Dave Harvey and Erika Nikolai take on Joint Leadership as Park People’s Co-Executive Directors
Park People is thrilled to announce that it is adopting a shared leadership model, with Dave Harvey and Erika Nikolai as Co-Executive Directors, effective May 1, 2022.
Park People was founded by Dave Harvey who has been the organization’s Executive Director for more than ten years. Erika Nikolai joined Park People in 2014 when they were a Toronto exclusive organization. At that time, Erika was the organization’s sixth employee. Erika has played a critical role as Park People’s Managing Director, helping to lead the organization’s expansion to cities and parks across Canada.
The Co-Executive Director role formalizes the collaborative leadership that Erika and Dave have developed over many years of working together to build Canada’s city parks movement. Joint leadership not only recognizes Erika’s significant contributions to Park People’s success but also makes the organization stronger and more resilient as it continues to expand to meet increased demand for high-quality and accessible city parks— coast to coast.
The duo will work together to lead Park People’s team of more than 30 staff with offices in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. Over its 11th-year history, Park People has helped create a massive paradigm shift for city parks: once considered as “nice to have” amenities, city parks are now understood to be essential urban infrastructure.
Park People’s Board Chair Zahra Ebrahim is excited by Park People’s move to what she calls, “shared power and mutual accountability at the leadership level.” Ebrahim adds: “The Co-Executive Director model embeds Park People’s core value of collaboration at the centre of our work.”
Park People’s Founder, Dave Harvey shares his enthusiasm: “Erika and I have worked for hand in hand for many years. Our skills and strengths complement one another.” New Co-Executive Director Erika adds: “Sharing the leadership role with Dave will give us the collective capacity to meet the rapidly growing demand for city parks that create healthier, more equitable and climate-resilient communities.”
Parks need to serve people. That’s why we value direct input from people who use city parks. Over the last year, we’ve had many opportunities to talk to Canadians and better understand how and why they use parks.
Two important surveys we undertook in 2021 have guided our understanding of what city parks mean to you:
Stewardship and restoration volunteers who do hands-on work in Cornerstone Parks were surveyed to help us better understand the relationship between park stewardship, mental and physical health and pro-environmental behaviours.
Together, the insights from these surveys should inform the work of those who plan, program and maintain our city parks. We’re grateful to all those who participated.
Here’s what we learned:
People Using Their City Parks More than Ever
We now know that parks were a lifeline for many throughout the pandemic. Parks were some of the only places where people could connect with nature, enhance their physical and mental health, and come together with loved ones in a safe way.
In our 2021 Canadian City Parks Report (CCPR) survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, we found that:
2/3 of respondents said they spent more time in parks compared to pre-pandemic use,
39% reported their park use had doubled during COVID-19,
83% said parks have had a positive impact on their connection to nature during the pandemic,
82% of those that said they had spent more time in parks during the pandemic said they expected to maintain their levels or park or use parks even more.
The implications of these findings are complex. While parks and green spaces are vital to our social connection and health and well-being, the huge uptick in park use has put additional pressures on the parks and natural systems in our cities. Some municipalities are struggling to maintain parks now that more people are using them and some have had to boost education and signage to encourage park users to use these vital spaces to protect the places we love.
As city parks become increasingly central to people’s lives there will need to be greater investment to ensure everyone can access a quality park in their community, and that the parks we have can be maintained and protected.
People Want Stewardship Opportunities
Resurfacing History Program, Vancouver. Credit: Still Moon Arts
Park People’s 2021 CCPR survey found that 58% of Canadians say they’ve become more interested in park stewardship activities like planting, pulling invasive species and hands-in-the-dirt work in nature.
In Park People’s survey of stewardship participants at three of Canada’s large urban parks (High Park, Mount Royal and Stanley Park), we found evidence that engaging in park stewardship creates positive outcomes for people. In fact:
94% of respondents who engage in park stewardship said that participating in these programs enhances their mental well-being,
55% of survey respondents said that as a result of their park stewardship work, they’re more likely to talk about environmental issues with others, and
27% of survey respondents said they’ve started doing stewardship or conservation work at home, like removing invasive species or planting in their own backyard.
These findings support research indicating that park stewardship leads to pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.
Equity is Lagging in City Parks
Youth from Toronto’s Regent Park get together informally about once a week to talk about ways to improve the community. Credit: Christopher Katsarov Luna
We know that the benefits of parks are not equally available to Canadians who identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC). In our 2021 CCPR survey, we directly heard that BIPOC communities were likely to spend less time in parks than white Canadians during the pandemic. The reasons cited for this difference were related to increased barriers to accessing parks such as fear of ticketing and harassment.
