Improving parks is not always about the money

The benefits of spending time in parks are well-documented. And as anyone who has struggled for a square inch of grass to lay down their picnic blanket at Parc Lafontaine or woven between thousands of cyclists and pedestrians on the Vancouver Seawall knows, big signature parks generally have no problems attracting users.

But for the vast majority of urban-dwellers, trips to large parks are an occasional treat. It is the smaller neighbourhood parks dotted throughout our cities that are the backbone of the park system. These parks are often simply designed, with limited amenities. But since these smaller neighbourhood parks are the green spaces that are most often within walking distance of where we live, are there ways we can maximize their benefits to the community?

What the data tells us about neighbourhood parks

The researchers behind the U.S. National Study of Neighbourhood Parks were intent on finding out. They looked at how neighbourhood parks were actually being used, and by whom, in U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more. Neighbourhood parks were defined as 3- to 20-acre parks used mostly by people in the immediate vicinity and managed by city parks and recreation departments.

park map

Example of ‘park mapping’ used to manage data collection. Photo credit Deborah Cohen, RAND Corporation

Data collectors used the SOPARC methodology to observe park users in different areas. SOPARC is a direct observation tool for assessing park and recreation areas, including park users’ physical activity levels, gender, activity modes/types, and estimated age and ethnicity groupings (Active Living Research). The researchers also interviewed adult park users and surveyed city park staff about their management practices. One of their goals was to figure out what park amenities seemed to increase or decrease park usage among different groups of people.

Their compelling results can help shape how we invest in parks:

Three proven low-cost ways to increase park use:

If you work with a municipality, non-profit or community organization looking to get more people into our parks, here are three ideas for how you could use this data to make the most impact:

  1. Invest in great signage and bulletin boards: The data is clear – welcoming and informative signage is one of the most cost-effective ways to dramatically increase park usage.  Although great signage isn’t free,  it’s a lot less than a new play structure or washroom building and can make a big impact, correlating with a 62% increase in park activity according to the study.
  1. Create programming targeted to people who are not in the park: Park People recently launched a walking program aimed at newcomers, older adults and seniors in Toronto’s suburbs. One participant (full disclosure – my mother-in-law!) made immediate connections with other walkers, including a Spanish-speaking senior who was delighted to have someone to talk to in Spanish, and a woman who lived a few streets over that she had never met. The physical and emotional benefits of spending time in parks are significant, and simple programming, combined with amenities such as walking loops, can make a tremendous difference in addressing the under-use of parks among seniors, girls, and adults, as identified in the study.
  1. Bring existing programming into parks: Who says the offerings of a recreation centre or social agency have to stay within four walls? Municipal park departments and community groups can work with these organizations to bring arts, recreation and health programming into the park, attracting new users while providing the enhanced benefits of green space to existing participants.

Many cities are already taking these findings to heart by investing in new signage, targeting new populations in their programming, and bringing existing programs into the parks.

Both the City of Toronto and the City of Edmonton are making major investments in new way-finding signage, while large urban parks like Vancouver’s Hastings Park and Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Forest are developing unique visual identities that are both beautiful and useful.

photo of signs in parks

Signage in Vancouver’s Hastings Park helps visitors access its many amenities.
Photo credit: PUBLIC Design

In Richmond Hill, the Artist in Residence pilot program provided an artist with an opportunity to develop new work to animate and engage residents in six public spaces. This program echoes the successful Arts in the Parks initiative in Toronto, which Park People has helped the Toronto Arts Council bring to 35 parks over the past two years.

We are also seeing the expansion of the SOPARC methodology into Canada. The Vancouver Park Board is using it, with tweaks to suit the local context, to collect park user data as part of their VanPlay strategy, a new 25-year parks and rec master plan.

graphic showing parks per person in vancouver

Vancouver’s VanPlay strategy is tackling the future of parks and recreation in the city. Image credit: Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation

SOPARC is open and free for anyone to use – you can even find training for the data collectors on YouTube. I would love to see how people are adapting it to help them better understand usage in their own parks, and whether a simplified version could help community groups gather data about their parks and build the case for investments.

Meanwhile, Park People will continue to explore ways to make use of park data and to support community and city-led initiatives to improve our neighbourhood parks. If you know of projects happening across Canada that we can showcase and support, please let us know.

 

What goes in the park? You decide: Kitchener pilots participatory budgeting in parks

Have you ever passed by a park and thought ‘I wish there were more benches to sit on’ or ‘why doesn’t this park have more shade trees?’

