking forward to hosting Flock Together events this winter because “I honestly hate winter” and birding gave him a reason to go outside. Flock Together events were postponed due to COVID, but Kazeem’s point stands. Having a bird focus can take the dread out of winter walks.

Also, Kazeem says, winter birding is a particularly tranquil way to enjoy the quiet buffer that snow provides. It allows you to slow down and be more attuned to your surroundings on a wintery walk.

And, there’s an added benefit because the birds are more visible without all the leaves on the trees.


Building Bird Reciprocity


Andrés encourages new birders to take the opportunity to build a reciprocal relationship with birds.



Install a small bird feeder outdoors and use this as a start to a long term relationship with birds. Observing birds can be a gateway to looking out for their protection and well-being. Once you fall for birds you’re much less likely to let your cat roam free and more likely to put bird decals on your windows to prevent birds from crashing into them or turn the lights off during the night to avoid collisions. You may decide to plant native species in your backyard to provide food and habitat for winter bird-visitors that travel all the way from their arctic homes for a brief visit to your town.

Bird Canada’s Great Backyard Bird Count taking place February 12-14 and is an ideal way for you to demonstrate your reciprocal relationship with birds. All you need to do is watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days. Then, enter your data on the Additionally, you can get a bird guide tailored for your neighbourhood using Birds Canada’s ID Tool. You can use Merlin Bird App to get a field guide to the birds of the region with photos, sounds, and helpful ID text for bird species likely to land in your backyard. Then, add your bird sitings to a super-cool live map and see the little flashes of light that show the findings of other backyard bird counters. Your local citizen science adds up to more knowledge about birds, globally. How cool is that?


Build-in Bird Animation


Community park groups have created brilliant safe, socially distanced birding activities that can be replicated by your group.


Photo credit: JLS Photography, Male Redpoll


For example, this year, through a TD Park People Grant, Still Moon Arts Society invited Vancouverites to tune into nature and create a virtual symphony of bird songs.

The creative chorus was a way for Vancouverites to celebrate birds.

“Bird watching and listening are valuable on your own because you can do it anytime anyplace and it helps you connect to our other-than-human neighbours with whom we share the habitat,” says Carmen Rosen, Artistic Director of Still Moon Arts.

The creation of the community and bird collaboration began with an online talk facilitated by environmental educator Sara Ross (RedSara). Participants learned about the birds they might encounter in the early dawn and what birds are singing about as the sun starts to rise.

In Toronto, Friends of Sam Smith Park received a TD Park People Winter Grant for a Facebook-based photography contest where the winners are selected by the online community. The contest runs until the end of February.

Why We Must Make Parks Safe and Welcoming this Winter

During the first wave of COVID-19, Park People’s survey of 1600 Canadians found almost three-quarters reported that their appreciation for parks and green spaces had increased. Also, 82% of Canadians reported that parks have become more important to their mental health during COVID.

Since the start of the pandemic, city parks have played a key role in keeping Canadians safe, connected, and happy. Now, with winter nearly upon us, we must work together to identify and implement policies and programs that support Canadians’ ability to safely access the city parks that allow us to connect to nature and each other. 

Photo credit: Ksenja Hotic

In a CBC article, Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease specialist with the Sinai Health System and University Health Network in Toronto underscores that getting outdoors is not just a nice to have, it is vital to supporting Canadians’ mental and physical health. Dr. Morris says that this winter,

“We need to be changing all aspects of our life, and we need to get back to really encouraging more outdoor life and outdoor recreation.” 

It’s undeniable that Canada is a winter nation, even though we may experience different winter climates. That’s why Park People has always encouraged people to experience the full potential of our city parks during our colder months. Our resources and research highlight that there’s no shortage of creative ways to get people outside and moving around all winter long. 

This winter, Park People already has several wonderful winter programs underway that showcase creative possibilities. For example, this winter, TD Park People Winter Grants will support community park groups to safely host winter activities in parks across Canada. Also, this winter Park People’s Community Resilience Project will support local Park Animators who will help parks feel more safe and accessible for people living in Toronto’s underserved communities. 

In Canada and around the world, people are coming together to find creative, safe ways to make parks welcoming this winter. 

