“Not everyone experiences a green space in the same way. The presumption that they do undermines the potential for green spaces to improve health in an equitable way, especially for Black, Indigenous and racialized people.”
“While it’s important to address issues at the systemic level, there’s something powerful about how change, hope, and tension can be felt on the street-level.”
We know that parks must actively advance urban equity issues and affirm racial justice movements. This can only happen if Black, Indigenous, and people of colour have the right to freely exist in public space
On October 21st at 2pm, join Park People and our Founding Sponsor TD Bank Group as we explore what “street-level” inclusion looks and feels like in parks and public spaces.
Through dialogue with some of Canada’s leading experts, the session will provide practical insights to help community groups cultivate practices that foster full BIPOC participation in parks and public spaces.
Join us for this important conversation, featuring:
Chúk Odenigbo, Founding Director of Ancestral Services, Future Ancestors Services
“Byen Pre Pa La Kay” in Haitian Creole means the work is continuous and ongoing. The saying encapsulates the work of farming, which is a constant struggle requiring ongoing adaptation and transition. It’s an experience that resonates particularly for Black people, who have always lived to re-create and re-invent ourselves. So, for Black communities in the Toronto area, community farms are places of pride, togetherness, love and care that are worth fighting for.
Accessing community and support through farming
The Black Creek Community Farm (BCCF), established in 2012 on eight acres of land rented from the Toronto and Region Conservation Agency (TRCA), is a model for sustainable food security and urban farming. The community-driven BCCF is open to its members to grow food and access its food forest and trails, and to the public to buy produce that is surplus after sales to its membership. The farm includes a medicine wheel garden; an outdoor school for children to develop motor skills and to animate school trips; a fire pit for story-telling and community-building; an area for seniors where planting beds are adapted for mobility; and, most importantly, crops of culturally specific foods and native plants.
The culturally adapted services and general environment of the BCCF is model community members argue is needed throughout the city. As Ama Deawuo, until recently the Executive Director of the BCCF, says, fresh and plentiful food is available in well-off neighbourhoods such as Rosedale, but in comparison, communities largely populated by Black people do not have the access to the same level of variety and freshness of food.
Photo credit: Ama Deawuo, former Executive Director of the Black Creek Community Farm
The dense Jane and Finch area where the BCCF is located is an example of this situation, with little access to green spaces that serve the agricultural and recreational needs of its community. Sam Tecle, a steering committee member of the BCCF who grew up in the area, says the farm is a unique space in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and the world.
It “symbolizes community, love, interdependence. It shows that we can show up for each other, that we can support and provide.”
Tecle describes Jane and Finch as “a global community” made up of recent newcomers to Canada, as well as earlier generations of residents from Ghana, Jamaica, Ecuador and Italy, among other places, but one that has suffered from neglect and disinvestment. The neighbourhood is a vibrantly talented community of care, one where residents support each other and reinvest in the community with the skills each can bring to the table, but it tends to be sensationalized by the media in ways that disregard these qualities and define the area as violent and criminal.
As Femi Lawson says in “Vice visits Jane & Finch”: “[e]verybody has somebody who kind of influences them in some kind of positive […] way. And when you have a community of those people, it builds you.”
The multicultural and multiethnic Jane and Finch area has been hit the hardest in Toronto by the pandemic and has a long history of marginalization by provincial and municipal governments alike. But as community grower, Rastafari agriculturist, lover of nature, community advocate and long-standing community member, Peachtree Boucaud, who previously worked for the BCCF as their Farms Market Manager, reminds us, “We are the bees to our work. We are the connectors, the pollinators.” The City of Toronto and other official entities, such as the TRCA, facilitate green spaces for use by lower-income racialized communities. However, when paying attention to the history of peoples’ relationships to the land in the city, the reality of who maintains these crucial green spaces is more complex and starts with the people who cultivate these spaces and their commitment to supporting each other’s endeavours.
Farming at its roots
The reality is that Black and racialized farmers, and Indigenous land stewarding and healing initiatives, have preceded city-led projects. As a result, today, the urban farming landscape of Toronto includes well-established structures in the community such as the BCCF, community gardens, and grassroots projects that include open plots where people collectively farm. They all have different funding structures and visibility.
Boucaud boasts proudly that “a lot of those community gardens are really led by a lot of Black women.”
The question of food security and environmental justice is closely connected to a history of advocacy. “We are living in the spaces where this environmental injustice is happening!” says Boucaud, “but we’re not elevated in the conversation.” She rejoices at describing one of her favourite gardens, located at Jane and Weston road – “Ms. Charlyn Ellis is at Emmett [Avenue Community] Gardens, that garden is one of my favourite gardens, […] there’s bees there, there’s so much you can learn, you know? And the work of the people there at Emmett’s Garden goes unnoticed.”
The community holds the knowledge. Boucaud explains that in many cases Black farmers come to Canada with all of their skills, but are overlooked because no one ever asked them about their expertise. And younger generations like myself have learned to garden and farm from our foremothers and fathers. I learned to grow from my mother and by listening to my grandmothers’ stories of farming in Haiti.
Boucaud’s experience was the same, she tells me, “My grandfather was a grower, my dad grew all over his lawn, the City of Toronto sent him an award, but I never thought of myself as that because it was like, a natural thing you know, it’s not something you go and do, it’s already a part of what you do already. So I got to the farm, I started doing the work, I ran the Farmer’s Market, and that was a huge eye-opener.”
Farming is an important part of passing on generational knowledge and empowering disenfranchised communities to develop food autonomy.
Maintaining such a vibrant and community-oriented space is a result of ongoing efforts. Tecle says that “for the farm to be what it is, it is Ama, it’s the staff team, it’s the community that has had to push. […] So there’s a long history there of a fight between the city and community members too – […] that relationship had to be forged in order to keep the farm in many ways community-based.” Deawuo also shares her dreams of seeing the farm expand to having its own café entirely supplied by food harvested from the farm by farmer members and prepared by chef members.
Community green space as Black living
Farming is not just farming, but a “labour of love,” says Hannah Conover-Arthurs, Program Coordinator at Ubuntu Community Collective, an organization that prioritizes food security and services and empowers single Black mothers around farming, including through an urban farm at Downsview Park, south-east of Jane and Finch. As a chef by vocation, she focuses on healing and food security, growing plant medicine, feeding mothers, supporting mental health – the whole spectrum of physical well-being, spirituality and connecting to the land.
Photo credit: Indigenous medicine wheel at Black Creek Community Farm
Conover-Arthurs also cites the educational value of farming – it builds skill, confidence and teaches you another perspective on life.
Her nieces and nephews “get to be part of the process” on their trips to plant and harvest with her because “it is also an education you can’t get anywhere else.”
Fatin Chowdhury, the Development and Communications manager for the BCCF, describes the community education around healthy food options and sustainability as a major accomplishment of the farm: “We have our urban harvest program, which looks at how to look at our food waste, how to preserve food, […] knowing more about our local food options. We have our farm education team – they do a lot of workshops that teach kids, youth, families about local ecologies, urban agriculture, urban farming, gardening. These are all topics that we really want our community to learn about and to apply in their own backyards.”
Many people in the Jane and Finch area, for instance, live in high towers with limited access to green space where they can grow food, be active and connect with people. In Boucaud’s words, “I live in an apartment […] I try to grow whatever I can [on my balcony], and spend the rest of my time in the community garden.” In community gardens, “people really find community and a space to grow,” she adds, “in addition to food in their household, and saving some money and some change into their pockets for them to possibly do other things with their family.”
The pandemic and lockdown started in March 2020, during the growing season, and initially included restrictions on tending community gardens, which threatened people’s physical and mental well-being. Many local residents are “relegated to small living spaces,” stresses Boucaud. But the community successfully and safely advocated and got the gardens re-opened. These spaces are much more than programs, says Boucaud, “they are a staple in our community.”