In our survey, we found that BIPOC Canadians were less likely to report that parks had a positive impact on their mental and physical health or their sense of social connection during the pandemic compared to white Canadians. In fact:
22% of Canadians that identified as Black, Indigenous or a person of colour reported experiencing barriers to parks due to harassment or discrimination—more than twice the rate of white respondents.
77% of Canadians said they believe people experience parks differently based on aspects of their identity (e.g., race, gender, age).
Finally, our public survey showed that while 54% of white Canadians expressed a growing interest in park stewardship, 70% of those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of colour (BIPOC) expressed an interest in engaging in park stewardship. The interest is there, but the opportunities are lagging.
In addition, in our survey of the Cornerstone Park network:
BIPOC Canadians were underrepresented among stewardship volunteers in large urban parks – about 18% of our partners’ volunteer base.
Only 10% of stewardship volunteers in large urban parks identify as having a disability and,
Only 26% of park stewardship volunteers say they’re newcomers to Canada (arrived less than 5 years ago).
The 2022 Canadian City Parks Report, due out in June 2022 will allow us to track these numbers and trends over time. We expect that the results will confirm that parks will continue to do a lot of “heavy lifting” for cities and that equity remains vital issue municipalities and park leaders need to address.
Also, our 2022 Conference will take on many of the biggest challenges we face in city parks.
Parks are not neutral spaces but places where legacies of colonialism and white supremacy too often perpetuate urban inequity. At the same time, Black and racial justice movements have helped reimagine parks as places where the presence, experiences, and needs of Black Canadians can be visible and valued.
To recognize Black History Month, we’ve selected some of the content that has resonated with Park People over the past year and work we’ve contributed to that’s helping to center Black liberation in the planning, design, and management of parks and public spaces. We’re grateful to the Black thought leaders and communities that are contributing to a radical rethinking of our parks and public spaces.
How reframing our notions of park stewardship can help restore relationships to the land. Parks have become a vital communal space in the COVID-19 pandemic. They appeal to our need for relationships; both to each other in a time of social distancing and to the outdoors as we are asked to stay at home. But we often fail to acknowledge the role of parks in generations of dispossession.
A guest post was written by Jacqueline L. Scott. Jacqueline is a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, OISE, in the Department of Social Justice Education. She is a hike leader with two outdoor clubs. Jacqueline leads Black History Walks in Toronto. She is the author of travel and adventure books, from a Black perspective.
The COVID-19 pandemic altered human behaviour around the world. To maintain mental and physical health during periods of lockdown and quarantine, people often engaged in outdoor, physically distanced activities such as visits to parks and greenspace. However, research tracking outdoor recreation patterns during the pandemic has yielded inconsistent results, and few studies have explored the impacts of COVID-19 on park use across diverse neighbourhoods. The research team used a mixed-methods approach to examine changes in park use patterns in cities across North Carolina, USA, during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an emphasis on impacts in socially vulnerable communities (based on racial/ethnic composition and socioeconomic status).
Creating the positive outcomes socio-ecological researchers and practitioners seek for urban areas requires acknowledging and addressing the interactions of race and systemic racism in parks, open and green spaces. Racial experiences are inseparable from physical landscapes and the processes of designing, managing, or studying them. From COVID-19 to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, the events of 2020 in the United States underscore how considerations of social justice must extend beyond the conventional distributional focus of environmental justice. It must incorporate an understanding of how the built environment is racialized spatially, but not always readily quantified through the proximity-based measurements frequently used in research and practice.
Public safety is not merely the absence of physical threat; it is the presence of inclusive places shaped by equitable urban placemaking and policy. It is the visceral yet indescribable sense of belonging that is experienced in spaces which invite rather than tolerate differences.
Given the increasingly urban orientation of the world, a re-set on how cities are shaped moving forward is critical. Socioeconomic disparities have long been named by Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). This has been compounded by the heightened visibility of systemic racism, particularly its impact on Black lives. The field of planning, specifically, is tasked with constructing our built environments and mediating our socioeconomic infrastructure through mechanisms like funding, governance and public space policy. However, through ongoing processes of colonialism and racism, planning works to reinforce oppressive systems. The lack of diversity and critical interrogation within this field – one that fails to recognize its impact on the everyday lives of communities – contributes to the perpetual underfunding of BIPOC-led initiatives and allows systemic injustice to play out in our public spaces.