For example, in Toronto, a community rallied together to delay plans to renovate the ice rink at  Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park so that skating would continue for one more (very important!) skating season before renovations begin. If the equipment fails, the city is creatively prepared to step in and provide a natural ice rink, as long as weather permits. 

Park People strongly believes that cities across Canada need to do all they can to ensure parks are safe and welcoming this winter. This is especially true for people living in underserved neighbourhoods, seniors, and youth in our cities. People living in underserved neighbourhoods, which are often COVID-19 hotspots, are rightfully concerned about venturing outdoors. As a result, they are experiencing an increased risk of social isolation and related mental and physical health challenges.

Canadian cities did an outstanding job helping people get outside this summer – we need an even stronger effort this winter. The following are some priority areas Park People has identified that would make a profound impact on Canadians’ mental and physical health this winter:

Photo credit: Ksenja Hotic

Public Bathrooms: 

The Globe and Mail’s Andre Picard said: 

“In Canada, we behave as if urination, defecation and menstruation are not routine bodily functions, but are somehow optional if we are away from our homes.” Adding that: “The answer is not to refuse to build public bathrooms, it is to value and maintain them as any other public infrastructure.” 

This winter, getting people outdoors will require a comprehensive plan to help people have access to public bathrooms in parks. We encourage cities to open winterized bathrooms and provide portable toilets and handwashing stations in parks wherever possible.

Clear pathways: 

Providing access to simple exercise will be key to promoting people’s health and wellbeing this winter. Without cleared park pathways, people simply cannot safely walk outdoors. This winter, it will be critical for cities to develop snow clearing plans for all paved pedestrian and cycling pathways in city parks. Without a comprehensive plan to clear park pathways, our seniors particularly face a heightened risk of compromised mental and physical health. 

Safe Park Programming:

Finally, research has shown that each additional supervised activity in a park leads to a 48% increase in park use. As winter’s chill coaxes us to stay inside, funding safe, socially distanced, park events will help draw people outdoors where they can connect with nature and each other.

For example, through its Winter Cities program, Edmonton actively promotes and runs a variety of winter programming—from snowshoeing to winter picnicking—to invite people outdoors. A recent survey by the city found 44% of residents said they had a more positive perception of winter since the program.

Also, Charlottetown hosts WinterlovePEI every February, which is put on by a grassroots organization that promotes cold-loving events like “snoga in the park.” This kind of creativity will draw people out into parks and support people’s mental and physical health.

Be sure to review Park People’s guidelines for safe, happy and fun park programming during COVID-19 and be sure to consult the rules and guidelines provided by your local public health authority.

Park People is eager to support cities and communities to make winter warmer. We’ll continue to share ideas and best practices and learn from leading jurisdictions to make the most of winter. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on what’s happening this winter, and email us if you know of a program that is helping to create a safe, healthy and beautiful winter in Canada.

Cover image: ParcLaFontaine, Montreal. Photo credit: Arianne Bergeron

Thanks to our generous supporters

The Accessibility Arc: Arts in the Parks at Five Years

Arts in the Parks is a program with accessibility at its core. Five years ago the initiative was established by the Toronto Arts Foundation to make the arts more accessible to more people.

The organization’s 2014 and 2015 Arts Stats surveys found that while most Torontonians value the arts, higher-income households were significantly more likely to attend arts performances. Among those that experience barriers to the arts, the most notable challenges were: cost, time and geographical distance.

And so, Arts in the Parks set out to eliminate cost, scheduling and geographical barriers by bringing family-friendly free, live performances to local city parks outside the downtown core.

The program launched in 2016 and has brought some of Toronto’s best live events including dance classes, workshops, theatrical performances, movies and festivals to parks in Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York and North York.

MABELLEarts at Broadacres Park in 2016. Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

Getting Arts into Parks

I met Jaclyn Rodrigues when she first started in her role as Community Engagement Manager at the Toronto Arts Foundation. The challenge before her was a daunting one. All summer long, all across the outskirts of the city, hip hop dancers, big band performers, puppetry professionals and drummers would explore new stages and connect with new audiences. Park People became an official partner of Toronto Arts Foundation helping the artists connect with local community park groups. And, Arts in the Parks took off out of the gate.

The first wonderful and exhilarating season of Arts in the Parks was exhausting and thrilling, and it was just the beginning. As Jaclyn shared:

“As much as we thought we were by reducing barriers by taking performances to parks, we quickly recognized other barriers and others that were just behind them. We never let that be demoralizing. Instead, it became part of the creative process. What can we learn? What can we do? How can we be better?”

