Guest post written by Jacqueline L. Scott. Jacqueline is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, OISE, in the department of Social Justice Education.She is a hike leader with two outdoors clubs. Jacqueline leads Black History Walks in Toronto. She is the author of travel and adventure books, from a Black perspective.
With the arrival of fresh snow, I find myself heading into nature. Today’s walk was along Toronto’s Humber River, through the ravine, and down to Jean Augustine Park – this route combines my love of outdoor adventure with my search for Black history in natural spaces.
Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected to the Parliament of Canada, in 1993, in the park named after her.
Leaving Old Mill subway station, I turned left, down the hill, crossed the bridge, and in about three minutes I was in the river valley. I paused under the bridge and checked if any salmon were in the river, swimming upstream to spawn. It was not the mating season, but still, I looked just in case there were any stragglers. They might have got confused by the unpredictable weather caused by the climate crises.
With the sun kissing my lips, I headed south in the valley and followed the river. A few cyclists were in the ravine, sharing the paved path with walkers, runners and strollers. Everyone kept their social distance.
The timeless and endless flow of the river allows the mind to wander and imagine this same place at other times – I can almost see Daddy John Hall canoeing that river in the early 1800s. In the winters he would have snowshoed in the ravine. Hall was Black-Indigenous and lived in the Humber Valley, fishing, hunting and trading with Indigenous people. When the USA invaded Canada in the War of 1812, Hall became a scout in the Canadian militia. He was just one among the many Black Canadians who fought in the war. They enlisted because they wanted to remain free. Hall was captured, and instead of being treated as a prisoner of war, he was taken and enslaved in the USA, in Virginia and Kentucky. He escaped after about 12 years and made the long trek home. Nothing was going to keep this man down! Hall later moved to Owen Sound where he is still a local legend due to his exceptionally long and storied life.
The life of John ‘Daddy’ Hall, a man of Mohawk and African-American descent who survived war, capture and slavery to become a pillar of the community in nineteenth-century Owen Sound, Ontario.
I wandered slowly, with no need to go fast on this sunny winter afternoon. A family played football over on the right. Dogs and their owners meandered along other trails in the park. Snow makes the ravine pretty. Yes, it was cold, but dressed in layers of clothes I was cozy. My hat was big enough to cover my dreadlocks and keep my head warm. Two layers of socks and boots with grips kept my feet toasty. And I had a flask of hot spice tea to sip.
There need to be more stories about Black people in nature. We have always been there, but so often our stories and our histories are erased. Knowing our nature stories, and walking with a friend, can make us feel safe when exploring the ravines. Being in nature is calming, it revives the body and the spirit. A walk in nature is one of the best ways of beating the winter blues and reducing the Covid-19 stress. Of course, we have to do so while following the lockdown guidelines. There are lots of stories about the white stuff and the Great Outdoors in Canada, it’s time to add stories about the black stuff too.
Wandering south, to the mouth of the river I’m awed by the expanse of Lake Ontario as I drift over to Jean Augustine Park. In 1993 Jean Augustine became the first Black woman elected to the Parliament of Canada. It is thanks to her efforts that February is now officially recognized as Black History Month in Canada. You can Listen to Sheldon Pitt, AKA Solitair Jean Augestine’s nephew on Metro Morning talking about how his aunt Jean Augustine inspires him. Every year we find more stories about our 400 years of history in this enchanting land of summer heat, and winter ice and snow.
I found a sunny bench overlooking the lake – I was physically tired, but mentally revived. I drained the last of the still-hot sweet spiced tea, with ginger and cinnamon. It hit the right spot. Mallards, swans and Canada geese bobbled in the water; ring-bill gulls circled overhead. Birdwatching and daydreaming, the minutes and the coronavirus stress floated away on the waves.
Six Things We Need More of in Canadian City Parks in 2021
Last year was tough. But it was also illuminating.
We learned how resilient our communities can be and how parks are a big part of that by providing a place for people to stay active, de-stress, and connect with others (safely).
But we also learned we have work to do to ensure equitable access to parks and inclusive policies and programming that help everyone feel welcome and safe.
We’ve assembled this list from research we’ve done through our Canadian City Parks Report and COVID-19 surveys, our COVID-19 webinar series, our 2020 program learnings, and the resources and writings of others.
With that, here are six things we want to see more of in Canadian city parks in 2021.
Leading with equity
Photo credit: Aboriginal Fridays at Cabot Square Montreal by Lori Calman
If 2020 was anything, it was a bright hot light exposing the already present inequities in our cities. We often speak about parks as “for everyone,” but this obscures the racism, inequitable enforcement, historic underinvestment, unequal access to amenities, and social judgement that excludes many in our cities from enjoying, benefiting from and accessing these spaces.