Community advocacy, solidarity, justice and education
Community grassroots urban farms and gardens are spaces that bring people together and offer what Tecle calls “political education” and advocacy that contributes to a broader vision of justice for Black, Indigenous, racialized and marginalized communities.
Photo credit: Black Creek Community Farm outdoor school
A place like the BCCF is “multidimensional,” says Tecle, “it’s much more than a farm.” He describes it as “a meeting space, an event space, an educational space, it’s a symbol, it’s a place of pride.” Speaking from experience and from past steering committee actions, Tecle describes how the farm has taken positions against the racist and ableist policies: “the farm itself has not been shy in taking up community issues, be it, when, you know, the local grocery store was […] putting the formula behind locked doors – or [saying] you can’t come in with the baby carriage or an assisted mobility device. The farm took a position early – these owners addressed it and policy was quickly taken down.”
Quicker response and the question of land ownership
Community urban farming initiatives that are supported by the City seem to be part of a dance.
“The city needs to focus on sustainability,” says Conovers-Arthurs. “We are constantly dealing with one-year leases and then renewed for two years. We are left wondering whether we can farm next year?”
The issue of land ownership and leasing presents a major barrier to Black farmers since they are more often reliant on public land rather than privately-owned property. What is discouraging, says Boucaud, is that the “land is not attached to the community,” so long-term planning, cultural spiritual practices on the land and growing, in general, pose challenges.
If Black people make an investment and work the land, “we are not investing just for 3 years! That’s our livelihood,” states Conovers-Arthurs.
These farms are substantial assets connected to peoples’ identities that provide essential services enabling the community to live balanced and healthy lives. “What we provide as a space, as a service, as an idea to the community is worth much more beyond what our funding is, but we have to constantly plead and beg and ask through grants,” as Tecle puts it. “We have no luxury of thinking about what we might build on the space, let’s say on the ground of the farm, in 5 years.” The call to action is for the City to shift the land management model, to think long-term. Assuring access to water, accessible bathrooms, planting beds with seats and other agricultural and accessibility initiatives are other important considerations that require long-term planning and investment in order to serve the broader community, notes Boucaud. And why not imagine that Black communities can be fully responsible for the land they steward, without oversight from the City?
The issue of food security predates Covid-19 with “4.4 million people including 1.2 million children under 18” who did not have access to sufficient food in Canada according to University of Toronto-based research “Feeding the City: Pandemic & Beyond.” The report confirms local community farming initiatives are the most accessible ways for more marginalized and vulnerable communities to obtain fresh, accessible foods, and raises the question of whether food security and sustainability for everyone, including for more marginalized communities, is a priority for governments. The demand is certainly there – as Boucaud points out, the waiting list to get into community gardens is very long.
Farming as a means of collective pride
A sense of personal and collective pride oozes from the words of the community members. Conovers-Arthurs describes the “inspiration, love and passion” that create a positive ripple effect in people’s lives while reflecting on the impact in her own life.
Tecle speaks of the overwhelming support from the community that translates into “an increased interest in farming, agriculture, [and] the education.” Chowdhury marks “the shift in who we are” in terms of the food delivery services the BCCF was able to provide to the community and the way in which the community further developed trust in the farm as part of their social safety network. And of course, Boucaud proclaims, “the joy we have in these spaces!” The BCCF has broken down barriers and silos for people often marginalized and boxed into their interactions with governments and has made the simple pleasures of life accessible to people and youth who have been confined in dense neighbourhoods – finally gaining a chance to experience what Chowdhury deems “critical green space in the city.”
Tecle likes to see that pride in the BCCF members when, during the annual dinner, “folks in community who are proud that people from outside are pulling up to the farm and getting this like very nice swanky experience and, you know, maybe they leave thinking ‘Jane and Finch is just not what they tell me it is’.”
Joy and community upheaval
Ultimately, community farming programming serves as a stepping stone – “it is an incubator” says Conovers-Arthurs. Boucaud adds, “you learn about the cultures of other people, how they grow, how they pollinate!” And Conovers-Arthurs explains how community programming offers people tools to progressively get their own land, start their projects and then their own businesses. She considers the ability to care for her own family members and instill the importance of the community as a “family unit” as a sacred thing. Becoming part of the Ubuntu Community Collective is a means for her to care for her mother, to support people healing from trauma and to create a place where “people see you for who you are.” It is a place where you can receive “support for your well-being, your freedom, your creativity, your healthcare, your transformation, your inspiration.”
Photo credit: Black Creek Community Farm Entrance
In the spirit of the idea that community builds you, Conovers-Arthurs says, “there are a lot of heartbreaks in farming, but when you have people around you and you see what people do, it supports you.” She feels her life was transformed by engaging in growing food, first through Fresh City Farms, and now hopes to one day be able to sustain herself through her farming.
Truth be told, farming is hard, but “there’s also a lot of joy” that comes out of community gardens, says Boucaud. The people are the backbone of farming in Toronto. Food security, well-being, and creating sustainable food pathways and connecting spiritual, mentally and physically healthy communities is a fight. Demanding sustainable strategies for wellness is part of the constant work for autonomy, identity, heritage, self-knowledge, sacredness, reconnection to the land and healing from historical, current and ongoing traumas, as well as for breaking from future harmful patterns.
As repeated by community voices, conversations about farming are multifaceted and intersectional. As Conovers-Arthurs says, “[t]he way we eat is a reflection of how we show up in the world.”
The pride, commitment to community and struggle of farming has always been worth it. So, as proud people would chant in Haitian Creole, “Nou pap kite peyi-a pou yo” – “We will not give up who we are.”
About Emilie Jabouin
Emilie Jabouin is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication & Culture, working on her doctoral dissertation at Ryerson/York universities on Black women organizers and journalists in early 20th-century Canada. Emilie is also a storyteller and dance artist who explores the social and cultural histories and expressions of the African diasporas. Find her on Twitter at @emilie_jabouin.
In 2017, Scarlett Manor, a Toronto Community Housing neighbourhood in Etobicoke, experienced a series of devastating floods that caused extensive damage to 3 of its 13 stories. Upon inspection, it was determined that items such as, “flushable” wipes, personal hygiene products and small pieces of material, hair and other miscellaneous items were the cause of the flooding.
For Zamani Ra, a resident in the community, this and subsequent floods opened up an opportunity to educate residents about what garbage should go where, and, ultimately, why it matters. Watching families most impacted by the floods navigate through damage and destruction inspired Zamani to do everything in her power to prevent this from ever happening again.
Zamani’s insights led her to establish a training enterprise called Circular Environmental Education (CEED) Canada. Park People hired Zamani to employ her model to help educate Sparking Change communities on how to create low to zero waste park events.
In addition to being a resident, Zamani Ra is also the building’s tenant representative. Using her leadership and training experience, Zamani coordinated a group of motivated residents, to create an innovative eco-awareness program to help Scarlett Manor residents examine their own waste practices, understand residential waste better, and ultimately build a culture of caring about waste management.
Born in Jamaica Zamani was influenced by long-time farmers who she refers to as “land people,” matriarchs in her mom’s family and Rastafari culture. This life experience helped Zamani understand some of the knowledge gaps her community faced.
Zamani tells me “I know what composting is because my grandmother used to do it. But my idea of composting had nothing to do with this plastic green bin I see in my building.”
Armed with an empath’s sense for user-centric learning, Zamami built a waste training program based on two insights:
You have to meet people where they’re at, and,
What you do over here matters to someone else over there.
Intercepting the Flow
Zamani and a team of volunteer residents turned their buildings’ lobbies into classrooms. They used the building’s 2 main entry points (the main floor and basement lobby) to run what they referred to as an “E-Blitz.” Of course, figuring out how to intercept someone’s rush to/from the elevator to learn about a scintillating topic like recycling or waste disposal took some serious creativity.
Photo credit: August 24, 2017, Zamani Ra
Volunteers engaged residents by asking them the simple, skill-testing question: “Do you know where this goes?” Engagement was immediate as residents faced the challenge of trying to deposit waste in the correct bin.