Jaclyn describes this process as an “accessibility arc.” In other words, the more one leans into accessibility, the more barriers are revealed. However, it’s vital to think of the arc as never-ending. Jaclyn says: “it’s a circle, there’s no end to our accessibility journey.”

Translation builds Community Connection

Although often described as a universal language, the arts can sometimes be experienced in a language that makes some feel excluded.

In the second year of Arts in the Parks, the focus turned to connecting local communities to artists and artists to communities. As Park People and Toronto Arts Foundation worked more closely with community park groups language gaps became apparent.

Shadowland Theatre in Scarborough’s Alexmuir Park in 2018. Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

For example, Jaclyn remembers working with Shadowland Theatre in Scarborough’s Alexmuir Park, home to many Asian and South Asian residents. Working directly with then Councillor Chin Lee, Shadowland was able to translate all of their promotional materials into simplified Chinese. Jaclyn explains that while Shadowland’s giant puppet, stilt walker and musical performances could be enjoyed by virtually anyone, the invitation they extended needed to be accessible and welcoming:

“If someone receives an invitation from you, and it’s not in their language, they’ll automatically say ‘it’s not for me. That’s the opposite of the message we wanted to send to communities’

Today, promotional materials are not only translated into multiple languages but signage, audience evaluations and outreach all incorporate translation. Moreover, language interpretation, including ASL, has been offered from the stage during several Arts in the Parks performances.

Ballet Creole at Scarborough’s Alexmuir Park in 2018. Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

Being a Host

Even though the art performances take place in shared, public spaces, Jaclyn, her team and many of the artists who produce events still view themselves as hosts:

“When we the artists and the local park groups invite people to the park, we are the hosts. We collectively make it our job to think about what will make the audience, our guests, be most comfortable.”

This hospitality lens helped Arts in the Parks identify transportation as a key barrier that stood in the way of people accessing the free performances. To address this hurdle, they invested in renting busses and establishing key pick up points throughout the community.

They also offered snacks to audiences because, as Jaclyn puts it:

“We’re setting the stage for an enjoyable afternoon. Part of hospitality is making sure we’re thinking about the fact that people will need something to eat. So we provided people with food.”

Quality wayfinding, temporary seating, shade structures and publicly accessible bathrooms have all been added each year of the program. The next part of the curve will involve providing rubber matting, bussing and wheelchair accessible bathrooms that make the park space accessible to those with physical disabilities.

“Making the performance more accessible for one group enhances the experience for everyone,” says Jaclyn. “Rubber matting is not only ideal for wheelchair users, but it’s helpful for moms with strollers and for seniors who may use walkers, canes or other assistive devices. It’s just good design.”

Seating available in Little Pear Garden in Beverly Glen Park, 2019, Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

Taking it Online

Due to the impacts of COVID-19, many of this years’ Arts in the Parks events happened virtually. It was not an ideal way for Arts in the Parks to celebrate five years of bringing the arts to communities. However, the virtual format had a surprising upside for artists and communities that may not have otherwise attended the performances.

When jes sachse an artist, writer and choreographer who addresses the negotiations of bodies moving in public/private space, accepted her Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award at the Mayor’s Arts Lunch she shared that there were indeed benefits that came with the virtual format. In her acceptance speech she shares:

“I feel gratitude for a world where I can be comfortable at home with ASL and closed captioning and treated with dignity at an event like this. Grateful to folks hosting this and learning how to host accessible events.”

The “accessibility arc” it turns out, is a perfect metaphor. It curves and bends, and continually offers opportunities for those eager to lean in and learn. Through their Arts in the Parks program, Toronto Arts Foundation has demonstrated that they’re eagerly leaning into each new accessibility challenge and fully embracing what it means to make the arts accessible.

Thank you to Toronto Arts Foundation for the photos. Cover photo credit: Arts Etobicoke & Delta Family Resource Centre in Wincott Park, 2020

Arts in the Parks is an initiative of the Toronto Arts Foundation, in partnership with Toronto Arts Council, the City of Toronto and Park People.