As experts noted in our webinar on Urbanism’s Next Chapter, in 2021 we need less talk about “returning to normal” and more conversations leading to actions that address systemic discrimination, the displacement of people experiencing homelessness, and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in our park systems, policies, and organizations. Let’s take a look at who is at and who is not in decision-making circles, and make sure that community engagement and consultation exercises are additive, not extractive, by working with communities to address core needs.
Last year we were told to stay home to stay safe from COVID-19 and that message continues into 2021 in many communities. This heightens the importance of our local neighbourhood parks as places of respite. But we know these parks are not distributed equally–and this has real impacts on people’s mental and physical health. Our own research also shows that Canadians who said they didn’t have a park within a five-minute walk were 5x more likely to not have visited a park at all between March and June 2020. In order to derive benefit from parks, you first have to have one nearby.
In 2021, we foresee a renewed focus on the local park. Access to quality, nearby green spaces will be on the agenda and we hope to see more emphasis on basic amenities like washrooms, drinking fountains, shade structures, and plentiful seating. Many parks have seen heavy use during the pandemic, so an increase in maintenance will be key. But we can go further. Integrating urban agriculture and even local economic development opportunities like markets for locally produced goods and food will help these parks become resilient hubs. Planning our neighbourhood parks in these ways ensures they will be solid ground during times of crisis, providing accessible space and services.
Photo credit: Hives for Humanity in Vancouver, photo by Park People
As our stress levels rocketed in 2020 and Canadians’ mental health declined, many turned to spending more time outdoors as a way to re-centre themselves–often taking solace in nature. Our own survey in June 2020 found that 80% of Canadians said parks had become more important to their mental health during the pandemic. The connection between human wellbeing and spending time in nature has long been established in science. But access to nature is not an experience everyone enjoys. Racist acts and exclusionary programs and policies can keep people feeling unsafe and unwelcome in natural spaces.
In 2021, we hope to see more focus on neighbourhood greening projects that insert naturalized gardens into the places where we live our everyday lives: our streets, yards, parks, laneways, and schools. Let’s build on the heightened awareness of the connection between mental health and nature through new programs and stewardship opportunities, providing funding specifically to Indigenous land stewardship practices and community-led projects in underserved neighbourhoods. Local greening projects are also key in increasing the climate resiliency of our communities, mitigating climate change impacts by reducing flooding and cooling the air.
Responding to the need for more space for physical distancing, many cities quickly “found” acres of new open spaces in 2020 in roadways and other public spaces to open up to people. This created more space for cycling, running, rolling, and walking. Our research found that people wanted more of this type of intervention. However, many of these interventions were focused more on downtown neighbourhoods.
In 2021, let’s continue creative rethinking about the space in our cities to be more people-friendly, but expand it so more neighbourhoods can benefit from slower streets, expanded public spaces, and safer walking and cycling connections. We can learn a lot from projects like plazaPOPS, which provided community green space in a suburban strip-mall parking lot, and projects that animate the green spaces around the base of high-rise tower communities. Let’s also look for ways to continue these spaces in a modified format in the winter to encourage people to get outside.
Photo credit: Women from the Jamestown community plant native flowers in outdoor children learning centre in Toronto
Community park groups have always been the backbone of Park People’s work. Many grassroots park groups struggled in 2020 with the impacts of COVID-19 restricting access to park amenities and the need to keep track of fluctuating public health guidelines on safe gatherings. Despite these hurdles, over 40% of park groups we surveyed in June 2020 said they had provided support to those in need in their communities during the pandemic. Some even pivoted to activities like sewing masks to distribute.
As we start the process of recovery from COVID-19 in 2021, we hope to see greater support for the value park programming provides to communities. We heard that the top two areas park groups will need help with are funding and re-engaging community members in participating in park gatherings. City staff can work with communities and partner organizations to provide funding and institute policies like simplified permits that allow park groups to do more with less paperwork and fees. Working with local leaders and community organizations can help spread information about safe gathering practices and collaborate on programming that gets people back enjoying the park together.
Photo credit: A Montreal park in winter by Park People
It’s often said that Canada is a winter nation–and it’s true: for many months of the year, our weather is wet and cold. But people are continuing to turn to parks and trails this winter to get outside, keep active, and lessen the winter blues. Some Canadian cities certainly do winter in parks better than others (we’re looking at you Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal), but in many, park infrastructure and maintenance practices don’t reflect the winter reality, including non-winterized washrooms and trails that aren’t plowed regularly.