How can we take an intersectional, anti-racist approach to planning urban green spaces as a public health measure? Policy-makers, planners and public health professionals can learn from critical race and critical theory scholars in pushing for multidisciplinary action. Here are six ideas for policy-makers, city officials, public health, city builders and planners to consider in research, policy and practice.
In her doctoral study on “Parks Prescriptions and Perceptions: Experiences of Racialized People with Mood Disorders in Green Spaces,” Vanier scholar Nadha Hassen explores the experiences of racialized people living with mental illness in urban green spaces in Toronto. Using a visual research method called photovoice, Hassen’s research captures the experiences of people who are racialized and living with mood disorders as they interact with Toronto’s urban green spaces.
This paper puts forwards three considerations for built environment interventions to promote health equitably: addressing structural determinants of health and embedding anti-racist intersectional principles, revisiting tactical urbanism as a health promotion tool and rethinking community engagement processes through equity-based placemaking. This paper outlines four built environment interventions in Toronto, Canada that seek to address the challenges in navigating urban space safely in the short term, including street design that prioritizes pedestrians, protected cycling infrastructure, access to inclusive green space and safe, affordable housing. Longer-term strategies to create health-promoting urban environments that are equitable are discussed and may be valuable to other cities with similar urban equity concerns.
“Access is not just about proximity,” says Tenneti, an environmental science graduate from India who is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at U of T’s Daniels Forestry. People may live near a ravine, but if there’s no entrance near where they live and they have to walk, bike or take the public transit before getting into it, then it’s not accessible. That also costs time and money, which recent immigrants often lack when they first arrive. Likewise, there are some psychological barriers that prevent people from enjoying the ravines and other natural areas in the city. This is where Tenneti’s research comes into play. As a recent immigrant to Canada, she investigates community engagement in the city’s urban forests, looking specifically at factors that lead to inclusion or exclusion, with a focus on the experience of new immigrants. Her research suggests that immigrant communities are interested and do enjoy urban nature, but they prefer parks over wilderness areas. She says in general, people feel comfortable going to well-maintained, multi-use green areas where children have access to playing fields and other amenities such as seating, equipment, trees and gardens. Access to washrooms and drinking water is also important for planning family outings.’
Jesse Firempong is a communications officer with Greenpeace Canada. She spoke to What on Earth host Laura Lynch about how major environmental groups often centre white voices to the exclusion of BIPOC voices and concerns.
How BIPOC park leaders are centring conversations of justice and power in parks. This past year was marked by an unprecedented wave of racial justice movements that fostered hope and resilience in the middle of a global pandemic (no small task). Across Canada and the world, Black, Indigenous and people of colour demanded justice in all its forms.
Featuring Dave Harvey, Executive Director, Park People; Carlos Moreno, Scientific Director, Chair ETI (Entrepreneurship – Territory – Innovation), Panthéon – Sorbonne University; Rena Soutar, Reconciliation Planner, City of Vancouver Parks & Recreation; and Cheyenne Sundance, Founder & Farmer, Sundance Harvest Farm.
Urban green spaces help mitigate the impacts of climate change by reducing temperatures and lowering flood risk. However, unequal access to these spaces leaves many lower-income, racialized communities more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Addressing these inequities involves more equitable distribution of green space, but also changes in how we engage and involve communities in the design and planning of city parks.
The Nine Projects that Demonstrate the Power of Parks in 2021
“Parks alone cannot address climate change, racism, and public health challenges, but as the shared spaces in our cities they play a vital role in helping us learn to live together in a more resilient, equitable society.” Canadian City Parks Report, 2021
In 2021 our city parks became “the little (and big) places that could.” We saw how parks could provide safe and healthy respite from time spent indoors. We saw how parks could help us build more equitable and resilient communities that connect us to each other in times of global crises and in our daily lives. And, we witnessed the many ways parks could help us contribute to and re-centre our relationship with nature in cities.
This is the power of parks that can be fully realized when we invest in our urban green spaces, decolonize our thinking, and adopt upstream rather than downstream solutions that promote the well-being of people and the health of the planet.
Credit: Will Kwan, A Park for All, 2018, Text installation with Evergreen’s Public Art Program. Photo: Claire Harvie.
Park People’s 2021 Canadian City Parks Report addressed 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. Featuring insights from a survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, interviews with 40 leading experts and data and practices from 32 participating Canadian cities, the report’s findings are driving substantive change in Canada’s city parks.