Clay and Paper goes big by going small: Arts in the Parks 2020

Clay and Paper Theatre is best known for doing things on an enormous scale; Huge papier-mâché animals, the disfigured faces of politicians on tiny human bodies and oversized, fantastical creatures from folklore have all been centre stage.  Clay and Paper Theatre has been the Resident Theatre Company (of Dufferin Grove Park) for twenty-six years and the scale of their productions really lends itself to big, wide open spaces.

This summer, Clay and Paper Theatre  was slated to perform their play Pigeon Pie in a number of parks as part of Arts in the Parks, a city-wide initiative, bringing free performances to parks across Toronto. Like so many other planned events, Arts in the Parks had to forgo in-person gatherings in parks because of COVID-19.

Of course in a year like no other, audiences would have really benefited from helping to build oversized figures that help us express collective supersized anxieties from a world in flux. No doubt, their performance of Pigeon Pie, one part dream quest, one part parable about species extinction, would’ve pushed the boundaries of theatre and consciousness.

Faced with the challenge of a big pivot, Clay and Paper Theatre decided to go small. Inspired by New York’s Great Small Works, a group of alumni from Vermont’s infamous Bread and Puppet Theatre, they adopted the Toy Theater format.  Toy Theatres were originally established in the 19th century and were tiny paper replicas of stages sold at the concession stands of popular plays. Great Small Works has hosted a Toy Theatre Festival since 1993 in which the proscenium is constructed out of cardboard and small paper figures and objects are animated by hand through slots, rods, or other simple mechanics.

Clay and Paper adopted the toy theatre format because it allowed them to retain their hands on approach to co-creating theatre experiences with their park communities. They called the series The Third Eye, both because they wanted to engage the deep wisdom of the mind’s eye and because the virtual format would need to engage the “third eye” of the computer screen.  Participants were challenged to create paper theatre storytelling on the theme of: “The View from Here.” The focus was on capturing life, from daily minutia to grand themes, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

People who registered participated in four engaging workshops, one-on-one coaching and culminating in a final online performance. The workshops were supplemented with engaging and creative resources including a zine, videos supplies lists and more.

David Anderson and Tamara Romanchuk of Clay and Paper Theatre found solace in the intimacy of the workshops:

“Not only were we honoured that people let us into their homes, but because we’ve been in our own kind of cage (when we’re usually working in the park), we didn’t want it to end.”

The intimate format also helped build bonds between families who collaborated on their paper theatre productions.

The paper theatre performances were screened live online. Like in -person live theatre, the virtual production also has an element of unpredictability. In fact, the first attempted screening of the showcase was delayed because of a blackout. But it was worth the wait.

Whereas almost everything I’ve watched online since the start of the pandemic has seemed to fall flat, the intimacy of the paper theatres was perfectly suited to the online medium. The productions were visually interesting but much more than that evoked feelings of both isolation and connection, closeness and claustrophobia, hopefulness and terror.

In My Mother is So Annoying, a teen and mom puppet act out the daily dramas that have punctuated our lives during covid. In fact, the teen’s most animated body part is their eyes, which constantly roll in response to the mom’s antics. Whether or not you’ve had the pleasure of sharing quarantine with a teen, pandemic-times interpersonal friction is all too familiar.

In another Third Eye piece, titled Reflections, the Yuseff family including Aamena, Aamir, Alifia and gives us an intimate view into their home during the pandemic where board games come and go as the light changes and days roll into one another. It’s a small window onto others’ lives. It all appears familiar, but when we see the mundane movements of our daily lives viewed in paper theatre, it helps us see our world anew.

For a break in the action, The Baby Billionaires, paper maché heads of five, famous billionaires including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and others (I won’t ruin it for you), are propped on each finger of a glove. The smallness of the figures does nothing to shrink the political commentary as one of the billionaires sings:

“I’ll invest in anything so long as it grows my portfolio. If it’d make me rich I’d give the whole world polio.”

Just to keep things from getting too serious, the baby billionaires bop together between verses singing: “beep, boop, beep, boop.”

The paper theatre performances each offer a new perspective and leave us both charmed and unsettled.

It’s not an easy undertaking, but this summer Clay and Paper went big by going small.

Watch the showcase yourself, and witness the beauty of the Third Eye. 



Leveraging Parks to Build Community Resilience During COVID-19

For seven years, Park People’s Sparking Change program has worked with community groups in Toronto’s underserved neighbourhoods to provide them with the training, networks, seed funding and one-on-one coaching to help make their parks more vibrant and their neighbourhoods stronger. 