Let’s jump into winter in 2021 by making parks and trails accessible to more people by keeping washroom access open and clearing snow and ice for safe use. And to keep people connected and active, we want to see more support for local communities to provide safe and engaging winter programming. It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated–it could be as simple as bringing your Christmas tree to the park for others to enjoy.
What are some of the things you’re hoping to see more of in parks in 2021? Tell us on Twitter by tagging us: @park_people.
Thank you to our generous sponsor
Credit cover picture: Naturalized Mouth of the Don River by Waterfront Toronto
A Second Life for Christmas Trees at The Ephemeral Forest at Parc Jarry, Montreal
They say all good things must come to an end. But sometimes, if we are lucky, endings can be the start of something even more beautiful. That is exactly what happened at Parc Jarry in the Villeray-St-Michel-Parc-Extension borough of Montreal, where the community park group Coalition des amis du Parc Jarry (CAP Jarry), recipients of a TD Park People Winter Grant, turned the cast-offs of the Christmas season into a beautiful Ephemeral Forest of recycled trees that reflected community members’ hope and dreams.
Every January, once the holidays come to an end, bare Christmas trees are tossed to the curb. In fact, there are approximately 6 million trees in Canada that await the landfill every year. If not recycled properly and simply thrown out, every tree can create approximately 16kg of carbon dioxide. Not only does this have a significant impact on the environment, but it also misses a great opportunity to give the trees a more impactful second life.
CAP Jarry, led by Michel Lafleur, set out to tackle this challenge. Instead of the landfill, they invited all Montreal residents to bring their old Christmas trees to Parc Jarry, plant them in pre-made wooden stands, and create a magical Ephemeral Forest where park-goers could wander in a safe and socially-distanced manner. After a two-weeks on display in the park, a company specializing in repurposing wood removed the trees and gave them a new life.
To make the trees even more magical, community members were invited to write their wishes and hopes for the new year on little pieces of paper tied to their tree. This gave every tree a personal touch and it gave people a chance to express their vision for the future. At a time when social interactions are rare and we long to interact with others, reading the personal wishes on every tree felt like an intimate exchange with the Christmas tree’s new owner – their ideas, their hopes, and dreams for the future.
The forest created a sense of human connection at a time when people need it most. Walking through the hundreds of trees in the middle of the vast Parc Jarry created an inspiring, joyful and frankly magical experience.
“Everyone was smiling”, remembers Villeray’s mayor Mme. Fumagalli, who helped facilitate the project from a political and administrative point of view. “There was a lot of curiosity, a kind of mutual help, above all, such synergy… The project had an enormous positive impact”.
Mme. Fumagalli found it especially extraordinary how citizens got involved and took ownership of their parks this winter. From the Ephemeral Forest to the hordes of Montrealers who built snowmen across city parks after a snowstorm, she says we clearly see “the necessity during winter to have some kind of animation, especially with the current COVID context”.
Another key to this event’s success was in its simplicity: the idea is easily transferable to other parks, boroughs and cities to create their own magical Ephemeral Forest. “I am certain that it is an idea that will have a snowball effect”, assures Mme. Fumagalli. “There is so much potential, from vacant lots to small parks, the reproducible aspect on a small scale, and the fact that it requires few resources”.
Made possible by a great collaboration:
Park People Statement Against Encampment Clearances
John Tory, Mayor of Toronto
Ana Bailao, Deputy Mayor of Toronto, Councillor Ward 9 Davenport, Right to Home Working Group
Mary-Anne Bedard, General Manager, Shelter Support and Housing Administration, City of Toronto
Janie Romoff, General Manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, City of Toronto
Re: Statement Against Encampment Clearances
Park People is a national charity that helps people activate the power of parks in cities and communities across Canada.
During the pandemic, Toronto and other Canadian cities have seen a rise in visible homelessness through encampments in parks. While living in a tent in a park is not a long-term solution to the lack of affordable housing in many Canadian cities, it is meeting a critical need for safe housing at this time and we urge the City of Toronto—and other Canadian cities—to put a moratorium on forced encampment evictions, removals, and clearances.
As the Encampment Support Network and others in the housing sector have already pointed out, there are valid reasons for why people would choose not to stay in a shelter at this time. These may include overcrowding, health concerns due to COVID-19, inability to access the supports/services they need, being required to move away from their neighbourhood and friends, and a lack of personal privacy and safety. Additionally, parks are on Indigenous land, and the forced removal of Indigenous people experiencing homelessness from parks repeats colonial violence.
