Rethinking what’s possible for parks: Flemingdon Community Farm and The Weston Family Parks Challenge

Five years in the making, Flemingdon Community Farm, an innovative hydro corridor and urban farming project, is helping to create new possibilities for city parks across Canada and the world.

In 2016, Flemingdon Community Farm was approved for a grant from the Weston Family Parks Challenge (WFPC). WFPC was made possible through a $5-million commitment by the Weston Family Foundation (formerly The W. Garfield Weston Foundation) to connect people to nature and inspire new ways for the community and city to creatively partner together for great parks. Building on the success of the first year, the Ontario Trillium Foundation joined WFPC in 2014 with an additional commitment of $1.125 million towards the initiative. Park People brought its city park expertise and administered the WFPC program over its three-year lifespan.

The Weston Family Parks Challenge supported 26 of Canada’s most innovative park projects including Black Creek Community Farm, Aptus Teaching Landscape, Regent Park, as well as three hydro corridor focused projects, The Meadoway in Scarborough, Flemingdon Community Farm in North York and Morningside Heights Community Farm in Scarborough.

Flemingdon Community Farm’s journey from community-led concept to its planned launch in the fall of 2021 demonstrates the enduring impacts of the Weston Family Parks Challenge on city parks across Canada.

“Flemo Farm” and WFPC Principles in Action

With support from the Weston Family Parks Challenge, the Flemingdon community has worked tirelessly to bring the urban farm, now affectionately called ‘Flemo Farm,’ to life. Once launched, the project will represent a new model of urban agriculture in a hydro corridor and transform an under-utilized green space into a public space that truly supports community needs.

 


Credit photo: Flemo Farm

WFPC’s support for Flemo Farms demonstrates the programs’ four core principles in action:

  1. Nature focus – Enhances the natural elements of green spaces.
  2. Connection to the community – Enables communities and organizations to come together to support their local park, encouraging stewardship at a personal and community level and revitalizing their relationship with nature.
  3. Sustainability – Contributes to high-quality maintenance and management of parks for the long-term through community engagement, strong partnerships, and diverse funding streams.
  4. Innovation – Generates new park solutions, designs, and partnerships that can be replicated elsewhere in Toronto and Canada.

Nature-focus:

Flemingdon Park is a diverse neighbourhood in North York largely made up of recent immigrants. Today, almost one-third of Flemingdon residents live below the poverty line and experience both food and economic insecurity.

Mussarat Ejaz, a community health worker at the Flemingdon Health Centre, told CBC News that: “There is a high incidence of diabetes, high incidence of obesity, high incidence of hypertension in the community.”

Flemo Farms is a nature-based project that addresses the community’s need to access affordable, healthy, and culturally appropriate food. The urban farm project trains ‘community farmers,’ giving them the hands-on skills they need to grow food. From understanding seeds to promoting healthy soil and operating farm equipment, the project fosters an understanding of the natural world at both a personal and community level.

Rhonda Teitel-Payne told CBC news: “We need to come up with some really concrete solutions, some tangible solutions. And gardens are one way for people to reclaim some power in their life, to take back control over a system that’s not working to their benefit.”

Innovation:

By transforming underused land within a hydro corridor, the project broadens the idea of parks beyond city-owned lands and showcases new ways to meet the city’s green space needs.

Because WFPC employed a very broad definition of parks, provincially-owned lands within hydro corridors, schoolyards, and land owned by public-housing agencies, like Toronto Community Housing were included in the Challenge.

 


Credit photo: Flemo Farm

 

Situating a half-acre urban farm on a hydro-corridor transforms kilometers of mowed hydro corridor grass into fertile, productive land. Ultimately, Flemo Farms showcases new ways for people to access land for food production.

Sustainability:

A unique collaboration between the Flemingdon Health Centre and FoodShare Toronto, the City of Toronto, and Hydro One, Flemo Farms models how to establish strong and innovative partnerships. The diversity of partners and uniqueness of the project location no doubt added layers of complexity and time to the project. However, experience indicates that this complexity is to be expected. One of the key learnings from the WFPC outlined in Park People’s Breaking New Ground report is that complex spaces and partnerships take time to come together.