You may be nodding your head right now, or even thinking of a specific park you wish could be improved. But engaging in the city budgeting processes that influence what happens in your park can be frustrating. Sometimes it can feel like your voice is not being heard when it comes to the spending decisions that shape your city.

That’s why the City of Kitchener is working with the University of Waterloo and local communities to try something different. If you live near Kitchener’s Sandhills Park or Elmsdale Park, this year you will get to help decide what goes into your park, using a process called participatory budgeting (PB).

So what is PB exactly?

“Participatory budgeting (PB) is a different way to manage public money, and to engage people in government. It is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.” – The Participatory Budgeting Project

The basic process is pretty simple – citizens brainstorm ideas, then work with City staff or other experts to turn them into project proposals. Finally, all citizens get to vote on which projects get funded. As the Participatory Budgeting Project puts it, it’s “real power over real money.”

Park People spoke recently with Ryan Hagey, Director of Financial Planning with the City of Kitchener and Sean Geobey, Director of academic programs for the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience and Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo (UW), about the pilot, what they hope to see, and what has surprised them along the way.

Where did this idea come from?

Ryan Hagey: It came from Kitchener City Council. Early in their term Council brainstormed over 100 different ideas for Kitchener and ranked them all. PB ended up being ranked 16th out of 103 priorities. So Council made it a priority for City staff. It was our job to figure out how to explore this concept.

Why did you choose parks as the focus of the pilot?

Ryan: Parks are neighbourhood assets that people care about, have a vested interest in, and that will be around for a long time. We were already planning to do a review of our parks engagement process. We have a general process that we follow for getting feedback on park developments. We get some high level ideas from people, Parks staff develop two or three conceptual designs, and then they bring them back to people for additional comments before finalizing the design. That’s been our standard process, and there have been some comments that that might not be the best process, so we thought, why don’t we try PB in this setting?

Sean: We came in fairly open as to what we would be working on. There are certainly a lot of advantages to parks – a constrained physical space with capital improvements that are tangible and easy to visualize. Even other things that seem like they might be similar, like community festivals, are more abstract because they are events or services. I think that focusing this pilot on parks will allow us to really enhance peoples’ capacity to make decisions. And then later on when the parks are in use, the results of citizen participation will be tangible, making everyone’s contributions feel more real.

What do you hope to see happen?

Ryan: We hope there is more engagement because people will have direct decision-making power, instead of the power sitting with Parks Planners. At the start we will be asking people to brainstorm what they want to see in their park, similar to what we do now. The real kicker will be later in the process when people get to vote directly for what they want in the park.

We hope to see an outcome that extends beyond the specific park project and leads to more civic engagement. UW’s research shows that PB can lead to more civic engagement generally, including more people voting in elections. Our ultimate goal is to build civic champions within neighbourhoods.

Tell us about the partnership between the University of Waterloo and the City of Kitchener for the PB pilot

Ryan: Early on, the role of the UW team was literature review and research. They looked at where PB has been used and what has been successful. They’ve found through their research that there’s not a lot of documentation about how to do PB in different areas, and in Ontario specifically.

Now they are helping to design the pilot projects at Sandhills and Elmsdale parks.  The City of Kitchener will implement the projects, while the UW team observes and documents. We are excited to see knowledge transfer happen, from the university to the City, about how to do PB.

Sean: My role is to lead the research team [at UW]. This project is really interesting for a number of reasons, one of them is that we have this very creative, engaged partnership with the City of Kitchener. They’re delivering the pilot, but we’re helping them with design and evaluation to see what works. What we’ve seen from our analysis of over 200 PB processes throughout North America is that a lot of the design has been very similar and we feel there is a much broader range of designs and processes that could be used.

What we’re doing is to help the city design two participatory budgeting processes and each of those will run in a slightly different way so we can see what works well, what doesn’t, and why. We’re hoping long-term to try more variations to really explore the process and the variety of ways it can be used.

Why is it important for academics to get directly involved in policy innovation?

Sean: There’s a lot of other ways we could have engaged in this type of experiment. We could have pulled together a few rooms full of undergrads and had them vote on pizza.

But the real constraints that face a municipal government and citizens who are engaging in the process are going to tell us so much more than we could learn in a clinical and experimental setting, both in terms of the variety of participants and what’s doable for a municipality in practice. The messiness of real life will tell us much more about how these processes work.