From our own survey of 51 cities in The Canadian City Parks Report in July 2020, we found that only 16% of cities said they had paused encampment clearances during the pandemic, despite recommendations from the CDC that encampments should not be cleared for public health reasons. On top of expert recommendations, we also found that 40% of the 1,600 Canadians we surveyed during the same month said that they would like to see increased supports for those experiencing homelessness using parks, such as washrooms and access to water.
In our 2020 Canadian City Parks Report, we interviewed several experts including elected officials, city staff, non-profit staff, and encampment residents themselves to understand the challenges with displacement and propose more inclusive ways to move forward. We believe these lessons are even more important during the pandemic. Some takeaways for cities are:
As the commonly-held spaces in a city, parks are the places where we can learn to share space—and this is not always a comfortable experience, especially in the context of deep systemic inequities. We recognize that grappling with the reality of unsheltered homelessness in parks is a complex challenge that can feel beyond the comfort and expertise of some city parks staff. We also know this is an emotional subject for many, but we hope we can move forward with compassion and empathy, and in a way that upholds unhoused park users’ safety and rights, during this extraordinary public health emergency and beyond.
Citizen Activism in Support of Toronto’s Watercourses
My most compelling symbol of watershed activism and community engagement in Toronto is the large outdoor art installation overlooking the entrance to Evergreen Brick Works. Artist Ferruccio Sardella fashioned Watershed Consciousness from sinuous strips of metal representing the rivers and streams that formed the city’s characteristic ravines. The installation supports a living wall of sedums and other plants, nourished by water flowing from a representation of the Oak Ridges Moraine at the top to a symbolic Lake Ontario at the bottom – a colossal, naturally regenerating map of the watersheds that form the Toronto region. This impressive creation overlooks the Toddler’s Garden for nature play, completing the connection between caring for Nature and nurturing our offspring.
Watershed consciousness – honouring, cherishing and caring for the water in our environment – has been the compelling idea that shaped community activism in the river ravines that are integral to Toronto’s park system. When I became involved in this movement in the early 1990s, there was already a rich history of public engagement. It traced through Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the first British lieutenant governor, retreating with her children to a cabin overlooking the Don River; and through Peter Jones (also known as Kahkewaquonaby), calling his Mississauga people to revival services on the upper Don, which his people knew as Wonscotonach.
Since the early 20th century Toronto Field Naturalists (TFN) have explored and inventoried the plants and animals of our ravines while creating outdoor educational programs for youth. In mid-century Charles Sauriol’s Don Valley Conservation Association worked to protect the city’s natural systems and served as the impetus for the Conservation Authorities that manage watersheds across southern Ontario. In the first case, TFN reflects a grassroots movement that has grown into non-governmental organizations such as the Evergreen, Park People, Toronto Green Community and others too numerous to list. Expanding from Sauriol’s conservation movement are a plethora of government-supported and sanctioned initiatives like the Task Force to Bring Back the Don, the Humber Watershed Alliance and the Toronto Ravine Strategy.
Citizen activism has taken on a strong public advocacy stance in cases where urban development ignored the imperatives of living symbiotically with Nature. The first major example would be the response to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. In that flood buildings that encroached on the Humber and Etobicoke floodplains were destroyed and lives were lost or ruined. Responding to that disaster, the province institutionalized the conservation movement in Conservation Authorities with regulatory, land management and even expropriation authority to reduce catastrophic flood risk. In 1969 the environmental organization Pollution Probe publicized degradation of the Don River with its famous “Funeral for the Don” street theatre. This event inspired the widespread environmental activism that challenges public agencies and frames policy discussions to this day.
Serve Canada “Bring Back the Don” banners were installed at River and Queen. Photo credit: John Wilson
Then in the 1980s the activist stream and the institutional stream merged, starting with the Royal Commission of the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, chaired by David Crombie. The stimulus for the Crombie Commission was the listing of Toronto’s waterfront as a Great Lakes “Area of Concern” under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S. Former mayor Crombie elevated the Commission above a bureaucratic exercise by opening the testimony to broad public participation with experts and officials supporting the work. Two revolutionary discoveries came from the Commission’s work: One, cleaning Toronto’s waterfront would require a watershed approach to environmental degradation, encompassing the rivers flowing to the waterfront; Two, broad citizen initiatives would be needed to clean up the waters. Toronto’s water quality was afflicted not simply by one or two rogue industrial polluters; rather, we all contribute to the problem, and we all have a role in the solution. Watershed consciousness was born.