A deeper connection was established as volunteers spoke to residents about their waste sorting decisions and the impact these small decisions had on GHG emissions. These conversations invariably led to conversations about climate change and its impact on their respective home countries.
“My background in training taught me that you need to take the contents of the curriculum and make it personal,” Zamani says.
“I wanted people to understand,” says Zamani “that the effects of climate change, which our family members at home are complaining about, are something we are creating up here.”
Sorting is Believing
Each day of the week, the volunteer team invited residents to sort various waste items into the appropriate bins – green bin, recycling/blue bin and garbage etc. The key to the volunteer team’s approach is that there are no wrong answers, just awesome learning opportunities. The other key is repetition.
In my conversation with Zamani, I timidly confessed that I’m not sure what to do with oil other than bacon grease. This isn’t something I’d readily share with many people since it’s one of those things I feel “I should know by now.”
Zamani confesses “Listen, I also make mistakes, I’m also learning to do the right thing when it comes to waste because things change all the time based on new information and technology”. So, I feel like I’m welcome to learn too.
Volunteers assessed the residents’ waste disposal decisions using a learning mindset. For example, if a resident put black takeout packaging in the recycling, the volunteers celebrated the error as an opening to share why black plastic goes in the garbage (you may be surprised to learn the reason). By engaging residents in a hands-on exercise, the volunteers make the experience fun, memorable, relevant and more easily integrated into their lives and practices.
Highlighting participation was paramount to the E-Blitz. So whether the answer was right or wrong, the resident received the correct information and was still given a stamp on their report card for participating.
On Friday, the team focused on green bin waste by celebrating and sharing food. The finger foods served on a now-soiled napkin had residents wondering: “what happens to items like this?”
Sorting the same items over the course of the week helped residents build their confidence in recycling and helped their learning progress. Reinforcing positive feelings through the exercise made it more likely they’d retain the information they learned and return to sort again the next day.
The repetition is also a form of what Zamani calls “conditioning:”
“The exercise is conditioning people to know and to care about recycling effectively. Over time, the people who decide not to care become the outliers and eventually become the minority who refuse to adjust their recycling behaviour.”
“I used to work for an environmental company that assisted homeowners in doing retrofits using incentives from the government. Once the retrofits were complete, the savings on the household bills eventually led to the retrofit paying for itself. I thought we should be able to use worthwhile incentives with people who live in housing to address waste for climate action” Zamani says.
Based on this insight, households with report cards with a week full of stamps were eligible for grand prizes that residents said would influence them to participate: meaningful incentives that benefited the entire household.
Zamani is clear: Real incentives create real results.
Over the course of a week, over ½ of all the residents in Scarlett Manor participated in the waste sorting exercise. Overall waste volumes went down 7%.
Generously Supported by The Balsam Foundation with additional support from
Large Urban Park Volunteers Doing “Life Saving Work’
Like many before me, searching to understand the nuanced meaning of “land stewardship” led me to Aldo Leopold’s 1949 classic essay “A Sand County Almanac.”
In it, Leopold says: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
In 1949 Leopold said, ‘the modern dogma is comfort at any cost.” Little did he know about what was to come in the form of SUVs, lunchables and fast fashion. While the culture of convenience continues to reign supreme, many are starting to understand the true costs of this “modern dogma.” As a way to preserve the earth and their own mental health, people are increasingly stepping outside ‘the matrix’ to establish deeper connections with nature.
Park People’s Cornerstone Parks program, Canada’s only national network dedicated to maximizing the impact and influence of Canada’s large urban parks, is championing the efforts of volunteers who devote their time, energy – as well as their hearts and minds – to nurture a greener, brighter future in the face of climate change.
Saving a life or two
What appears to the untrained eye as pulling invasive species is in fact, much much more. In a recent, essay journalist and podcaster, Stephanie Foo shares her experience pulling invasives in a New York City park. The experience, as she describes it, was vital in bringing her back from the brink of profound and debilitating climate anxiety.
She begins her essay by plainly sharing that “a couple of years ago, I had a nervous breakdown over, among other things, our planet’s dark future.”
Foo was able to rebuild her life by building a sense of community that included nature.
As Foo says about her experience pulling invasives as a New York City Super Steward: “When I’m done, I face the tree I freed from the vines and smooth my hand over the scars they left in its bark. I marvel at her branches stretching upwards where they belong, pat her trunk, and say, “You’re welcome.” It’s pretty nice to save a life or two in the morning.”
Photo credit: High Park Nature Centre, May 2017, Volunteers helping to plant a native plant
Indeed, the work undertaken by committed volunteers in Canada’s large urban parks is life-saving work.
Let’s start with facts:
Over ten years in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, volunteers with Stanley Park Ecology Society have removed 8,000 m3 of invasive plants and replaced them with more than 8,000 individual native trees, shrubs, and grasses.
In Mount Royal, 250 volunteers with Les amis de la montagne have planted 35,000 trees over 33 years and managed 15,000 m2 of invasive species.
In High Park, The High Park Nature Centre’s programs have resulted in 80,000 people engaged in park stewardship activities like planting native grasses, wildflowers and sedges or removing invasive plant species.
Here’s where life-saving comes in. These volunteers are bringing life back to water, soil, habitats, and more. Hands-on restoration work in Stanley Park led to an increase in the populations of barn swallows and Pacific Great Blue Herons in the park. This is a very, very good sign. Because Pacific Great Blue Herons are at the top of the food chain, their return to the park is a sign of a healthy, well-functioning ecosystem.
Large Parks – Large Impact
Research on large parks indicates that due to their size and rich biodiversity, large parks do more ecological heavy lifting than their smaller counterparts. In short, while sod and a few key tree species are found in your local park, large parks are literally teeming with life – from earthworms to deer. Their size and biodiversity mean large parks sequester more carbon, reduce the heat island effect and buffer more urban noise than their smaller counterparts.
Photo credit: Les amis de la montagne, Mount Royal Park, Montréal
In some circles, the work of large parks may be called “ecosystem services.” But once you’ve rewritten the relationship between humans and nature as ‘community,” this term no longer feels fitting at all.
In Foo’s essay, she cites Robin Wall Kimmerer’s incredible book, Braiding Sweetgrass, and what it taught her about building a new relationship with the natural world. In the book, Robin Wall Kimmerer brilliantly weaves together her knowledge as a botanist, mother and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation to show us the profound lessons plants can teach us. Long before Leopold, Indigenous ways of knowing framed human’s relationship with nature as one of reciprocity.
Layering Indigenous knowledge derived from Braiding Sweetgrass with her training as a New York City Parks ‘super steward’ has had a profound impact on Foo who says:
“I was astonished to learn how impactful fighting for trees really is. According to this New York City treemap, one London plane tree near me saves 2,500-kilowatt-hours with its shade, intercepts 6,100 gallons of stormwater (keeping our oceans and rivers sewage-free), and removes four pounds of pollutants and a whopping 10,500 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. People who live in areas with more trees experience better mental health and have lower crime rates and higher property values, whereas the areas with the fewest trees have the highest rates of respiratory illness. Protecting trees isn’t altruism. It’s a form of self-care.”
This simple, yet profound articulation of land stewardship as self-care is one of the central reasons why Park People wants to ensure there is an ecologically and socially vibrant Cornerstone park within reach of every urban Canadian. As Leopold reminds us: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
Park People, High Park Nature Centre, Stanley Park Ecology Society and Les amis de la montagne are all-in on Cornerstone Parks. We’re deeply grateful for the dedication of volunteers who are redefining our concept of community.
To step up for your community, connect to the following NGOs leading the charge in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
If you strolled past Elm Park during “League,” you might have scratched your head. Are those people really fencing with pool noodles? Playing bocce with a can of Campbell’s soup? Attacking a couch with bean bags?
Everyone who lives in Kerrisdale on Vancouver’s west side knows Elm Park as a home for baseball, soccer and tennis. But where did these strange new sports come from?