What’s surprised you about this project so far? 

Sean: The two things that have surprised me most are that 1) that it has captured media attention already and we haven’t even launched the process yet, and 2) how supportive and engaged the City of Kitchener has been on this. We know that not all municipalities that have tried PB have been quite as enthusiastic as the City of Kitchener has. They are a creative, engaged, open-minded partner who is a pleasure to work with.

Ryan: I was surprised to find out that it’s not much of a North American thing. It’s really prevalent in some parts of South America, but in North America, and especially in Ontario, it’s very small. I used to work in Guelph, where they do a limited version of PB in neighbourhood groups. In some ways it’s a bit of a nuisance that there’s no one model to apply, but it’s exciting because we can design it ourselves. There’s no ‘best’ practice that we have to be tied to.

What’s next?

Ryan: Over the summer we are designing the processes for the pilots. Then we’re starting engagement in the fall, and voting before the end of the year. Construction will take place in 2018.

What advice do you have for other cities and communities looking to try PB?

Ryan: We’re new to this so we’re starting small. Our advice would be to start small, stay focused, and learn what you can along the way. We’re not presuming what the outcome is going to be. We’re looking forward to applying what we learn.

We believe that with the City of Kitchener staff and the UW team together, we’ll be able to pull off something that’s good for the community, the city, and the university.

The Path Forward: What our City Parks Need Most

Picture your favourite city park.

Mine has a beautiful canopy of mature trees, a bocce court full of neighbours young and old, a community kitchen in a repurposed city building, and people draped over benches and lawns, relaxing and chatting. Yours might look more like the old-growth forest of Fredericton’s Odell Park, or the urban promenades of Calgary’s RiverWalk.

22887151572_b1bea672c1_z

Photo Credit: Chris Campbell, Odell Park Trail

Imagine all of the people it takes to make these parks great. Park staff, landscape architects, urban foresters, gardeners, community volunteers and non-profits, all playing their roles in ensuring parks thrive.

In Calgary this past March, we brought together 100 of these people at the Heart of the City conference. Hailing from 36 Canadian cities, they were a diverse group with expertise in community programming, stewardship, design, operations and park strategy. One of the main goals of the conference was to learn about the challenges they face in their work so that we can design a national network that meets their needs.

Here are a few of the key things we learned:

We are so much stronger when we work together (but it’s easier said than done!):

It takes many different people to make great parks, which means a lot of partnerships, with all of the intricacies and complications that accompany them.

Delegates told us that we need best practices for building strong park partnerships that are relevant in the Canadian context.

These practices need to consider the capacity and the contributions that community volunteers, non-profit staff, city staff and other partners can make when given the right structures and support. In considering roles and responsibilities, we should centre the needs of community volunteers, who can make enormous contributions to animating and improving city parks, but who can also be pulled in many directions, leading to personal burnout and challenges with project sustainability.

While some struggle to meet an overwhelming demand for parks, others are working hard to attract more park users:

As our cities grow, balancing the multiple uses and users of parks is becoming more challenging. Over five million people visit Montreal’s Mont-Royal every year, leading to real challenges maintaining the park’s ecosystems and balancing competing demands for park space from different users. Many urban parks in dense neighbourhoods across Canada experience conflicts over use of park space, particularly when the broader social challenge of homelessness manifests itself in parks. As Ottawa’s Dundonald Park and Edmonton’s Dawson Park show, there are solutions to be found, but we can also anticipate that as our cities continue to grow bigger and denser, challenges of conflicting uses will grow as well.

30119845930_143e3009d2_c

Photo Credit: Mount Royal, Guilhem Vellut 

These challenges are all the more reason to realize the full potential of all parks and green spaces through thoughtful design and programming, and to take opportunities to create new parks wherever we can, like the Champs des Possibles in Montreal or the Green Line in Toronto. Community volunteers who see the potential of an under-used, under-developed green space, like, the Friends of the Pipeline Trail in Hamilton, are often the force behind the creation of new parks out of under-used urban spaces. We can support them by championing their work and connecting them to each other for advice and support.

On the flip side, some delegates spoke of their challenges attracting more people to their parks, particularly in smaller towns with ample green space. This is where many people are getting creative, with diverse festivals and events designed to reach new park users. Where these efforts overlap is in the fact that they are both working to realize the potential of city parks to deliver the greatest value to our cities and neighbourhoods.

We can (and must) make a stronger case for investing in parks.