The report recommends that, at the outset, partners need to “recognize and prepare for the fact that different spaces—schools, hydro corridors, parks—contain different and sometimes complex regulatory hurdles.”

It has taken five years to secure the permits, approvals, and funding necessary to access the site and launch the Flemo Farms project. But, managing through the complexity has allowed this project to pave the way for other projects in hydro corridors. 

Connection to Community:

Flemo Farms is not only creative in its use of underused space, but also in its approach to addressing multiple community needs. The urban farming project is the first hydro corridor project in which the food produced on the farm will be available for sale right in the community. In other words, Flemo Farms will not only grow food and make fresh food accessible in the Flemingdon community, but it will also support local economic development.

 

Credit photo: Flemo Farm

Flemo Farms and The Meadoway: Hydro Corridors Inspiring a new vision for Parks

 

WFPC’s long-term goal was to support projects whose success would inspire further creative approaches from city leaders, residents, the private and philanthropic sectors in Toronto and across Canada.

The two WFPC-supported hydro corridor projects, Flemo Farm and The Meadoway, have already inspired innovative new creative uses and models for parks both in Canada and around the world.

In addition, to support through the WFPC, the Weston Family Foundation announced up to an additional $25 million in funding for The Meadoway in 2018. When complete, The Meadoway will be a vibrant 16-kilometre stretch of urban greenspace and meadowlands that will become one of Canada’s largest linear urban parks.

Like Flemo Farms, The Meadoway is an innovative green space initiative with a long-term vision to transform a hydro corridor. Both projects began with the question: Why not rethink the underutilized space beneath a hydro corridor? While Flemo Farm focuses on urban agriculture, The Meadoway will become a place filled with butterflies, birds, and wildflowers – a rich meadow landscape realized on a scale never before seen in Toronto.

 

Photo credit: Flemo Farm

Both The Meadoway and Flemo Farms serve as examples of how parks can balance nature with community use. In the case of Flemo Farms, the hydro corridor supports both food security and economic development. The Meadoway is not only a rich meadow landscape, but it will also feature a 16-kilometre multi-use trail for walking, cycling, and other non-motorized uses. When it’s complete, you will be able to ride your bike from Rouge Park through The Meadoway to the Lower Don Trail and down to the central waterfront—almost entirely through off-road trails. That’s pretty astounding.

By challenging residents and communities to enhance public spaces and connect people with nature across the city, Flemo Farm, The Meadoway, and the 24 other innovative Weston Family Parks Challenge recipients ask us to rethink what’s possible for open spaces in our cities.

Flemo Farm is now accepting applications for the Community Farmer Program 2021.

 

Made possible by 

How a park group stood up to a hurricane

In September, Hurricane Dorian lashed Halifax with high winds and torrential rains. Powerful Hurricane Dorian toppled trees, blew the roofs off homes and left 400,000 Nova Scotians without power.

In the midst of the storm, a group of park volunteers made a plan to light their public bake oven and feed people in the park.

It was Allison Eddy, a volunteer with Park Avenue Community Oven (PACO), who put out the initial call. Quickly, the entire park volunteer group mobilized on Dartmouth’s Leighton Dillman Park, lit up the bake oven and started cooking up donated pizzas.

Soon, 200 community members congregated in the park to share nourishment and the warmth of community.

This is the power of parks and it’s created by ordinary people, like you. People who know that parks make their communities more connected and vibrant.

As one of the park’s volunteers said:

“The reason we exist is as a place where people in the community can come together and be together.”

This year, with the help of caring supporters like you, Park People was able to help 135,000 people across Canada enjoy park events that light up their communities.

This Giving Tuesday, will you please make a donation and help us activate the power of parks in cities across Canada?

Your gift will go directly to supporting programs that make our parks and in turn our communities and cities, better.

Please donate to Park People, and support vibrant and connected parks and communities today.

Once is the loneliest number: Why parks do what chat benches and slow checkouts cannot

Loneliness is a big issue. It’s been widely covered in the media, and lately, several novel approaches to resolving loneliness have popped into my newsfeed. If you follow this topic, there’s no doubt you’ve seen them too.