Artist Germaine Koh is the games master who moved into the park to generate these new ways to play. The park’s humble fieldhouse, once home to a caretaker, became her studio.
In 2011, the city’s park board came up with a new way to use these old buildings to benefit the communities they’re in, inviting artists to pitch residencies in exchange for use of the space rent-free. Koh’s proposal: work with the public to create brand-new sports and games.
Koh, who had played competitive badminton, volleyball and roller derby, wanted to explore the similarities between art and sport. Her artsy friends would always say they’re not jocks, and her sporty friends would always say that they’re not creative. She disagreed about this divide.
“In sports, you practice certain techniques over and over again. In that way, you gain mastery, but you also gain an ability to improvise, strategize and negotiate,” says Koh. “All of those are totally abilities and skills central to the creative process.”
The park board approved her residency for 2012 to 2014. Elm Park was a “tough nut to crack,” says Koh, “because people were used to organized recreation.” But the wacky ways that balls, discs, ropes, planks and trees were used caught the curiosity of passersby, with turnouts of a few dozen on the most crowded days.
Credit photo: Fieldhouse Sonic Pick-Up Sticks, courtesy of Germaine Koh
The fieldhouses themselves are humble places. They’re single-storey, beige or grey and often attached to the park’s public washrooms. But for artists like Koh, they’re precious spaces in an expensive city.
“The interior décor was taupe coloured, not my choice,” says Koh with a laugh. “But I felt so privileged to be able to sit in a park and work.”
“Eyes and ears”
Vancouver’s fieldhouses have a long history, but Koh and others are moving in during a new life stage for the buildings.
The city started building fieldhouses in the 1920s. About 70 of the city’s 230 parks have one. They were the living quarters for the park caretakers, Hagrids and Groundskeeper Willies who tidied up and kept a round-the-clock watch. Living rent-free in the park was a special perk of the job, something no other major Canadian city offered. Caretakers settled in for long tenures, typically two to four decades.
David and Normande Waine were caretakers in the most prized fieldhouse residence of all – the one in the city’s massive Stanley Park, steps from the ocean. To get it took 14 years on a waiting list “as thick as the Bible.”
“We never looked back,” David Waine once told the National Post. “It’s a privilege to be here.”
But 2005 would bring the beginning of the end of what the Waines called “eyes and ears” in public parks. The city decided that it would no longer install new caretakers to live in fieldhouses when the previous ones retired. Services were being consolidated, and the city was considering new uses for these buildings — though it took some time to determine what that would be.
When caretakers moved out, many of the fieldhouses were left empty or used for an unimaginative purpose: storage for sports equipment. One experiment turned the Grandview Park fieldhouse on the city’s east side into a community policing centre, but locals were displeased with the increased surveillance, and the police eventually left.
In Vancouver, a park board of seven elected commissioners oversees and determines the policy direction of the city’s parks. In 2011, the commissioners directed staff to come up with an idea for the future of park fieldhouses.
Credit photo: Fieldhouse Bean Race, courtesy of Germaine Koh
Staff returned with a solution that also addressed a growing Vancouver problem. Fieldhouses were valuable real estate in public hands; meanwhile, creative people were struggling with the cost of studio space in the expensive city. Why not invite them in?
Artists like Koh were invited to pitch residencies to the park board. Those who were approved got to use the fieldhouses as studio spaces rent-free for three years, with an option to reapply (though, unlike the park caretakers, the artists did not actually live in the fieldhouses). The park board welcomed an initial cohort of eight residencies.
But there was a key condition. Artists were required to do 350 hours of public programming as part of their residency.
“We would not do a closed art studio, where you’re a jeweller just working on your jewelry practice,” says Marie Lopes, who coordinates arts, culture and engagement at the city. “You have to have some interest in working with the community.”
Composer Mark Haney seized the opportunity to do neighbourhood storytelling through music. He held a residency at Falaise Park, in the middle of the Renfrew Heights Veterans Housing Project, built to house soldiers who had returned from the Second World War. Haney and a partner researched the lives of 11 veterans who had a connection to the area, interviewing relatives and digging through archives. On Remembrance Day 2014, he debuted a piece inspired by the veterans called “11”, with musical cues that nodded to their lives. It was performed by eleven musicians on the hillside park, each playing a brass instrument chosen to fit a veteran’s personality.
The park board has since expanded the program to welcome a variety of disciplines: athletes, ecologists, chefs, cultural groups and more. It is currently in place in 23 parks, and now provides office space for non-profit groups, as well as studios.
One residency at Adanac Park teaches locals how to fight the “alien invasion” taking over public parks and private gardens: the fieldhouse is home to the Invasive Species Council of Metro Vancouver, battling everything from knotweed to the European fire ant.
Mr. Fire-Man at Maclean Park teaches locals how to harvest wood and make their own musical instruments. Night Hoops, which helps out at-risk youth, runs a free basketball program and connects young people with mentors on and off the court. The Iris Film Collective at Burrard View Park shares the love of celluloid; if you prefer a different visual medium, there’s the Cloudscape Comics Collective at Memorial Park.
With each round of residencies, the park board publishes which fieldhouses are available and a recommended focus for each. A fieldhouse in a park near a diverse ecosystem, for example, could be targeted for environmental stewardship. Applicants can indicate which park fieldhouse they prefer, but, ultimately, the park board makes the decision. For example, the Strathcona Park fieldhouse hosts a residency by the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty. It’s a significant match, as the park is near where many Indigenous residents live and is a rare green space in that part of the inner city.
The park board provides each residency with a staff liaison to connect them with people and programs at the nearby community centre. That way, residencies get a sense of who locals are and what they might be interested in.
Some fieldhouses were ready to go, some needed renovations, but for the most part, “they just needed a coat of paint,” says Lopes. “With a little spit and polish, we were able to turn them into active spaces again.”
A league of its own
Not every artist is interested in spending 350 hours with the public, even if rent is covered. But it was perfect for Koh because League, as she named her residency, was not an art project she could have done on her own. She needed players to try out, refine, even invent the games with her and was able to emerge from the residency with a batch of tested and crowdsourced games.
Koh was pleased to see people of different athletic abilities get in on the action, whether as players or as “Bossypants” who direct play.
“It’s an interesting thing: some games are more cerebral, others are more physical,” she says.
In “Scrumble,” players wear t-shirts with a letter on the front and back and attempt to spell words by rearranging themselves. In “Petri,” players score by throwing balls into different-sized “Petri dishes” – circles drawn on the field. The balls each have different bacterial qualities and can multiply points, so the exponential growth might suddenly rocket someone into first place. (Perhaps a good post-COVID game? Koh now wonders.)
Credit photo: Fieldhouse Petri, courtesy of Germaine Koh
Players also improvised with the park itself, not just the field. The fieldhouse had a yard, and teams competed to build the best structure for growing beans. It was a summer-long race to see whose beans would grow the tallest, a game of patience and engineering. Koh describes it as a “slow race to new heights.”
An old couch lent to the fieldhouse wouldn’t fit through the door, and so it was placed outside for games of “Couchie,” which was introduced to the League crowd by two friends who had invented it during their university days as roommates. Players throw beanbags to try and lodge them into the couch’s cracks for points.
Some games took players outside of the park’s boundaries. The Arbutus Corridor was nearby, a disused Canadian Pacific rail track that ran north from the Fraser River, through the park’s neighbourhood of Kerrisdale, and up to False Creek. It would eventually be purchased by the city in 2016 and converted into the 8.5-kilometre Arbutus Greenway for recreational use.
Even back when it was a disused track, Koh saw its potential. Similar to fieldhouses, the track was an underused urban space waiting for reinvention. She encouraged players to walk the length of the track and turn the experience into some kind of game. One player found a bunch of lost pages from a book and read them during the walk. Koh herself scooped a glass of water from the river and carried it all the way to the creek, where she deposited it.