If you are reading this blog post, you probably believe that vibrant parks, designed and programmed to meet the needs of communities, are very important. But as Mayor Naheed Nenshi told the conference delegates in Calgary, many politicians view parks and green spaces as frills, setting them up for failure in the competition against other priorities for public investment.

 But as Bev Sandalack points out, positioning parks as ‘nice to haves’ is evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of their value to cities.

As one of the deepest layers of our urban infrastructure, parks make our cities more resilient to the extreme weather events resulting from climate change, while also providing myriad health and social benefits to citizens. And parks don’t just need capital investment. They also need funding for programming and maintenance, which are both essential to making our parks welcoming and attractive places for citizens to spend time.

We need to do a better job of cultivating political allies and providing them with facts and political support to champion city parks.

At the conference, we heard from citizen leaders in Halifax, Winnipeg, and Montreal who are doing this really well. In the future, we hope to gather up lessons learned from these experiences and share them with each other across the country.

Copy of NVS_0218

Canadian park people are really lucky. Our cities have beautiful parks and green spaces, and we have talented parks professionals, non-profit organizations and community volunteers dedicated to animating and improving them. One last thing we learned at the conference was that bringing them together results in unexpected connections, friendships, and partnerships.

Since the conference two months ago, delegates have been attending each other’s events and programs, partnering on grant applications, visiting each others’ cities, and collaborating on new projects. Each of these stories is wonderful to hear, because they are evidence that we are headed in the right direction. The Heart of the City conference was just the beginning of Park People’s efforts to bring Canadians together to strengthen their work in city parks.

Ottawa’s Park Summit Drives 3 Key Lessons Home

Whether you’re 5 or 55,  when you move to a new place, one of your first thoughts is about the people you’ll find: “Will I be able to make new friends? Will they get me?”

Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 9.47.53 AM

Park People’s first Park Summit in a new city happened on Earth Day with Ecology Ottawa. We knew from our experience hosting our national conference in March, that there’s something about “park people” that makes for easy connections. However, we were elated and, frankly, moved to see 125 incredible Ottawans gathered together for their first-ever Park Summit. While we’ve hosted six Toronto Park Summits in the past, this event in a new space gave us fresh perspective on what happens when you put park people in a room together. Here’s some of what we learned.

“If you build it, they will come.”

Our goals out of the gate were ambitious but achievable. Ecology Ottawa and the steering committee organizing the Summit hoped that 80 people would turn up for this inaugural Park Summit. After all, it was the first-ever city parks event in Ottawa. Also, it was being held on Earth Day, a day chock-a-block with environmental and community events. We were overwhelmed to find that 125 people showed up. This felt like a strong signal that people across Canada want to talk parks and connect around the issues connected to their public spaces.

Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 9.47.33 AM

The 125 people at the Ottawa Park Summit represented 50 different community organizations active in parks. Some groups were ‘park friends’ similar to the model in Toronto, but most were not. Ottawa has a very vibrant network of citizens’ associations, community garden groups and ‘adopt a park’ groups that were well represented at the event.  It was cool to learn about these different models and methods that Ottawans use to engage in and steward their parks and public spaces. For example, some citizens’ associations have a parks and green space chair on their board. This person is responsible for thinking about all of the parks and green space in the whole neighbourhood from a citizen perspective. They organise park adoptions, tree planting and events, as well as advocating the city and developers to protect and enhance parks and green space.

Small is beautiful

The Ottawa Park Summit was full of opportunities for interactive participation and networking, including a ‘world café’ showcasing citizen-led park projects from around Ottawa, like a community garden by and for children, a park revitalization project rooted in inclusion, and a biodome! Attendees had the chance to connect and learn in small groups, leading to meaningful connections and conversations, and they got to vote with their feet by visiting the café stations that featured topics they were most interested in. While the Toronto Park Summit brings a grassroots focus to park work in the city, the world café was more intimate and helped create new connections among attendees. This point was noted and will definitely inform our approach to future park events.

Park people need connection:

By the end of the Summit, it was clear that Ottawa’s park enthusiasts were determined to keep the conversation going. The group talked about establishing a local city parks network newsletter similar to Park People’s local newsletter, more face-to-face gatherings, online resources, a councillor relations strategy, and an awards program to recognize great work in local city parks.

The experience of launching a Park Summit in Ottawa not only reminded us that there are Park People in cities across Canada, but that there’s a collective need to recognize and strengthen the work that’s already happening in our city parks.