Among the report’s many valuable insights were that
while nearly two-thirds of Canadians said their appreciation of parks had increased during the pandemic, particularly for mental health (85%), physical health (81%), and social connection (71%),
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, BIPOC Canadians were more likely to cite an increased interest in stewardship activities (70%) than white Canadians (54%).
Research for the 2022 Canadian City Parks Report is already underway with a focus on how collaborative and equity-based approaches to parks can shift how we value and experience parks and urban natural spaces.
In the words of Dylan Reid, the series’ talented editor, “The projects we’ve explored came in all sizes, from a postage stamp of greenery in Etobicoke on the west side of Toronto to a vast agglomeration across the western edge of Montreal. Many are ribbons, following the path of old infrastructure and rivers; others are irregular patches carved out of unprepossessing spaces by creative imaginations.”
Credit: illustration by Jake Tobin Garrett
Wonderfully illustrated by Jake Tobin Garrett, the ten stories in the anniversary series demonstrate that the best parks and public spaces are led by communities and fuelled by the energy and support of municipalities, park professionals, community agencies and so many more.
Nothing shows the unyielding commitment of Park People’s National Network of community park groups more than TD Park People Grant events. The 72 community groups that hosted more than 216 events in parks in 2021 are largely grassroots groups made up of volunteers.
Credit: 2021 TD Park People Grants, Art Bikers, Halifax, Nova Scotia by Carolina Andrade.
2021 is the year Park People launched its seminal Cornerstone Parks project, joining forces with Canada’s most iconic large park organizations – High Park Nature Centre, Stanley Park Ecology Society and Les amis de la montagne. These large, urban “Cornerstone Parks” are places to heal the earth and strengthen people’s relationship to nature. Consider that over ten years, Stanley Park Ecology Society volunteers dug deep and removed 8,000 m3 of invasive plants and replaced them with more than 8,000 individual native trees, shrubs, and grasses.
Credit: Les amis de la montagne
Through Cornerstone Parks, Park People is investing in the future of Canada’s large urban parks and spreading their impact and influence to cities across Canada. Stay tuned in 2022 for new announcements about the next Cornerstone Parks.
Sparking More Change in Parks
Established in 2013, Park People’s Sparking Change program continues to be rooted in the belief that,
“Parks are not simply green places of respite with grass and trees—they are critical pieces of the social infrastructure of our cities. And we believe they have a role to play in creating more inclusive, equitable places that are shaped by and for the people living there.”
In 2021, the Sparking Change program expanded beyond Toronto to Vancouver. While the Toronto Sparking Change program is focused on Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas, in Vancouver, our work is focused on areas the Vancouver Park Board identified as lacking access to quality park spaces and park programming.
Credit: Hives for humanity, Vancouver
In 2021, we were delighted to work with exceptional Vancouver groups like Hives for Humanity which supports inclusion and builds belonging through work with beehives and Strathcona Community Garden promotes gardening and food security for gardeners from Vancouver’s Asian, Middle Eastern and Latino communities.
Creating a Climate Adaption Master Plan
In 2021, Park People’s Professional Services team continued to lead projects across the country. Between 2019 and 2021, Park People worked closely with CREDDO, the municipality of Gatineau, Quebec and others to support the development of an innovative master plan for the flood-damaged communities of Pointe-Gatineau and Lac-Beauchamp.
Climate emergencies are one of the most pressing realities facing Canadian communities today. Park People was able to offer a unique lens as a non-profit organization focused on improving people’s quality of life through parks and urban green spaces.
The Gatineau master plan was developed in collaboration with community partners and residents and features a toolbox of 25 unique land-use typologies, such as green spaces, community gardens and social spaces, all designed to be implemented by local residents based on their social and environmental needs. Throughout this project, Park People provided an innovative perspective to evaluate and leverage the social and environmental roles of urban parks and how to leverage them in the context of community change and crisis.
Bringing ravines into view
Toronto’s ravines are glorious, often hidden treasures. While they may be visible to some communities, too often they are underutilized by Toronto’s equity-seeking groups that can benefit from greater access to these lush and expansive green spaces. The City of Toronto engaged Park People to support the community engagement plan connected to the city’s first-ever Ravine Strategy.
In 2021, InTO the Ravines, delivered in partnership with the City of Toronto, trained and supported community-based “ravine champions” who led beginners into the urban wilds.