Koh muses a lot about the theoretical question of what play is, but her simple hope for League’s participants was that they would learn to adopt a playful attitude in their lives.
“One of the intentions was to expand the notion of where play begins and where the play ends, and stop thinking that play is just a thing for kids or something that just happens on a sports field,” she says. “Play is a way of developing useful problem-solving skills, an attitude of everyday creativity.”
A new lease on the land
Before Fresh Roots moved into its fieldhouse, the urban farming non-profit was already getting creative with underused urban land. The organization was founded in 2009, and partners with schools to turn their yards into edible gardens and to educate young people on how to grow fresh food.
When the opportunity came up for a fieldhouse, Fresh Roots applied and settled into the one at Norquay Park. It has just been approved for a second term.
Norquay Park is right on the city’s busy thoroughfare of Kingsway, and the fieldhouse is beside the playground and spray park. It’s a high-traffic spot in a high-traffic park, and Fresh Roots has grown a sharing garden that passersby can’t miss, tended by staff and volunteers.
Photo credit: Fieldhouse Sharing Garden, courtesy of Fresh Roots
“It takes a lot of labour, and the weeds are taking over!” sighs Caroline Manuel, the communications and engagement manager, who works out of the fieldhouse office. The pandemic’s dip in volunteers has made maintaining the sharing garden a challenge. Still, the crop is plentiful this year. There are green beans, beet greens, rhubarb, raspberry canes, red-flowering currant, sage, thyme and more — and the public is welcome to take from any of them.
Planted in this part of the east side, Fresh Roots partners with other groups nearby, such as summer camps and seniors groups
“We tested the waters and there’s lots and lots of interest to have hands in the dirt, direct access to a space to tend to,” says Manuel.
Fresh Roots also runs “Art in the Park” events. The art that they did with summer camps — crafts like seed bombs — proved to be so popular that they offered them to the public.
The fieldhouse has helped give the non-profit a physical presence in the community with which to make wider connections. That contact is especially helpful because 40 percent of the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood exclusively speaks a language other than English at home.
“Not everyone’s on social media,” says Manuel. “We’re putting signs in as many languages as we can, chatting with people chatting with people as they come by, basically just trying to be here so people do start to feel comfortable to ask questions.”
Credit photo: Fieldhouse Norquay Park, courtesy of Fresh Roots
Lopes is pleased the park board can help by situating artists and cultural groups in the middle of the communities they serve.
“In a city where rents are what they are, [the program] relieves that pressure for an artist studio or a non-profit office,” she says.
Your friendly neighbourhood fieldhouse
Marie Lopes can’t stress enough that it’s the “open door” that’s key to the program’s success.
By bringing art and engagement into everyday parks, the fieldhouse program removes some of the barriers that stand in the way of accessing art and other activities through museums or formal programs. And that engagement can be as casual or as collaborative as locals like. They might stop by a nearby park to enjoy music put on by the residency for half an hour. Or they might work closely with the fieldhouse residency for the full three years as a collaborator.
She says the park board occasionally gets calls from other cities curious about the fieldhouses, as they’ve become a “flagship” program.
Nearby, North Vancouver runs residencies out of the Blue Cabin, a remodelled 1927 float home. Richmond runs residencies out of the heritage Branscombe House, one of the first settler homes in what was the village of Steveston.
Lopes has this advice for cities looking to start similar programs, whether it’s out of fieldhouses or other unused buildings.
“Look at your assets really carefully,” she says. “Stop thinking about your unused spaces as problematic. They’re opportunities. Look for collaborators where everybody wins. The community benefit is just boundless.”
About Christopher Cheung
Christopher Cheung is a Vancouver journalist. He is interested in the power and politics behind urban change, and how Vancouver’s many diasporas strive to make a home in a city with colonial legacies. He is a staff reporter at The Tyee.
Seeing the Oculus through Fresh Eyes: A Public Space Incubator Supported Collaboration between Toronto Architectural Conservancy and Giaimo Architects
Park People launched its Public Space Incubator (PSI) program in 2018 to spur on new models of publicly accessible open spaces in dense cities like Toronto. Funded by Ken and Eti Greenberg and Balsam Foundation, the program, which ran for two years, transformed Toronto’s public spaces including laneways, parking lots, parks, streets, and plazas.
In 2019, the charitable non-profit Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s Toronto branch (ACO) and Giaimo Architects received PSI funding to restore and revitalize a 1959 space-age park shelter along Etobicoke’s Humber River Recreational Trail. The Oculus, which looks like a spaceship parked along a wooded trail, had fallen into terrible disrepair.
The Oculus in 2019. Credit: Stephanie Mah
These two groups collaborated to create a bold new vision of heritage conservation and brought the Oculus back to life. By harnessing the Oculus’ inherent optimism and community-building potential, their work has redefined what heritage conservation work can look like.
The Spirit of Optimism
When first unveiled, the modernist park pavilion designed by architect Alan Crossley and consulting engineer Laurence Cazaly featured washrooms, storage, a shaded concrete canopy with oculus opening and a flagstone patio. The modernist design and use of simple materials epitomized the optimism of Toronto’s post-war years.
As Spacing Magazine shared, “Though Crossley and Cazaly were only designing a rest stop, their blueprints elevated a simple structure to something truly exceptional and joyful.”
This same optimism fueled the restoration project. Delayed by a year because of the pandemic, the two groups were truly unstoppable. They continued their work, even as the city battled the gloom and doom brought on by months of isolation.
Credit: Giaimo Architects
“People in the community were asking, ‘when are you doing something?’ says Stephanie Mah, VP of ACO’s Toronto Branch and project co-lead. She adds, “we couldn’t have this project be yet another disappointment.” Ria Al-Ameen from Giaimo concurred: “With everything shuttered, we realized this outdoor space could serve a higher purpose. We could capture the original optimism and lift people’s spirits.”
Together, they launched Brighter Days Ahead in the fall of 2020. The temporary public art installation transformed the Oculus into a literal symbol of the joy-the sun. Radiating vinyl yellow stripes were carefully applied to the structure. Like magic, the pavilion was transformed by beams of sunlight glowing across the canopy.
Credit: ACO, Toronto branch
People across Toronto rediscovered the pavilion and understood the optimization inherent in its design.
Both ACO and Giaimo have a specialized focus on heritage conservation. As a non-profit charitable organization, mostly run by volunteers, ACO Toronto’s purpose is to set the stage for the conservation of the built environment through advocacy and public education. As an architecture firm, Giaimo integrates design and heritage conservation. Together, the two organizations formed a powerful collaboration that redefined what heritage conservation can look like.
Credit: Giaimo Architects
While ACO specializes in heritage conservation, most of their previous work was focused on galvanizing community support to preserve heritage buildings.
“The PSI grant gave us a new opportunity to expand the kind of work. We’ve seen how tangible changes like restoration and community programming help draw people to a place,” says Mah. Giaimo has expertise in highly technical heritage restoration. But, the pavilion is of a much smaller scale than typical architectural conservation projects. “We usually work at a much bigger scale,” says Giaimo’s Al-Ameen, adding, “but we all agreed that the Oculus is small in the most wonderful kind of way.”
The restoration of the pavilion included cleaning the exterior, applying an anti-graffiti coating, restoring and painting the columns & the canopy, refurbishing the flagstone, and installing new seating. The bulk of restoration work including two concrete benches designed by Giaimo is now complete. A City of Toronto heritage plaque will be revealed later this year. Daily, people walking and biking along with the trailing stop and thank the team for bringing the pavilion back to its former glory.
Bringing People Back to Oculus
Part of the Oculus’ appeal is its presence along a secluded, wooded pathway. That same isolation makes the pavilion vulnerable to vandalism and misuse.
“You can restore a place, but that doesn’t prevent it from becoming derelict again,” says Mah. With this in mind, ACO and Giaimo are using the PSI grant to host events that bring the community back to the pavilion, helping them see it as their gathering place.