Read more about Park People’s Ottawa adventures:

 

5 more reasons to celebrate Ottawa’s city parks

Earlier this week I shared five reasons to celebrate Ottawa’s city parks as we look forward to Ottawa’s first Park Summit this Saturday April 22 (register for this free event here). But as I spoke with people in Ottawa, I kept finding more inspiring examples of how Ottawans are making parks their own – through stewardship, education, food and fun. Here are five more reasons to celebrate our capital’s incredible green spaces and the people who love them:

1. Winter opens up new citizen-led possibilities:

person grooming ski trail

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that winter sucks” – Groomer Dave.

The SJAM Trail is a groomed, multi-use winter trail connecting the Canadian War Museum with parklands along the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway to Westboro Beach, animating spaces that until now have been little used in the winter.

The trail exists thanks to the tireless volunteer efforts of ‘Groomer Dave’ Adams and his team. They groom the trail in a customized snowmobile to make it available for skiing, biking and walking year-round.

 

2. Camp in the city:

Although not in Ottawa proper, Gatineau Park is an enormous urban park, half the size of the City of Toronto, accessible by bus or bike from downtown.

Fall in Gatineau Park. photo credit: Xiaozhuli

Fall in Gatineau Park.           Photo credit: Xiaozhuli

The park has been home to people for more than 8,000 years, but today it is primarily a natural green space that you can enjoy for the day or stay in overnight by camping, renting a yurt or a cabin.

As Ottawa’s population increases by 50 per cent over the next few years, large green spaces like Gatineau Park will be even more critical to ensuring a livable future.

3. Learn indigenous history by taking a walk in the park:

If you are anything like me, your understanding of Ottawa’s history is pretty much ends at the edge of Parliament Hill. Jaime Koebel aims to change that, by leading walks through Major’s Hill Park, Confederation Park and Lansdowne Park that present public spaces from an indigenous perspective. Learn about Ottawa’s social, cultural and political history and present day through stories that centre the indigenous experience.

4. Keepers of the River:

The Ottawa River is a defining natural feature of the city, and it is lucky enough to be watched over by a fiercely devoted group of Ottawans. Ottawa River Keeper uses education, apps, advocacy and even a patrol boat to protect the river and its future. The organization is one of ten water keepers in Canada – non-governmental ombudsmen who serve as the full-time public advocate for a water body. Ottawans and visitors can download their swim guide app to find the best place to take a dip, or serve as a volunteer river watcher to spot issues like toxic algae blooms.

river at sunset

Ottawa River at Sunset. Photo credit: Bob Kelly.

5. From Burma to Canada:

Of the many working farms in the Greenbelt, the KLEO Karen Community Farm is probably the only place where you can find Chin Baung (roselle) and Mying Khwar (pennywort). These are key flavours in the cuisine of the Karen people, an ethnic minority from Burma who arrived in Canada after fleeing one of the longest-standing civil wars in history. With the help of KLEO, Just Food and other partners, Karen refugees turned to their traditional farming methods, combining them with Canadian agricultural practices to grow high-quality produce for local sale.

Featured image: Sorting the harvest at KLEO Karen Community Farm. photo credit: Just Food.

5 reasons to celebrate Ottawa’s city parks


On April 22, park-loving Ottawans will gather at their city’s inaugural Park Summit. The Summit, hosted by Ecology Ottawa and Park People, will celebrate and showcase the ways that Ottawans are animating and improving their parks, and provide a platform to brainstorm how to make them even better.

Before heading to Ottawa for the Summit, I wanted to dig into their parks scene and understand what makes it unique. I was blown away by what I found. Here are just a few reasons to be excited about the future of Ottawa’s city parks – more to come next week because I couldn’t fit them all in one post!

1. They are a city of community gardeners:

When Ottawa doubled its number of community gardens in five years and people still faced multi-year wait lists for plots, Jordan Bouchard knew that the city was hooked. The non-profit that Jordan works for, Just Food, helps citizens to build and maintain community gardens. When I met with Jordan and his ED Moe on a recent trip to Ottawa, they shared exciting projects that demonstrated that Ottawa is doing community gardens with distinct flare.  There’s a community-built bio-dome in Brewer Park that extends the growing season year-round,  a community bake oven built by gardeners to transform their bounty into dishes from around the world, and a community garden that delivers therapeutic and health benefits to patients, their families and staff at Children’s Hospital of East Ottawa.