Credit: Ravine Entrance Mural, Rowntree Mills – Panorama Park
In 2021 the program engaged 800 participants in virtual and safe, socially-distanced events in and around the ravines. 54% of participants have never been in a Toronto ravine or have only visited a ravine once or twice a year. Over 96% of participants said that the event helped inspire them to explore Toronto’s ravines.
Montreal organizations band together to create new possibilities for parks
Officially launched at the 2021 Montreal Park Forum, Park People along with Montreal Urban Ecology Centre, le Conseil régional de l’environnement de Montréal and Les amis de la montagne have invested in understanding groups that make up Montreal’s park network and connected community park groups together to galvanize support for city parks.
The Forum was a huge success and featured keynote speakers from both New York and Montreal as well as a panel on environmental justice in parks. Watch out for another awesome Montreal Park Forum in 2022.
The hybrid conference, set for June 2022, will feature both virtual and in-person learning and networking events with a special spotlight on Vancouver’s parks and the people behind them. Registration for The Park People Conference will open in March 2022. It’s where to park thinkers and doers will be to build new collaborations and opportunities for Canada’s city parks.
Editing this series has taken me on a fascinating virtual journey to remarkable park projects across Canada. It was a particular joy to “travel” in this way at a time when physical travel is fraught and limited. Through the evocative writing of our contributors, I got to experience creative, enterprising initiatives that I am eager to visit in person when travel becomes easier. Even within my own city of Toronto, the projects featured here span the entire length of the city, north, west and east, and provide future destinations for exploration.
These articles also introduced me to the remarkable range of people – citizens, activists, artists, designers, and planners – who have come together to initiate and shape these projects. Not the least, I was honoured to work with a range of committed urbanist writers, some of them favourite authors I was pleased to reconnect with, and others I discovered thanks to this project, each of whom brought their own insight, experience and local knowledge to the story they told.
The projects we’ve explored came in all sizes, from a postage stamp of greenery in Etobicoke on the west side of Toronto to a vast agglomeration across the western edge of Montreal. Many are ribbons, following the path of old infrastructure and rivers; others are irregular patches carved out of unprepossessing spaces by creative imaginations.
Of necessity, this range is just a sampling of the innovative projects taking place in parks across the country, and over the course of the series the choice of projects to be featured evolved. But our writers referenced many comparable park initiatives elsewhere in Canada as they explored these projects in depth, and for highlights of other inspiring projects, readers can refer to Park People’s annual Canadian City Parks Report.
The stories featured in this series have been more than enough, however, to stimulate some reflections on how Canadian parks are evolving and identify some common themes in the stories we’ve featured. Working on this series has revealed to me how Canada’s urban parks are dynamic and ever-changing, activated and shaped by the communities they serve.
Past and Future
Emilie Jabouin opens her article about Black Creek Community Farm with a Haitian saying that means “the work is continuous and ongoing.” And indeed, these articles have captured the way parks are continuously evolving.
Credit: Black Creek Community Farm Entrance
A goal of this series marking the tenth anniversary of Park People was to explore the past and future of urban parks in Canada. By taking this approach, our writers have been able to convey the arc of these parks over time, sharing the story of the origins of these parks and programs, where they stand in the current moment, and the future visions that build on those foundations.
Jillian Glover recounts how, as a child, she turned the neglected Arbutus corridor into a space to play. Currently, the City of Vancouver has turned it into a simple public space where people can travel and artists can experiment. And its popularity has provided the basis for future plans to develop a series of unique anchor points to support a range of activities for neighbours and visitors.
All of the parks in this series have been captured by our writers somewhere in this kind of mid-evolution. In the Meadoway, as Shawn Micallef writes, travellers on bike or foot can see the stages of planting that are transforming lawn into native meadow. In Calgary, children and adults are just breaking in new play structures. In Etobicoke, MABELLEarts is creating permanent new programs in response to the pandemic. In Edmonton, a ground blessing has set the stage for construction, while in Montreal and Quebec City, communities, city staff, and designers are putting together a roadmap for the future.
That presence of a transformative future vision, built on the past and present, is what unites all of the projects featured in this series.
MABELLEarts, kihciy askiy, and Black Creek Community Farm plan new buildings as a focus for their communities that will, as Kelly Boutsalis writes, “[put] down seeds for what they hope will be more beautiful community engagement for years to come.”
Credit: Painting the road as a tactical intervention, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ali McMillan.
By their very nature as a habitat for plants and animals, parks are not static, but rather always growing and changing. And what this series teaches is that the people who use parks, too, are constantly shaping and transforming them, sometimes instinctively and sometimes intentionally.