COVID-19 restrictions very quickly brought Sparking Change training online and weekly check ins helped Park People grasp what underserved communities were facing on the ground.

As Park People’s Minaz Asani Kanji, Manager of Outreach recalls, it was immediately apparent that people living in underserved neighbourhoods, which were also COVID-19 hotspots, were fearful: they were afraid to venture outside of their apartments and their fear was increasing their social isolation and putting them at greater risk of experiencing profound physical and mental health challenges.

With support from the Balsam Foundation, Park People moved swiftly to establish the Community Resilience Project, a pilot program to help people living in underserved communities safely access the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the pilot, Park People identified five underserved communities in Toronto that were in need of support to help community members to get safely outdoors. These neighbourhoods are: Scarborough East, Agincourt, Flemingdon Park, Rexdale and Scarlett Woods. The program was led by Reiko Ema, a Program Coordinator who first supported the Sparking Change program as a cooperative student while in George Brown’s Community Worker program. 

A park animator was hired in each of the five communities. These incredible park animators had impressive track-records of working to help their communities thrive. Together, Issaq Ahmed, Hanbo Jia, .Abdul Rashid Athar, Annisha Stewart and Sharon Glaves powered the Community Resilience project with boundless energy, compassion and leadership skills.

These park animators got people walking, doing tai chi and yoga, drumming, fan dancing and snapping photos in their parks. Over the course of the six week pilot project, 680 people spent an average of 6 hours a week outdoors in their parks. This all happened in communities where between March and June,  54% of participants reported that had not ventured outdoors at all. 

The Community Resilience project has made a measurable impact in communities and on park animators.  It’s also an excellent reflection of Sparking Change principles in action.

Community Resilience Core Principles:

The Community Resilience project is rooted in strategies that have been shown to catalyze change in underserved communities. These principles, outlined in our Sparking Change Report, were put into action in the following ways;

  1. Park engagement must be community-led: Park People identified and hired community organizers who had trusted relationships and networks in their local neighbourhoods. Park People provided these park animators with the support they needed to bring their ideas to life. Each of the five initiatives was “by and for the community.”

  2. Park development is community development: Park People invested in building park animators’ capacity to be leaders in their communities. The five park animators have a track record of being very active in their communities. Park People enriched their community development experience by providing training and support to: 
    • Explore safe and engaging social distancing activities in their community parks.
    • Identify local partners and community members to help craft the program and get the word out to encourage community participation. 
    • Understand their community members’ barriers to participation and identify interventions to address those barriers.
    • Highlight opportunities to maintain momentum and engagement in the outdoors during and after the program is completed.
    • Track and evaluate program effectiveness and adapt the program as needed along the way.
  3. Leaders must be remunerated for their work and participants need meaningful incentives: As one park animator put it: “I have been working for free in my community for years…it was good to be paid for my time and hard work.” Not only did the program provide a wage to the park animators, but it recognized and addressed barriers to participation by offering honoraria to outreach partners and offering prize incentives for participation. These prizes helped people overcome barriers to participation and help them develop new habits around outdoor recreation. Honoraria also helped support local instructors and artists who taught yoga, provided drumming and more.

Results to Date:

“Thank you for making me part of this initiative. It is fun and motivating to see all the group members doing so well. It kind of pushed me out of my comfort zone and I came to know what I am capable of doing. No matter who wins, but we are all winners as we are more active, go out and explore our neighbourhood and parks and feel healthier and happier.” – Flemingdon Participant 

It’s resoundingly clear that The Community Resilience Project has made a measurable difference in helping draw people outdoors and into their parks. In fact, one of the park animators, Abdul Rashid Athar was featured in the Globe and Mail’s Stepping Up series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.  

In our national survey, almost two-thirds of Canadians reported that they had been visiting parks at least several times a week since COVID-19 began. Conversely among the people that participated in the Community Resilience project in June, the community animators reported that more than half had not been outdoors at all since March. 

“We had stayed at home for more than several months since the pandemic. Regular outdoor activities in the parks are crucial to improve our immune system and keep healthy. We enjoy it a lot!“ – Agincourt participant

People not only ventured outdoors as a result of the program, but park animators estimated that 2/3 were inspired to visit parks more than was asked of them and the same percentage of people felt more safe and comfortable being in the park than before the project.