With lockdowns lifting, the two groups have launched their latest public exhibition with this express purpose.
From now until September an art installation featuring uplifting, brightly coloured and mirrored panels features engaging information about the space’s past and future. Of course, this includes a panel dedicated to answering the perennial question: “Why does it look like a flying saucer?”
Credit: Giaimo Architects
It turns out, from space-age architecture to the role of park pavilions, The Oculus has many stories to tell. Giaimo designed the educational panels as triangular prisms to compliment the bold geometric forms that define the modernist structure. Designing the panels to meet the City of Toronto’s maintenance and safety needs was no simple task.
“We had to redesign the exhibit a few times to get through the approvals process,” says Al-Ameen. And, of course, installing without road access presents a whole host of challenges. But, the two teams were determined to re-envision the Oculus as an essential neighbourhood outdoor amenity and landmark.
Public Space Incubator is a program of Park People and is generously funded by Ken and Eti Greenberg and Balsam Foundation.
Transforming a neglected park to bring a community together
Tasmeen Syed was five years old, walking down Mabelle Avenue with her cousins when she came across people painting in the park that sits between seven large residential towers in central Etobicoke.
Previously just a neglected space with broken fences, an out-of-order water fountain and eroded slopes that people cut across to get to the Islington subway station, Mabelle Park is now a vibrant park whose lush art gardens, log seating, ice hut, wooden shed and colourful camper trailer bring together the residents within the surrounding Toronto Community Housing buildings, many of them newcomers to Canada, low-income families, and seniors.
“I wanted to paint on rocks and spray paint canvases and wear a funny giant shirt that makes me look like a tiny mad scientist covered in paint, and I’m doing all these fun things and they said, ‘come back tomorrow, we’re gonna do something even crazier’,” recalls Syed of that first encounter with MABELLEArts, an initiative that aims to bring together the Mabelle Avenue community through the creative arts.
She spent that entire summer with the MABELLEarts team and has spent every year since with them. She’s currently wrapping up a role with them as a community mobilizer before she heads off to university.
Her experience seems indicative of the way many of the residents of Mabelle Avenue, the 4,000 people who live in the towers belonging to Toronto Community Housing, have come to encounter MABELLEArts: an initial sense of curiosity that leads to committing many days and nights enjoying activities with the dedicated MABELLEarts team.
Credit: MABELLEarts, Iftar Nights. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.
Creating a sense of place
Nicolette Felix, the director of community mobilization at MABELLEarts, says that the area is an underserved pocket that nobody really knew existed. It’s a drop of density in the largely low-rise suburban west end of Toronto, and although tucked between fairly busy streets it only has walkable access to a small number of amenities, including a dollar store, a middle school, and a smattering of restaurants.
“It’s surprisingly small considering how much happens,” says MABELLEarts Artistic Director Leah Houston.
“It’s quite hard to find, if you’re driving by you may not even see it,” adds Felix. But, she adds, MABELLEarts “really put Mabelle on the map.”
That attention, in turn, generated funding opportunities, which help to sustain the programming. The additional funding “allows us to serve more people in our community, and we’ve been able to create employment, because, as our programs expand, we need more hands-on-deck,” says Felix. “There are no better people to hire than folks who live on the block, who understand the needs.”
The park itself is owned by Toronto Community Housing, and its support enabled the opportunity to work directly with the residents of Mabelle Avenue. “We’ve been able to co-imagine and make real the kind of park we want to have in a way that could be more challenging if it was a City of Toronto park,” says Houston.
Houston founded the organization in 2007, born out of working with Jumblies Theatre, which brings theatre into urban neighbourhoods. Houston brought the spirit of Jumblies to Mabelle Avenue, with a focus on bringing art into places where it normally doesn’t exist and bringing people together in public spaces.
Credit: MABELLEarts, Iftar Nigths. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.
Children and their families who are involved with the Arab Community Center of Toronto (ACCT), a non-profit that helps in the settlement of newcomers to Canada, are among those who have benefited greatly from participating in MABELLEarts events.
“When it comes to newcomer families that we serve – and ours is not an area that is paid attention to for many reasons – where they come from, art is a luxury type of thing,” says Dima Amad, the executive director of ACCT. “Children, youth and families don’t get to really participate in art-based activities that will contribute to their mental health and well-being, that will bring them together in a space where they are learning new things, but also to know other people.”
Credit: Tamara Romanchuk. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.
Despite the pandemic pause on many of the activities in the MABELLEarts calendar, you’ll still find their stamp everywhere on the grounds, with colourful flags, engraved art, and gardens and planters filled with brightly coloured flowers and native species. Comfortable spots with benches and hand-carved wooden stools invite passers-by to sit. A signature fire pit with a MABELLEarts cover on it is dormant, waiting for the time when it can be fired up for cooking once again.
Setting up a presence in that space was integral to building trust among MABELLEarts’ community.
“[Trust] comes from being in the same place for so long and publicly visible because we’re out in a park,” says Houston. “Even people who don’t participate know us, and they see a kind of tangible outcome of our presence.”
A number of temporary outbuildings include a trailer that serves as a mobile café, a woodshed, and a former ice fishing hut, all of which have been “Mabelle-ized,” meaning artfully decorated with brightly coloured paints. The organization plans to open a permanent space in Mabelle Park through the Mabelle Arts Project (MAP), a community centre that will be a clubhouse for MABELLEarts programming and serve food via its community kitchen.
“My interest as an artist was really in land-based work, public space, working outdoors, fusing food and gardening and outdoor activity with art,” says Houston. “More of ceremony, ritual, and events rather than a classic theatre piece with a script and actors.”
That philosophy has resulted in years of activating a space that would have otherwise been unused and encouraging the community of Mabelle Avenue residents to come together through performances, workshops, events, and activities like smashing watermelons to mark the end of the school year. For that event, the youngest or newest child in the community smashes the first watermelon on the ground, while a marauding chorus of trolls yells and shakes their fists in the direction of the local school.
Credit: Mobile MABELLE. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.
The focus on every age being engaged is a core part of what MABELLEarts does, including a range of youth and elder events. “Working intergenerationally was really important because it was an opportunity for whole families to do something together, which is often missing in our society,” says Houston. “You sign up for a program for your son or your grandma,” she adds, pointing out that not many full-family activities exist in the city.
Adjusting to the pandemic
Just as many other organizations had to rethink how they could operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, MABELLEarts had to pivot as well, temporarily putting aside much of its in-person arts programming, which required gathering in large groups.
“Being there every day was something powerful about us as an organization,” says Houston. “We’re not there every day anymore, but in some ways, we’re even more connected to people with wellness calls, and that initiative continues to this day.”
The pandemic also brought out the launch of the MABELLEpantry, after the discovery that Mabelle Avenue was in a food desert. The program is dedicated to getting food to those who need it. It takes place every Wednesday in the park, which is set up to look and feel like a farmer’s market, with bales of hay stacked near tables full of fresh produce.
Credit: MABELLEarts, the MABELLEpantry
Houston began driving to the grocery store and buying food for 10 households, “hoping that people didn’t think I was a hoarder.” Now the pantry assists 550 households, with volunteers bringing food to building lobbies for those who can’t travel to the park.
There are no plans to close up the pantry once the pandemic is over. “No matter what phase we were in, or what reopening, we realized that this was something that needed to continue,” says Felix.
A core mission of MABELLEarts is infusing all activities with art, theatre and design, and Houston admits that finding a way to incorporate that into food security was hard. They decided to have two therapeutic clowns play with people in line at the pantry, while at the same time ensuring everyone stayed safe and six feet apart.
“On the one hand, it encourages and actually enforces people to social distance, but it’s also like bringing a kind of black humour into what is a very serious situation,” says Houston. “I’ve loved watching them play with people in the pantry, and defuse anger and conflict with their silliness.”
Houston participates as well, as the emcee, in an eye-catching outfit. “I try to be really funny, silly, and warm with people,” she says. “The premise is that we’re playing with the pantry as if it’s a party or rock and roll. But what it is, is a food bank.”