There are ‘happy to chat benches’ which encourage lonely people to talk to strangers in the UK and a “chat checkout” where the cashier line deliberately moves more slowly to encourage chats at a Dutch grocery store. Last week the National Post covered a new pill for loneliness.

Efforts to address the dire health risks associated with social isolation are all well-intended and demonstrate how helpless we feel in the face of the elusive issue. The fact is that more Canadians are living alone than ever before. At last count, 30% of Canadians of all ages report persistent social isolation and loneliness.

While headline-worthy solutions may help raise awareness of the issue, what we really need to address loneliness is what author Eric Klinenberg calls social infrastructure.

 

More than chats with strangers

 

 

In his book Palaces for the People, Klinenberg defines social infrastructure as the physical places and institutions that focus on bringing people together. They are shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centres, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks where crucial, sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. Simply put, social infrastructure is “an established physical space where people can assemble”. 

As Klinenberg points out in his book, social infrastructure can mean the difference between life and death for those who are vulnerable, as was the case in the 1995 Chicago heatwave when many isolated seniors perished behind closed doors. As Klinenberg tells us,

“It’s the poor, unemployed, displaced and migrant populations that stand to suffer most from loneliness and isolation. Their lives are unstable, and so are their relationships. When they get lonely, they are the least able to get adequate social or medical support.”

For those who are less vulnerable, social infrastructure is strongly connected to quality of life.

Consider the following:

An older person in my life has experienced a physical injury that has made him unable to participate in twice-weekly scheduled hikes with friends. Now he exercises in his building with headphones on and attends a weekly session with a physiotherapist.

He continues to be physically active but has lost the casual interactions with friends that were part of his regular routine. What’s been lost may have been limited in terms of time spent (that time has been filled with exercise and appointments), but the hole that was left behind by losing time with peers was huge and the consequences are clear to those around him.

Yes, this fellow is a person of privilege who can afford a building equipped with a gym and access to physiotherapy. But, he’s lonely and it’s taking a toll. Research shows that in the long term, loneliness will impact his health. But for now, the loneliness has diminished his happiness and quality of life.

What can be done? The answer is connected to whether and how he relates social infrastructure that surrounds him.

 

More than places

 

People need the company and support of others. It’s how we’re built. This is the vital role that libraries, community centres and parks can play. But, their very existence doesn’t resolve loneliness. As Klinenberg states when discussing libraries:

“The accessible physical space of the library is not the only factor that makes it work well as social infrastructure. The institution’s extensive programming, organized by a professional staff that upholds a principled commitment to openness and inclusivity, fosters social cohesion among clients who might otherwise keep to themselves.”

As highlighted in Park People’s Sparking Change report about maximizing the social impacts of parks, like libraries, the interactions that can happen in parks don’t happen without deliberate consideration:

“People need a reason to come to the park and stay there in order to benefit from its social environment. Park quality, amenities like playgrounds, and, critically, events and activities help create the conditions that draw people out to meet each other.”

 

More than once

 

 

It’s not enough to go to the park once, though going once is certainly a good first step. It’s about making the park a place where people will return, again and again, to form bonds with others and see it as their place where they truly belong.

Park People’s model is about creating sustained programming in parks to make them reliable hubs for social engagement in communities. How does this happen? By providing the right kind of information, inspiration and funding so communities can create community-led programming that is inclusive and engaging, but also ongoing. The park becomes a reliable place to connect with the community over and over again. It’s a place I can go to find community and belonging, which are strongly correlated with my health and quality of life.

Many parks also offer the secondary benefit of getting people into green space, which is proven to make people happier. Importantly, the benefits of green space also happen with regular and repeated exposure. In fact, 20 minutes a day is the magic amount of time it takes to reap the benefits. That may sound like a manageable amount of time, but again, getting people to enjoy the park every day is no small feat.

Making parks part of our social infrastructure requires programming that creates ‘hooks’ for communities to connect to the park based on their own interests. 

There is nothing simple about resolving loneliness. It’s friends, familiar faces in the community and trusted neighbours that create a sense of belonging and purpose for our lives, and these bonds don’t form out of thin air.

It takes thoughtful investment and sustained effort and investment in social infrastructure, including parks, to give people what they need to stay healthy, happy, and thriving in their communities and in our cities.

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