In that context, people were inspired to clean up the waterfront and the ravines that drain to the waterfront. Visionary political leaders like Jack Layton, Barbara Hall and Marilyn Churley worked with city staffers like Dan Leckie and David McCluskey to harness a wave of public enthusiasm. In 1991, together with a wide assortment of citizens, they formed the Task Force to Bring Back the Don and empowered it to advise the City Council on strategies to bring back a clean, green, accessible Don River within Toronto. Three years later Toronto and Region Conservation Authority further contributed to the alliance of public agencies with citizen activism, conducting broad consultations and publishing 40 Steps to a New Don. TRCA followed up by creating watershed councils for all the rivers flowing through Toronto to Lake Ontario. Suddenly, from Etobicoke to Pickering, from Toronto Islands to Vaughan, people’s power was activated.
Marilyn Churley and John Wilson planting trees in Joel Weeks Park. Photo credit: John Wilson.
When I joined the movement in 1994 my motivation was future-looking and intergenerational. I wanted to help my junior school-aged children feel empowered to take action when they heard global environmental horrors like animals on the brink of extinction. We started attending tree planting events, and then I became the one needing the feeling of empowerment. I joined Bring Back the Don and eventually chaired that group for ten years.
Along the way, I have worked with remarkable people bringing a variety of skills and passions to their waters and ravines. There were Warren and Glen who cleaned the tires and shopping carts and appliances out of the streams, and David who recruited bikers to clean the slopes. Today Don’t Mess With the Don has inherited their passion. Pat was a “guerrilla gardener” who planted wildflowers in post-industrial brownfields and organized plantings along highway verges. When I see random acts of boulevard beautification I think of her. David scouted with me for wet spots that could be improved as pocket wetlands. Keri used her staff position to recruit trail builders in Crothers Woods. Helen and Peter explored lost rivers and creeks with me – watercourses long-buried in pipes but still very present in the landscape – and led public walks to heighten our neighbours’ appreciation of urban watershed ecology. Paula and Janice and John and Elyse devoted countless hours to stewarding environmental restoration sites, leading groups of mulchers, weeders and planters.
A planting in Gerrard River Park with Pam McConnell. Photo Credit: John Wilson.
So many volunteers have parlayed their activism into far-reaching professional achievement. From the outset citizens who engaged with their ravines brought a wide variety of interests. Naturalists and urbanists found common cause or discovered a forum for testing different approaches to living with Nature in a city. Those contributing to citizen activism have taken leading roles in heritage conservation and public art. Some have excelled in landscape design and urban planning, outdoor recreation and community gardening, non-profit management, natural science, green building, engineering and forestry. Citizen activists have taken leadership roles in municipal and provincial public services and at waterfront agencies.
The City of Toronto’s Ravine Strategy, adopted by City Council in 2017 and given implementation legs in January 2020, is a distillation of many of the initiatives and insights gained by citizen activists over the years. For many of us, partnership with public agencies like municipal government have provided traction for our efforts for decades. Now the principles of the Ravine Strategy – Protect, Invest, Connect, Partner and Celebrate – look remarkably familiar to the sentiments driving the 1991 Bringing Back the Don report and 40 Steps to a New Don (1994). That is not surprising, since many of the contributors to the Ravine Strategy, both city staff and citizen participants, have worked together for years, even decades, to bring our city to what is hoped will be an inflection point. This is an opportunity to strengthen Toronto’s natural linkages and biodiversity, symbolized in Ferruccio’s Watershed Consciousness.
What seems to me to have changed in recent years is the breadth of the movement, the engagement across the city and through the many communities that make up our city. Communities that have used and stewarded our ravines continue to find one another. The annual Salmon Festival celebration on Highland Creek now involves thousands who may have arrived in Canada since the Crombie Commission completed its work in 1992. Groups like the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, the Dallington Pollinators and First Story are enlivening the ravines again. Indigenous educators are sharing their wisdom – as seen in the Moccasin Identifier project of Mississauga elder Caroline King that locates us all in Indigenous landscapes through culturally rich footwear symbols.
Whenever I walk through the ravines, as I did yesterday, I am struck by how much the landscape has changed in the past decades. I first visited the Wilket Creek Park in 1973 and I started volunteering on the Don twenty years later. Community planting sites that I raised funds for and worked on in the 1990s are regenerating forests, linked by wetlands and meadows into a re-emerging natural web. I am also struck by the timelessness of the ravines, as when a fox hunts for field mice or a hawk flies overhead. Our ravines face many challenges to thrive in the centre of a great city, but I can attest that there is much that remains and much that is getting healthier. The citizen activism that has rescued our ravines remains vital in preserving those ravines for the children of the toddlers playing in the dirt below Evergreen’s Watershed Wall.