“Most people in the food bank business care a lot about human dignity and privacy, and they want people to leave feeling good, but not a lot of food banks are concerned with humour and beauty. And we really are,” she adds.
Focusing on food security during the pandemic has also brought in more participants than usual, in particularly isolated seniors.
“People who might not have necessarily been comfortable coming out to sit and listen to some music if they didn’t know people, or just that it was too much work with their walker, those people are all coming down now,” says Claudine Crangle, MABELLEarts fundraising lead. “There’s a broader group of people who, I’m positive, will be even more involved in the arts and culture pieces as they’re starting to really ramp back up.”
“What people tell us over and over again is, you are my family. I’m here from another place, I don’t know a lot of people and I see you as my family,” says Houston, recalling a common refrain she hears at the pantry. “Between us as a staff, I would say we know everyone unless someone is new …. We can greet them almost all by name between us.”
For senior Bernadette Shulman, participating in MABELLEarts has eased her loneliness and introduced her to new things, like drawing, sewing, beadwork, and even some dances.
“It makes life more enjoyable,” she says. “When I walk down Mabelle Avenue, people are calling my name and sometimes I don’t even know them. But I smile because they have to know me from MABELLEarts because it’s only MABELLEarts in this community where everyone actually knows each other.”
Looking to the future
The future of Mabelle Park is all about doubling down and creating permanent infrastructure that will enable the organization to invest even more time with the residents.
“We’ve been in the neighbourhood for so long, and because our work was so deeply collaborative, we built a profound amount of trust and eagerness to do things,” says Houston. “Imagine 100 households who are just really keen to do stuff with us, and we realized that that was a really unusual opportunity, so we started to think about what we might be able to do with that level of trust and willingness to collaborate.”
Credit: MABELLEarts, the MABELLEpantry
That brought them to create MAP, the multi-year strategy to really solidify MABELLEarts’ position in the community with a permanent clubhouse, a more official role as an intermediary between TCH and the tenants, and a plan to work together for more community improvements.
MAP is moving forward, and Houston says they’re busy working on the final design for the permanent community centre and securing funding.
Felix says that having a permanent space dedicated to MABELLEarts will allow for the expansion of arts programming, provide a community kitchen, and enable the seeding of micro-businesses that would be run by community members.
The social enterprise projects are in the planning phase, and Felix says there are many untapped potential business ideas waiting for an opportunity.
“There are a lot of folks who live on Mabelle that have prior experience in the food industry and we’re seeing people coming into the pantry and telling us about things that they’ve done in the past, and all their hidden talents, and we’re hoping that we can harness that and develop some programming that trains people how to run their own business and then cycle it through the MABELLEpantry and sell back to the community while keeping many of our other initiatives going,” she says.
For the moment, the team of youth summer staff is working on beautifying the park, with a lot of gardening and planting, for the community that’s slowly emerging from their towers. The MABELLEarts team is putting down seeds for what they hope will be more beautiful community engagement for years to come.
The people behind this community arts organization are passionate about the work they do, and it’s that commitment that truly unifies the Mabelle Avenue residents in unexpected ways, from smashing watermelons together to intercultural Iftar nights, with food, ceremony and arts that activate the park during the month-long Ramadan observance. It’s a bright, joyful spot in a pocket of Etobicoke that could have remained dark and unused.
“I’ve never even heard of anything else like this,” says Syed. “It surprises me that other people don’t have a weird organization in their park.”
About Kelly Boutsalis
Kelly Boutsalis is a writer and journalist, based in Toronto. She is Mohawk, and from the Six Nations reserve. Her words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Spacing, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus.
What Community Park Groups Told Us About Their Year in City Parks
We’ve learned a lot about our National Network of community park groups in the last year. The more than 1000 groups that makeup Park People’s National Network and achieve their missions in whole or in part through parks, stepped up for their communities in new, and vital ways. And, we could not be prouder.
Here’s what we learned about the awesome people who make up Park People’s National Network from our annual survey of community park groups.
As diverse as parks themselves
Of course, no two parks are exactly alike. The same is true of communities. Not surprisingly then, the groups dedicated to the power of parks take many forms. In fact, across Canada community park groups are a healthy mix of non-profit organizations, neighbourhood associations, community garden groups, resident groups and more. What is consistent among them is that the vast majority, 80% of community park groups are volunteer-led and run.
More than half of the groups making awesome things happen in parks have been embedded in their communities for ten or more years. In other words, half of our network of community park groups serves as local infrastructure with a long-standing presence in neighbourhoods. Thankfully, the resources and learnings we develop based on the learned experiences of long-standing groups can help support newer community park groups who are in the early stages of working in parks.
Regardless of how long community park groups have been in their communities, they tell us that fundraising continues to be their biggest challenge. This year, 66% of respondents to our survey reported that fundraising for their work is a significant challenge. At the same time, that park groups’ efforts in communities are needed more than ever, municipalities are facing significant financial shortfalls. We know this will be a critical issue to address going forward.
Park groups step up during COVID
Community park groups have stepped up for their communities during the pandemic. Even though gatherings were prohibited in parks across Canada, more than ⅓ of park groups surveyed said they pivoted to new ways of offering services.
The Glenelm Neighbourhood Association in Winnipeg made it clear that they had a critical role to play in managing isolation in their community: “We were able to pivot and offer programs and initiatives to keep the neighbourhood connected at a time of so much loneliness, fear, uncertainty and boredom.”
We were delighted to hear that 91% of community park groups reported that Park People’s work was valuable to their organization.
Montreal’s Groupe Ethé Vert Saint-Léonard thanked us by saying: “We would particularly like to thank you for your practical and financial support. Without that, we would not have been able to help our community connect with their special green spaces.”
At a time when financial uncertainty was top of mind, we were heartened to hear that we were able to support community park groups most by helping to raise funds (76%), help them stay motivated about their work in parks (76%) and enhance their knowledge and skills (71%) to enhance their park efforts.
As the days continue to get longer and the load starts to get a little bit lighter, parks and public spaces will continue to be bright spots in our cities and lives. Much of that is due to the community park groups that make up Park People National Network – the people dug deep to make their communities stronger this year. These are the people who collectively help keep our parks bright spots in our lives and communities. We simply cannot thank you enough.
Thank you to our generous supporters:
Launching the third annual Canadian City Parks Report
In the report, we focus on how parks can foster more resilient, equitable cities—not only as we recover from COVID-19, but as we address another looming crisis: climate change.
Park use during the pandemic spiked across the country as people flooded into outdoor spaces to seek safe ways to connect with others, experience nature, and get some exercise. Parks became more important to Canadians in their daily lives, but cities also faced new challenges with rising demands and public health considerations.
The Canadian City Parks Report documents these trends and challenges by gathering key data and leading practices from across the country. Whether you’re city staff, a community volunteer, a funder, a non-profit organization, a park professional, or a resident who loves city parks, we hope this report provides you with useful data and stories that both inspire and challenge you.
In this report, you’ll find the results of our April 2021 COVID-19 and Parks survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, interviews with a range of experts, as well as new data and practices from 32 participating Canadian cities. Stories and data are organized by section—Nature, Inclusion, Growth, Collaboration, and Activation—and city-specific data are available in City Profiles.
You’ll also find a special section: Lessons From a Pandemic Year. This section dives deep into the ways COVID-19 impacted our park systems and our use of parks during the last year—both positive and negative—and the ways we can move forward together.
Parks saw high use and showed high value.
94% of cities reported increased use of parks in the last year. This elevated use may stick around with 82% of Canadians who indicated using parks more during the pandemic saying they expect their current use to continue or increase.
Parks were also used more in the winter with 50% of Canadians saying they had used parks more during winter than pre-pandemic, and 73% expected this use to continue.
Of all park types, Canadians say they prefer to visit local neighbourhood parks (71%), natural areas (61%) and trails (60%), reflecting the importance of nearby green spaces.