 

Ottawa Children's Garden (image credit: RAIC)

Ottawa Children’s Garden (image credit: RAIC)

 

2. They use parks to celebrate forgotten histories:

Have you ever heard of Charles G.D Roberts? If you answered ‘no’ (like me), the Poet’s Pathway Committee would like you to take a walk with them. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, poets like Charles G.D. Roberts and Pauline Johnson wrote poetry with a distinctly Canadian voice. Follow 35 km of walking and biking trails that showcase their work, reading poems on volunteer-built plaques built along the way. In the future, they will add phone numbers you can call to hear the poems read aloud.

 

3. People in Ottawa really love their trees:

Imagine that 25% of the trees in your city disappeared. This is what’s happening in Ottawa as the Emerald Ash Borer takes out large swaths of the city’s urban tree canopy. This challenge has mobilized Ottawans to act to ensure the future of their urban forest. Ecology Ottawa is working with the City of Ottawa to plant a million new trees by the end of this year.

This passion is rooted in a love of urban trees that runs very deep. Tree Fest Ottawa celebrates trees and the people who love them with events and beautiful personal stories about Ottawan’s relationships with their favourite trees. If that hasn’t sated your tree needs, Dominion Arboretum offers 1,700 different species and varieties of trees to engage with.

 

4. You can meet a muskrat in the heart of the city:

The Mer Bleue Conservation Area in the Greenbelt is a northern boreal peat bog landscape that happens to lie unusually far south, right in the heart of a big city. Scientists use the bog to better understand how peat bogs stabilize the climate and citizens head to the bog to see beaver, muskrats, and painted turtles in their natural habitat. It’s one of the places that makes Ottawa’s Greenbelt such an important part of the city’s green space network.

 

31127378051_e7803d304a_z

 

5. Ottawa’s been into nature in the city since the Bangles topped the charts:  

Concerned about the loss of natural spaces in the city back in the 1980’s, the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club decided that the best way to get citizens to care would be to create a place that allows people to experience and learn about different natural habitats. The Fletcher Wildlife Garden is an outdoor environmental centre that features a mature woodlot, a ravine, an amphibian pond, and a meadow that they turned into butterfly habitat. It’s a unique labour of love that reminds us of the power of citizen-led initiatives to shape parks and public spaces.

 

Mer Bleue Conservation Area

Mer Bleue Conservation Area in Ottawa’s Greenbelt. Photo credit: Robbie’s Photo Art.

Realizing the untapped potential of Canada’s city parks

This blog has been reposted from Spacing. Spacing is a media partner of Canada’s first national conference on city parks, hosted by Park People, in 2017 in Calgary.

Parks make our cities more livable and lovable. They are a critical element of our urban infrastructure, delivering benefits that far exceed their costs, but they are also the places where more and more of us celebrate milestones big and small, and make the connections with our neighbours that help us feel rooted in our communities.

In cities across Canada, municipalities and communities are collaborating on projects that help realize the potential of city parks. Linear parks in cities including Vancouverand Calgary (and an epic cross-country trail on track for completion next year) are connecting communities and creating new routes for walkers and cyclists to enjoy nature and to commute.

Repurposed urban infrastructure, from Montreal’s laneways to St Thomas’ rail bridges and Winnipeg’s former tree nurseries, are being transformed into (sorely needed) new park space. And nearly everywhere, from Ottawa to Whitehorse, community gardeners are using park space to grow food and strengthen communities.

But in Toronto at least, our conversations about new ideas for parks are dominated by examples from the United States and Europe. Cities like New York City and Copenhagen are our models, despite the wealth of park knowledge, expertise and experience that exists in Canada.

The enthusiasm and devotion of urban Canadians to their parks is incredible, but it is not matched by a strong network of park people that extends between cities and even between neighbourhoods. Unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom, there are few opportunities for park enthusiasts to connect and learn from each other. This is particularly true when it comes to community groups, who are dedicated to making their parks better, but are often volunteer-driven and lacking the resources they need to fully realize their visions for their city parks.

That’s why Park People is launching a new national network to connect and support community groups and city park champions across Canada. We believe that park groups, city parks staff, and other city park champions could benefit from a network of peers and partners. Both online and in person, we hope that the network will create connections that help great ideas spread more quickly across the country, and provide park champions with the resources and advice they need to get their projects off the ground.