I have been involved in the protection of the Boucher Forest for 6 years now. For me, it was like love at first sight. I loved it right away and I love it, even more, today, if that’s even possible! I became the Treasurer of the Boucher Forest Foundation in 2014, before becoming its Executive Director in 2017.
The Boucher Forest is a 300-hectare forest in the heart of the city of Gatineau, Quebec. Its protection is a cause that is particularly dear to the hearts of the people of Gatineau. People care about it and want to protect it. So much so that half of its area will become the Boucher Forest Park in the coming months, a huge 155-hectare park that will be dedicated to nature education.
The future Boucher Forest Park also regularly makes the headlines in Gatineau. It is one of the few green spaces in the city that has made a name for itself in recent years. As soon as something is going on there, it’s in the papers, on the radio, on TV. I often had to speak about how we can protect it and enhance it in various forums. I used to share in my public engagements that the Boucher Forest was the most beautiful forest in the world. It makes people smile, every time. They think I’m exaggerating a little. I’m biased, I know that. The Boucher Forest is beautiful, of course, but objectively, it is not exceptional. There’s no spectacular lookout, no hilly areas, no swamp with turtles or ducks, no truly unique feature that would set it apart from any other urban park. Yet every time I come for a visit, I’m filled with admiration, emotions and amazement. I came to the conclusion that if I thought it was so beautiful, it’s simply because I know it and love it so much.
It’s certainly very commonplace to say that we like what we know, but it’s true. The Boucher Forest Park will always be the most beautiful forest in my eyes because it is close to my home, because I go there regularly and because I am lucky enough to bring my children there. That’s the reason why it’s so important for me to protect green spaces in urban settings. In addition to all the natural services they provide us with, they become part of our daily lives and a very important part of our lives. They contribute greatly to our mental and physical health. They are becoming absolutely essential for our personal happiness index.
Citizens who are connected to forests, wetlands or parks near their homes are the best advocates for their protection. The Boucher Forest Foundation is fortunate to count hundreds, if not thousands, of community members who have a real attachment to this immense forested area in the middle of the city. And I’m almost certain that they too think that the Boucher Forest is the most beautiful forest in the world.
About Marianne Strauss – Executive Director Fondation de la Forêt Boucher
Holder of a master’s degree in environment, Marianne Strauss started to care for the environment at a very young age: as the daughter of community leaders who successfully engaged their community and decisionmakers to protect the Ile Bizard Forest, in Montreal West-end. Living now in Aylmer with her family, she fell in love with the Boucher Forest and joined the Foundation to help with its preservation.
I grew up in London, Ontario, in the 1960s and 70s, which at the time promoted itself as “the Forest City”. I’m assuming this was due to the generous tree canopy found in the older neighbourhoods, one of which I was fortunate enough to live. I have vivid memories of parks there.
Victoria Park located in the centre of the downtown, every December decorated its evergreen trees with seasonal lights and turned the pavement facing its bandshell into a skating rink. Every year my sister and I would begin our petitioning that Dad ‘take us down to see the lights’. That same park was host to the Home County Folk Festival – which continues – for an August weekend of open-air music and craft. Another park we went to as a family was Springbank Park, which included Storybook Garden, a modest children’s fantasy area (with a few captive animals which I suspect are no longer allowed) and picnic and barbeque areas, along with the forks of the Thames River. Perfect for a Sunday drive. Also along another branch of the Thames River was Gibbons Park, a few blocks from our house and home to the coldest swimming pool (and least attractive change rooms!) imaginable. We had family picnics there.
But the most meaningful park by far for me was Doidge, affectionately known as ‘the pit’. Very close to our house, tucked down a dead-end street was a playground and ball fields, with a clubhouse, run by the Public Utilities Commission. Almost a full city block, Doidge was at grade from its main entrance but had two very steep (at least to this 11-year-old) hillsides that led back up to the streets. Perfect for winter tobogganing, or just rolling down in warmer months.
In the summer of 1969, my oldest and closest school chum Kristi told me there was a summer activities program at ‘the pit’ and off we went one morning to check it out. The City had funded a program that included staffing a male and female ‘supervisor’ to create recreational programming for neighbourhood kids. We were hooked from the first moment.
My experiences there – which I returned to for three years – instilled in me invaluable lessons of sports, fun, and teamwork. It was also the only way I met kids not being educated in the protestant school system, gave me a sense of camaraderie, a sense of belonging, and triumph! It exposed me to role models that made an indelible impact on me as an emotionally vulnerable young person.
I will never forget it, ever, and have remained grateful throughout my adult life of the experiences public investment in that place, program and people gave me. That’s a park!