I have learned so much from this series because parks have a lot to teach us. It’s teaching that goes in many directions. At kihciy askiy, city staff learned about Indigenous values and processes, and non-Indigenous visitors will be able to learn about Indigenous culture.
As Lewis Cardinal told Emily Rendell-Watson, it will be “the place where we can do some teaching for non-Indigenous people, to welcome them to our ceremonies and to give them an introduction to our Indigenous worldviews and our history.”
At Black Creek Community Farm, children and newcomers learn about urban agriculture. In the Meadoway, residents learn about rewilding. At Flyover Park, students and local residents learned about planning and landscape design; but planners and designers also learned about tactical urbanism and the vision and enthusiasm of children.
As the City of Calgary’s Jen Mazer told Ximena Gonzalez, “We learned about the power of elevating different voices.”
In every project, professionals and communities absorbed desires and possibilities from each other.
The learning extends beyond individual projects, too. Some of these projects are firsts, such as kihciy askiy and Vancouver’s fieldhouses, and all have innovations to share. Each project, as it develops, becomes a way for other cities to hear about the possibilities parks can offer – a process to which we hope this series can contribute.
In his introduction to this series, Ken Greenberg highlighted the need for cities to be creative in their use of space as they become more densely populated and open space becomes ever more precious. A theme throughout this series has been how communities have come up with ways to creatively re-invent neglected and underused spaces and infrastructure.
A “dingy field of gravel” under a Calgary flyover and a neglected parklet in Etobicoke become community resources. Long-abandoned farms on Montreal Island become wilderness conservation areas. A corner of ravine land in northern Toronto becomes a farm, while a former farm in Edmonton becomes a destination cultural centre. Rivers in Quebec City that were formerly a place to dump waste become a place for recreation instead.
Credit: Le Parc des Grandes-Rivières de Québec Map. Rousseau Lefebvre
Vancouver’s prosaic fieldhouses, no longer needed as residences, supply scarce affordable studio and non-profit office space – and in the process, give scope for artists to reinvent the park around them too, as play spaces, concert venues, and more. An abandoned railway in Vancouver becomes a different, much greener kind of transportation route. And remarkably, Toronto’s The Meadoway continues to be a corridor for power but becomes a corridor for humans and wildlife at the same time.
As Antonio Gomez-Palacio says of the Arbutus corridor, what were once back ends – the places we didn’t notice or even avoided looking at – have been reinvented to become a focal point for people and for nature.
Local communities were the key catalysts of these transformations. These stories made me realize just how apt the concept of “grassroots” is when it comes to parks since they grow from the ground up both literally and metaphorically.
Credit: Mobile MABELLE. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.
Sometimes the transformations began informally – people carving their own trails through abandoned farms at the western edge of Montreal and riversides in Quebec City, children and artists re-imagining an abandoned railway in Vancouver as a space to play. But most of the projects explored here were the product, initially, of the intentional hard work of a local community. A nearby neighbourhood in Calgary and in Montreal, the residents of towers in Toronto’s Jane-Finch area, riverside dwellers in Quebec City, a small artistic organization in Etobicoke, Indigenous organizations in Edmonton all initiated transformations of spaces. And even when initiatives come from more established institutions, community involvement has been crucial in giving these initiatives purpose and shaping their outcomes.
Cities may provide the soil, but it’s communities that provide the seeds that make that land flourish.
When communities transform spaces, they create connections. First of all, connections within the community itself, as members are brought together through their parks. Mabelle Park is a focal point for the surrounding public housing towers; Black Creek Community Farm for the Black community and new Canadians in its nearby towers. Kihciy askiy will bring together the many different Indigenous nations in and around Edmonton. Vancouver’s fieldhouses have a mandate to connect with the communities around them. The Arbutus corridor and The Meadoway, meanwhile, link multiple neighbourhoods.
Credit: Fieldhouse Norquay Park, courtesy of Fresh Roots
As Ken Greenberg writes, parks connect communities but also geographies. Calgary’s Flyover park and Quebec City’s rivers strategy connect neighbourhoods to nearby rivers from which they were long cut off. The Meadoway connects Toronto’s ravines, not just for people but also for plants and wildlife. Montreal’s Great Park of the West will connect multiple isolated natural areas into an integrated corridor.