The network will be shaped by Canadians and will evolve to meet the needs of park people across the country. Ultimately, we hope that the network will help local groups build the case for community involvement and transformative investment in their parks, while also creating a strengthened, collective, national voice in support of city parks.

heartofcity-logo-rgb-1-600x268

As a first step, park people from across the country are coming together to connect and learn from each other at the first ever national conference on city parks in Calgary in March 2017. Although there are many great connections that can be made online, we have learned through our annual Toronto Park Summit that the magic of a face-to-face gathering of park enthusiasts is hard to replicate. Applications are open to all, and bursaries are available to ensure cost is not a barrier for community groups and non-profit staff.

Our city parks hold so much untapped potential to make our communities more resilient and inclusive. By creating a network that allows us to support and inspire each other, Canadians from coast to coast to coast will be able to realize that potential.

 

What’s Happening in City Parks Across Canada?

A strategy to make ravines more accessible while preserving crucial biodiversity.

A new road mural, painted by kids, to add even more vibrancy to a great neighbourhood.

A visionary new park built on top of rail infrastructure.

Exciting things are happening in Toronto. But these sentences actually describe projects in other cities across Canada. From Edmonton to Halifax to St. Thomas, people in Canadian cities are bringing their parks and public spaces to life.

And until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about it.

I was born and raised in Vancouver, but over the past eight years I have morphed into a dyed-in-the-wool Torontonian. In my career so far, I have tried to find ways to make our city better, more inclusive, and more livable in an era of fiscal restraint and sometimes-limited vision.  It’s the best job there is – I love this city and am at my happiest when I am experiencing Toronto changing and growing before my eyes.

to-skyline

Toronto is an amazing city, but we are always looking for ways to make it better. From Swedish Vision Zero-inspired plans for pedestrian safety to a street fighter’s revolution in New York City, the United States and Europe are generally our go-to places for new ideas. When I scroll through my Facebook feed, the latest post from the Young Urbanists League often sparks a deep sigh along with the question – how could we ever bring that great idea from the US/Europe/Asia to Toronto?

Those magic words

Former Vancouver Chief Planner Brent Toderian says that the seven words you should never say when you hear one of those great ideas are “that would never work in my city.”

I couldn’t agree more. We always surprise ourselves when we think big. Toronto’s system of over 1600 parks, from Guild Park to Earl Bales, is a testament to this fundamental truth.

But to flip that sentiment, I would add six words that you should always say before embarking on a new city building project – Let’s see what’s happening across Canada. 

Building a Canadian urban parks movement

outdoor stairway and funicular

The new Mechanized River Valley Access project in Edmonton, Alberta. Rendering: Dialog Design.

At Park People, we have started saying those six words about urban parks, and the results so far are pretty exciting.

Since joining Park People as National Network Manager in July, I have been talking to people working in city parks across the country, including community groups, municipal parks staff, and park advocates. I have been consistently blown away by the passion of Canadian park people and the visions they have for their local parks. I’ve also had to stop myself from jumping on a plane a few times – I really want to ride this new funicular, explore Wascana Marsh and canoe down the Shubie Canal!

 

What’s next

Even though I could happily keep exploring the Canadian city parks landscape forever, finding great projects and meeting the Canadians who are making them happen is only our first step. Park People wants to go further. We want to find ways to support those projects and groups and connect them to each other in a network of Canadian park people that spans the country.

marsh with skyline

Wascana Marsh, Regina, Saskatchewan

We’re not quite sure what this network will look like yet. We know that our main goal will continue to be supporting the people who bring their parks to life, whether they are in Toronto or Kelowna or Laval. We also know that next March, we will be bringing park people from across Canada together in Calgary to talk about the future of our urban parks and what roles we can all play in making them bigger and better.

We will be writing stories and hosting events that showcase Canadian urban park projects and people, and, because most of us don’t have the time and money to travel all over this enormous country, exploring ways for us to connect and share ideas online.

As our Founder and Executive Director Dave Harvey has said, the opportunities are limitless. We can’t do everything, so that’s why I would love to hear from you:

What are the issues you care about most when it comes to urban parks? Who should we talk to or partner with? And how can we help you get engaged in your local park? Send me an emailtweet, or reply in the comments below.

One of our friends at the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation described Park People as ‘the facilitators of a crucial Toronto conversation about city parks.’ Let’s start the Canadian conversation.

 

 

Stay in the loop about Park People opportunities, programs & events

Subscribe to our newsletter!