About Mary Rowe
Mary is a leading urban advocate and civil society leader who has worked in cities across Canada and the United States. Mary is CUI President & CEO with several years of experience as an urban advocate and community leader, including serving as Executive Vice President of the Municipal Art Society of New York (MASNYC), one of America’s oldest civic advocacy organizations focused on the built environment. A mid-career fellowship with the US-based blue moon fund led her to New Orleans where she worked with national philanthropy, governments and local communities to support rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. Prior, Mary was President of the Canadian platform Ideas That Matter, a convening and publishing program based on the work of renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs.
Overbrook Park is an extension of my house. It’s where my son plays with his friends, where youth play basketball on steamy summer nights, and where outdoor musicals are performed. The park is adjacent to our community center, where the Overbrook Community Association (OCA) meetings take place, where free books are given to kids, and where community members practice music and sports or participate in after-school programs.
But in November 2018 our community was shaken to the core: gunshots were fired at 4 pm in close proximity of Overbrook Park. It was overwhelming – I felt angry that this shooting took place at a time where kids run free in the park, and I felt helpless to see gun violence so close to home. How can such a welcoming neighbourhood be the stage of such a senseless act?
With other members of OCA, we wanted to reclaim our park and write our own narrative, about a community that is strong, diverse, and proud of its youth. In partnership with the Rideau Rockliffe Community Resource Center’s Youth Advisory Council (YAC), we applied to a TD Park Grant to organize an event for youth, by youth, and to celebrate youth.
“Party in the Park” was the result of many brainstorming sessions and of a serendipitous encounter in the spring of 2019. After playing in the park with my son, I saw a flyer in the community center, “Free Basketball training for Overbrook Youth. Contact Manock”. I wanted to meet him. With the YAC, we had thought of organizing a basketball competition, but despite my enthusiasm for the Toronto Raptors and my high school days as a point guard, I knew we needed help. In the end, I just showed up to one of his basketball practices, and we started chatting. Five minutes in, I knew Manock was our guy: his passion for the game and the kids, his love for Overbrook and the fact that he did not blink an eye while my son wreaked havoc on his class with his toddler-level enthusiasm.
Fast-forward to September 2019. More than 100 people attended “Party in the Park”, with 40 players participating in the basketball competition, hopefully, the first of many more events of this kind.
The community links forged during this event are enduring. Manock Lual, CEO of Prezdential Media, is now the Chair of OCA’s Safety Committee. Since COVID-19 has forced OCA to cancel all events and find new ways to connect with residents, the Safety Committee launched a fundraiser to provide backpacks filled with school supplies, a reusable mask and a tee-shirt to local youth. OCA also continues to work with the YAC, including on a mural in the heart of Overbrook.
Parks connect us to nature. But they also connect us to each other, weaving the threads of the social fabric that makes our community stronger, no matter what.
About Marie-Caroline Badjeck and the Overbrook Community Association
The Overbrook Community Association is a group of motivated residents collaborating to make life better for everyone in their dynamic community on the East side of Ottawa. At OCA, Marie-Caroline coordinates special projects with youth and environmental focus. Since the start of the COVID pandemic, the OCA has devoted their volunteer resources to delivering food to community members in need, conducting regular check-ins and providing support with financial aid applications and connecting people with community resources.
When I was a toddler, my grandparents, visiting from France, would watch over my sisters and me as we explored the park’s duck pond. Like many children, I tested comfort zones and capacities, hurtling down a steep slope just above the pond on a sled in snowy weather. These days, in my innocence, I peer into flowers, honk at geese, and enjoy hearing families singing together.
As a teenager, I remember a romantic kiss while sitting under the spreading maple trees of the North facing slope, just below that same duck pond. Many fine formative explorations of the semi-wild fringes of the park occurred, basalt outcroppings – volcanic vestiges, with fascinating mossy toppings were found. These days, in my passion, I weep when seeing fir trees more than 150 years old, cut, lying on the ground, sawdust all around.
Now an adult, the formal lushness of the garden, cultivated over the remains of a quarry, pleases and soothes me as much as the cedar and fern stand still growing in remarkable contrast, squirrels and coyotes wild. The park’s tropical plant conservatory sits buckyballish, high above, glowing, a welcome alien. These days, in my inspiration, I can imagine a dragon, descended from an ancient craggy volcano, here to exercise our delight and to nurture right-action.