Parks create more conceptual connections, too. They can connect people to the natural world, as in The Meadoway’s re-wilding, to the source of their food, at Black Creek Community Farm, and to the soil itself, symbolized by the ground blessing ceremony at kihciy askiy. And kihciy askiy connects its users to the past, through the area’s historical use by Indigenous peoples and the continuation of Indigenous traditions, and to a future of hoped-for reconciliation.
When communities connect, they collaborate to make things happen. It’s striking how collaboration is at the heart of all of the projects explored in this series.
In many cases, community organizations are the managers of the land, such as for kihciy askiy, Mabelle Park, and Black Creek Community Farm. Sometimes the parks are developed on land managed by independent agencies, such as the Toronto Community Housing Corporation for Mabelle Park or the Toronto Region Conservation Authority for Black Creek and The Meadoway. Other times an independent park agency is involved, as in Vancouver and Calgary. The Meadoway was started off with funding from a foundation, while Montreal’s Great Park of the West incorporates land belonging to a university. Flyover Park too involved partnerships with schools and universities. And all of these disparate groups work with local communities, municipalities, and national and international professional designers to make visions a reality.
Credit: the Meadoway. TRCA.
Collaboration also takes the form of balancing different uses – recreation, conservation, agriculture, arts programming, industry, not to mention the plants and wildlife who have their own agenda.
As Micallef writes, a park is a “melding of the human and natural landscape.”
Such collaboration inevitably brings challenges – the time and patience it has taken to shepherd many of these projects is a testament to the work involved in coordinating many moving parts. But the collaboration also brings rewards – the richness of concept and enthusiasm of participants that comes through in these stories is a direct result of the many perspectives that came together to make them happen. And the buy-in that comes from developing these relationships is what ensures the long-term health of each project.
The parks featured in this series reveal vibrant and creative ways to think about creating green spaces in the city. As Greenberg notes, these are not what might be thought of as the stereotypical parks of the past – a few blocks of space set aside by the city or a philanthropic donor, provided with a few amenities and landscaping by the municipality, and then waiting passively to see who will come and use it.
In the parks in this series, many different people, organizations and institutions have come together to take an unprepossessing space and reclaim and re-imagine it. Together, they have created active spaces, ones that draw people in with farming, arts, teaching, nature and play to bring the park to life.
Credit: Fieldhouse Sharing Garden, courtesy of Fresh Roots
In the most recent issue of the magazine I edit, Spacing, I wrote about “city-growing” as an alternative concept to the well-worn idea of “city-building.” Taking a cue from nature, it’s about nurturing what emerges from the grassroots rather than imposing structures from above. Ecosystems, whether natural or social, are strongest when they develop organically, and the park projects explored in this series encapsulate that principle.
To reiterate what the City of Vancouver’s Marie Lopes told Christopher Cheung about that city’s fieldhouses,
“Stop thinking about your unused spaces as problematic. They’re opportunities. Look for collaborators where everybody wins. The community benefit is just boundless.”
About Dylan Reid
Dylan Reid is a senior editor at Spacing Magazine. He has also written articles for NOW magazine and the uTOpia books.
He was co-chair of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee 2007-2010, was one of the founders of the Toronto Coalition (now Centre) for Active Transportation and is a co-founder of Walk Toronto. Dylan is also a Fellow at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto.
How stakeholders collaborated to design the country’s first urban Indigenous cultural site
Edmonton, or Amiskwaciy Waskahikan, will soon be home to Canada’s first urban Indigenous ceremonial site.
Kihciy askiy, which means “sacred land” in Cree, is located in the heart of Alberta’s capital city on a 4.5-hectare site in Whitemud Park. The park is situated in Edmonton’s river valley and will be a spot where Indigenous communities can gather for ceremonies and sweat lodges, grow medicinal herbs, as well as facilitate learning for non-Indigenous people about Indigenous culture.
“We’re living in the era of reconciliation and as a part of that reconciliation we have to create positive relationships with settlers, so this is going to go a long way,” explained Lewis Cardinal, the project manager for the site from the Indigenous Knowledge & Wisdom Centre (IKWC).
“We deal with issues today like racism and discrimination, but a lot of that is based on ignorance, or simply not knowing people’s traditions and being led by misinformation. This gives an opportunity to provide that direct and personal interaction with (Indigenous culture).”
Cardinal added that it will be equally as important for the site to act as a hub for local Indigenous communities to come together, especially for those who are seeking healing from addictions, abuse, or other trauma.
“This is how we can help to transform these things into something very positive; strengthen people and strengthen relationships,” he said.