With support from the Balsam Foundation the Community Resilience Project will continue into the fall and winter, helping people safely get outside as communities face a second COVID-19 wave, just as the colder weather makes it more challenging to get outside. This community led program will continue to bring the health and connection to communities that need it most. 




A Ravine Runs Through It: Meet Rowntree Mills Park’s own Ravine Champion

Rowntree Mills Park, one of Toronto’s largest parks, is bisected by the Humber River which flows through en route to Lake Ontario. This unique riverfront park is in Rexdale which is home to 24.4% of GTA’s immigrant population, many of whom live in one of the community’s many highrises.

Adassa is a proud member of her community who, once retired from a customer service role, embraced the opportunity to become more deeply involved in Rexdale.

Early in her retirement, Adassa signed on to become a Walk Leader with Park People’s Walk in the Park program. It was there that Adassa first discovered Rowntree Mills Park, which had been around the corner from her apartment for more than 20 years.

“In Rexdale, most of the events and activities happen indoors, at the community centres, “ Adassa explains, “and I was busy working and raising my kids, so I never really went to the park or knew about the ravine.”

Adassa is wearing the purple hat next to one of her fellow walk leader

Now, Adassa is excited to become an InTO the Ravines Community Champion, helping to spread the word about the ravines in her community so more people know about the incredible gem of a park right in their backyards.

Toronto’s Ravine Strategy, now in the implementation phase, has a focus on helping to share the nature and history of the ravines with Toronto residents:

“Toronto’s ravines provide great opportunities for people to connect with nature and the city’s rich history. We must ensure that people understand and appreciate the value of our ravine system and have physical opportunities to connect with these spaces in a safe and sustainable manner.”

Adassa’s deep connection to the ravines was inspired by Etobicoke Master Gardener Jim Graham who led her group on a series of nature walks. Jim knows the wildlife of the ravines more than anyone and he fervently believes that the ravines are home to the best quality natural spaces in the city. While he’s sometimes frustrated by what he sees as “laziness and apathy” around exploring nature, he relishes the opportunity to share his view on the ravines with anyone who is keen to learn more.

“In a way Covid has been a blessing,” he says. “People are starting to use their local parks more than ever.” Park People’s recent Parks and Covid national survey, shows that 66% of Canadians are visiting local parks more frequently since Covid.

When Jim led Adassa through the ravine, he was able to show her how invasive species are threatening the native species that struggle to grow in the ravines. He showed her native wild raspberries and blooming bloodroot plants that captivated her attention. He also highlighted the encouraging sight of American toads that are an indicator species whose presence shows that the ravines’ water quality is currently very good.

Adassa was amazed: “I love to garden. There are so many types of wildflowers and edible plants in the ravines. I was so surprised.”

While for now, in-person events and activities in the ravines will be very limited, the InTO the Ravines program and a group of 10 InTO the Ravine Community Champions like Adassa will help people feel more connected to nature, and to one another this fall.

To see all of the opportunities to learn more about and celebrate the ravines, see Park People’s ravine events listings. Be sure to check out all that’s planned for InTO The Ravines on the InTO the Ravines web page.


InTO the Ravines, a program in partnership with the City of Toronto

Park People needs your help to make parks and communities safe

For ten years, Park People has stood for the vital role parks play in fostering human connections. Today, we are asking for something that is dramatically out of step with that message but still serves our higher mission of supporting quality of life in our cities.

If we are to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities and prevent the loss of loved ones and community members, we need to ask you to ACT NOW to stop the spread of COVID-19 by:

  1. Staying home as much as possible
  2. Practicing social distancing – staying more than 2 metres apart from other people in parks and public spaces
  3. Avoiding crowded places
  4. If you have been exposed to COVID-19 or are ill, remaining isolated

As our community, we are asking for your help by strictly following these guidelines and sharing this message in your own communities. 

We want our city parks to remain open to provide respite in these difficult times, but only if they are being used responsibly. If through our behaviours, our city parks contribute to the spread of infection, we have no choice but to support them being closed to the public.

Please join Park People in sharing the country’s chief public health officer’s warnings about safe and unsafe behaviour at this critical and unprecedented time. 


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