For four years I have been fortunate to live near QE park, this place where I can move my body, finding solace and respite from the pace of the city, gaining in health and wellness. Yet, when I consider the encroaching condominiums crowding the view, the need to protect, maintain, and enhance green spaces and parks in urban environments seems evident. Concern regarding access to fair and adequate housing arises, as does regard for indigenous Coast Salish protocols. I wonder what could emerge through a community process committed to decolonizing the park’s name. These days, in my desire to weave meaningful inter-cultural and intergenerational relationships off the spindle-whorl of our collective humanity, I asked a question: what do place, home, belonging, and indigeneity mean?
Calling on experience as an arts-based community engagement worker, and focusing on an approach to the park, Dragon Walk inaugurated a pop-up shrine where the Cambie Heritage Boulevard (running South-North) crosses the 29th avenue bike path (extending East-West). This location is within the city’s only heritage designated landscape, which is of city-wide importance and recognition. The boulevard is an extension of QE Park and its intended function as an arboretum and celebratory sightline to the North Shore mountains has been well described by the Parks Board.
Inviting contemplation and conversation, the shrine uses the dragon metaphor to honour the park’s geologic history, to appeal to all cultures, and to call on each person’s inner fire. It is through our innate capacity for warmth and creativity that we can forge resilient, caring communities. I feel strong forces weaving together an irresistible flow.
These days, is it innocence, passion, inspiration, or desire being called in to play? With a dragon’s roar perhaps we can say: civic engagement, fostered through fun, relevant activities are the basis of a healthy, empowered society where folks have agency. I love QE Park very much and celebrate how much has been given me by the plants, animals, earth, air, water, and fire. We are grateful to the TD Park People Grants for supporting Dragon Walk.
About Naomi Steinberg
Naomi Steinberg is an internationally recognized artist and storyteller. She has brought traditional folk stories, fairy tales and community-based art projects to life in countries around the world since 2001. In 2014 Naomi voyaged around Earth without taking an airplane. She told her hand-spun story, Goosefeather, wherever she went and has since published a book about the experience. www.goosefeather.ca.
Recent projects include Dragon Walk, an opportunity to engage in a joyous celebration of the ecological diversity found in Little Mountain. Recognizing the need to foster resilience and neighbourliness, over Summer 2019, six arts-based community engagement activities culminated in a parade. Ongoing place-making is occurring. As part of this legacy project, Naomi hopes you feel invited into the contemplative space located on the 29th ave. bike path and the Cambie Heritage Boulevard in Vancouver, Coast Salish, supernatural land.
Now that I’m older, my days often start the same way. I take a walk in Edmonton’s Dawson Park with both my two-footed and four-footed housemates. People ask if I get bored going to the same park every day. To which I answer. Does life get richer with time? Can relationships grow?
As is typical, by the end of our walk my husband has carefully selected spots for the dog to “do her business.” She tucks her offerings in the undergrowth. She is discrete, unlike the coyotes who leave their piles right in the middle of the shared path. Because of peer teachings and expectations, I pick up the dog poop but leave the coyote scat alone. Sometimes I feel conflicted putting these “gifts” in the trash can.
When I went looking for the human place to “do my business,” I met two people who were surprisingly friendly and welcoming. “Can we help you?” they asked. They explained they were hired by a social enterprise to help keep the washrooms safe during COVID. “Thanks,” I said, “you give the park an even better vibe.”
It’s so nice to be greeted (Note, my dog taught me that).
I learned later that a social enterprise hires these folks as washroom attendants. They are people who are hard to employ because of addiction recovery issues, legal issues, and the like. After I thanked them for being in the park, we got into a long discussion. I explained that I am used to city staff being in the park with loud two-stroke engines polluting the air in an effort to win the “war on weeds”. The bathroom attendant said, “white man brings the weeds then tries to destroy the weeds, good luck.”
Parks are all about relationships and it’s not complicated. Here’s some of what I’ve learned on my walks with two and four-footed companions:
Wag your tail when you greet a tree or a leaf roller.
Observe and learn.
Parks are for people. People can be in good relationship with the land and learn how to be in a better relationship with each other by just being there and observing.
I am left wondering if urban parks could become a model for how we could shift to a new view of prosperity. One that:
Better respects nature and people.
Offers more blue and green “infrastructure” such as modelled by beaver.
Creates opportunities for more park attendants, park ambassadors and interpreters.
Gives priority to people’s power (labour) instead of carbon (two-stroke engines).
Stops the war on weeds and embraces coexisting in the right relationship with nature.
I am going to keep thinking about this possibility and what it might look like. I am going to think more about the question: “what is a park?”.
Rocky started as a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Economics before earning a Medical Degree from Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, NH. She is a practiced specialist in Internal Medicine in Alberta. Rocky was happy to retire from her medical profession in May of 2018 and focus on SPICE and other projects that advance sustainability.