Community park groups continued to animate their local parks with nearly 300 groups across the country putting on over 3,600 events—half of which were virtual.
New challenges brought new ways of using parks.
City staff moved quickly to address the pandemic: 84% instituted COVID-19 related pilots, such as temporary washrooms, one-way trails to ensure physical distancing, and keeping seasonal recreational facilities, like tennis courts, open into the winter.
Measures that Canadians would most like to see permanent include winterized washrooms (57%), outdoor cafes (55%), and outdoor arts/culture events (53%).
Cities creatively implemented these new measures, and responded to the challenges of high park use, all while grappling with increased budget pressures: 60% of cities reported COVID-19 had negatively impacted parks operating budgets.
Canadians want to see their parks funded well: 85% said they would like to see more public funding of parks split between maintenance (43%), new amenities and higher quality designs (27%), and community programming (23%).
Parks were recognized as critical public health infrastructure.
Increased park use reflected the benefits Canadians get from parks, with nearly two-thirds saying their appreciation of parks had increased during the pandemic, particularly for mental health (85%), physical health (81%), and social connection (71%).
60% of cities said that COVID-19 had increased attention on parks as public health infrastructure, with 89% of those cities saying they believed this would be a long-term trend.
The pandemic also catalyzed new partnerships with 84% of cities reporting increased collaboration between parks and other departments, such as public health.
The equity gap was made clearer.
The work of community advocates was key in highlighting inequities within parks and public spaces, such as access and safety, bringing attention to these issues throughout the pandemic.
Cities are tuning into the impacts of systemic inequities and discrimination, with 43% reporting that addressing these issues was a challenge—roughly the same percentage also indicated the pandemic had increased attention on these issues.
Canadians who identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour were more likely to report experiencing barriers to park use during the pandemic, such as fear of ticketing (24%) and harassment (22%). Despite this, they were more likely to cite an increased interest in stewardship activities (70%) than white Canadians (54%).
Canadians are thoughtful about how people may engage with parks differently from them, with 77% agreeing that aspects of people’s identity (e.g., race, gender, age) affect how a person experiences parks.
Climate action through parks is a growing priority.
While COVID-19 consumed attention in 2020, the climate crisis is also a priority: 84% of cities reported dealing with climate change impacts and extreme weather as a challenge.
Cities are moving on this, however: 72% of cities reported having a climate action plan in place. This is a rise over last year, attributable to both the inclusion of additional cities in the 2021 report and recently approved climate action plans.
Climate change is also on the minds of park users: 92% of Canadians said they would support climate-resilient infrastructure built into parks.
There are two ways to read this report. It is available as an interactive website and as a downloadable PDF. The COVID-19 lessons, key insights, takeaways, and city data are included both online and in a downloadable PDF format. The stories—which share leading practices and interviews with city staff, researchers, and community leaders—are available exclusively on the website: ccpr.parkpeople.ca/2021.
We would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to The Weston Family Foundation for its foundational support in the creation and launch of this report.
We would also like to thank the RBC Foundation, Toronto Foundation, Maglin Site Furniture, and an anonymous donor for their support.
A report of this size is a team effort. First, huge thanks to the dozens of city staff that worked with us to compile city data, answer our questions, and respond to interview requests. We know this takes a tremendous amount of work and this report is not possible without you.
Lastly, thank you to the entire Park People team for their support and input.
Cover picture credit: Frankel Lambert Park Toronto, Adri Stark
Racism is a parks and public space issue: Park People and anti-racism one year on
Note: This piece discusses racial and colonial violence, including George Floyd’s murder, Islamophobic attacks, and residential school deaths.
“Park People cannot achieve its mission to ‘activate the power of parks to improve quality of life in cities’ without acknowledging that systemic racism, oppression, and injustice are part of the daily lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people in parks and public spaces.”
In that statement, we committed to: “begin dismantling systemic racism as an organization.”
Today, more than a year after Floyd’s murder, the barricades at the intersection renamed George Floyd Square have been removed to, as city council members said in a recent article, “help restore and heal the community.”
The same week that flowers and artwork were being collected from George Floyd Square, Canadians laid down countless pairs of shoes in public spaces as a tangible display of deep sadness and horror at the discovery of 215 Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at a former Kamloops residential school.
Even more recently, an Islamophobic terrorist attack in London, Ontario targeted a family of five out for an evening stroll on a public street. The event highlights how a simple activity that has been so essential for many of us during the pandemic—getting out for a daily walk—entails risk and danger for many racialized communities.
With these devastating events in mind, we at Park People are providing an update on our ongoing journey to embed a culture of anti-racism in our organization and in our work in parks and public spaces. To date, our efforts have been deliberately focused on creating a shared, internal understanding of systemic racism and how we can begin to adopt an anti-racist approach.
We humbly share the steps we’ve taken so far.
Establish Leadership and Accountability
In the summer of 2020, Park People established an Anti-Racism and Equity Committee to support the development of an Anti-Racism and Equity Framework and Strategy for the organization. The Committee’s purpose is to establish internal accountability, ensure anti-racism is an organizational priority and create tangible, measurable actions we commit to in our work.
The Committee created a draft Anti-Racism and Equity Framework, soon to be reviewed by Park People’s Board of Directors. The Anti-Racism and Equity Framework establishes the principles, organizational values, and commitments that Park People will use to guide all of its work.
Embed Anti-Racism into Purpose and Plans
Park People is currently updating its Theory of Change, the critical document underpinning every aspect of our work. We’re using this opportunity to embed an intersectional, anti-racist lens into all of our programs, partnerships, and communications. This updated Theory of Change will embed anti-racism into our organization at a fundamental level.
Examine, Improve and Measure Efforts
Park People is working with an expert in Organizational Development and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) to support our internal equity efforts. So far, we have conducted an internal staff survey and a full audit of Park People’s operations. The survey and audit have given us a preliminary understanding of staff experiences and knowledge and allowed us to benchmark our efforts to date.
Coming out of the survey, we have identified tangible policies and practices to help us become a more inclusive organization. For example, the survey identified that staff lacked a shared understanding of key terms like inclusion, equity, diversity, and reconciliation. One outcome of the survey was to create staff-led definitions of terms that will support more productive dialogue on equity issues.
In addition, we recognize that Park People is a white-founded and white-led organization with disproportionately few Black, Indigenous, and people of colour on its staff and leadership teams.
We have taken steps to ensure our hiring and internal policies are equitable and are committed to having a staff team that is more representative of the diverse communities we serve going forward.
Adopting a Learning Culture
We have dedicated time, space, and resources to train and educate our staff and Board of Directors to better understand and address systemic racism and white supremacy in our organization and work.
By providing both formal and informal learning opportunities across the organization we are working to make equity, diversity and inclusion a live conversation. To do this, we’ve established staff training, shared resources, and created spaces for conversations on equity, diversity and inclusion issues.
As our Anti-Racism Framework lays out, Park People is committed to creating space for shared learning and welcomes challenging conversations about racism and white supremacy in our organization and work.
Being released this month, the 2021 Canadian City Parks Report centres on an equity perspective. In the report, we explore how racial inequities mediate access to the benefits of parks for everything from mental and physical health to climate resilience. In the report, we highlight and celebrate the work of communities of colour who, despite facing greater barriers to park use, continue to act as park advocates and stewards building more inclusive public spaces.
In short, this year’s report demonstrates how race and inequity are inseparable from parks and public spaces and points to anti-racist pathways forward. It’s a critical shift we look forward to sharing when we launch the report. We are committed to using the approach featured in the report to move towards embedding anti-racism into every aspect of our work and culture.
Park People recognizes that our work is still in its early stages and that we have a great deal of progress to make in addressing systemic racism and white supremacy. We are committed to addressing the enormity of the task at hand and accept that we will make mistakes in the process. We will continue to have courageous conversations with each other, hold ourselves accountable as we learn, and keep moving forward.
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