Access to cultural activities
The project, which is a partnership between the IKWC and the City of Edmonton, was initially proposed by Cardinal and elder William Campbell in 2006 with the aim to establish a place where Indigenous ceremonies could be held within the city.
Credit: Rendering of the view from the entrance to the pavilion building from the City of Edmonton
The land where kihciy askiy is being built on the west side of Edmonton is on what’s known as the old Fox Farms property, and historically was a place where Indigenous people would camp before entering the city, and pick saskatoons. Oral tradition talks about how across Whitemud Creek to the east of kihciy askiy is a large ochre deposit site, which is significant because ochre was an important part of Indigenous ceremonies in the past — it was mixed with berries and pigments to create colour.
The area was used off and on over the years for ceremonies, including an international Indigenous conference called Healing Our Spirit Worldwide. But each time the Indigenous community wanted to use the land, Cardinal said they had to apply for permission from the city — leading the elders counsel who guided the conference to wonder if it was possible to permanently have access to a plot of land in the urban centre.
Cardinal, Campbell, and a group of elders created a non-profit organization called the Edmonton Indigenous Cultural Resource Counsel to move the initiative forward and began to have more serious discussions with the city about how to make the project a reality.
Some were in favour of hosting ceremonies within the city, while others were against it, so in 2010 the organization decided to gather 120 Indigenous elders from across Alberta to discuss the opportunity over three days. The group also considered what specific ceremonies should be held in cities, and where they should be located.
“The response to the first question was, yes, we need to have ceremonies available to our families and our youth and our community in the urban centres because we know that in the near future, most of our people will be living in urban centres and they need access to these cultural activities and ceremonies in an environment that is embraced by Mother Earth,” Cardinal explained.
“In other words, you can’t have ceremonies in the parking lot of a Walmart.”
The project was eventually taken on by Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA), which kicked off a process of continuous dialogue, and the establishment of the Counsel of Elders to work with the team during the design and construction of the site, as well as provide spiritual and cultural leadership for the project.
NSCA hosted grand council gatherings for Indigenous spiritual leaders in the Edmonton region at the Alfred H. Savage Centre in May 2015 and again in October 2018 to review and approve of the concept design, go over ceremony protocols for the site, and broadly discuss ceremonial and spiritual needs of the Indigenous community in the region.
In 2018, NCSA underwent a structural reorganization and the decision was made to move the project over to IKWC, recalls Cardinal, which is when he was asked to manage it on a full-time basis.
“The elders have always taught me that you bear responsibility for your dreams and visions. So if you’re bringing this dream and vision forward for yourself, or for a group of people, you still have that commitment to it. So it was quite lovely to get back in and start to work with the elders and bring it to this point,” Cardinal said.
One of those elders is Howard Mustus, chair of kihciy askiy’s Counsel of Elders, and traditional knowledge keeper. He said he hopes the project will help to minimize racism, as non-Indigenous people absorb and accept Indigenous traditions and culture.
“We encourage non-Indigenous people to come in and sit with us in our sacred circles and to learn more about indigenous law. That stems from the sanctioning of spirituality, which is very important to our people. That is the ultimate power and authority that dictates how we conduct ourselves and how we function as a society for caring and sharing in a holistic manner,” said Mustus.
A ground blessing (instead of a groundbreaking ceremony) was hosted in September 2021 to mark the beginning of construction and honour the relationship between all the stakeholders involved in the creation of kihciy askiy, which has a budget of $4.5 million. It was also an opportunity to “seek blessing from Mother Earth in allowing construction to take place,” which involved tying ribbons to a tree to signify connections and respect to the earth.
Construction on the land, led by Delnor Construction, officially began in mid-November and is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete.
Engagement and collaboration
The relationships formed through the process have been key to kihciy askiy’s success thus far, including influencing how the site was developed.
Nav Sandhu, program manager with the City of Edmonton, said the social procurement aspect involved considering how potential contractors engage their teams or sub-trades to incorporate Indigenous communities. That meant hiring an Indigenous human resources coordinator and working with Indigenous-owned businesses to tackle the mechanical and landscaping aspects of the project.
“Social procurement is relatively new when you look at the construction industry, and it’s something that I think that we’re moving aggressively towards. It’s great to see the city be a leader in ensuring that the partners and the people that are going to be using it have a voice at the table to say (what’s going to benefit them),” said Sandhu. “Projects like these, where the social impact is so significant, take a lot of collaboration.”
The development process also involved getting consensus from representatives of the more than 50 Indigenous communities who will be able to use the site and adjusting several parkland policies to allow for development in Edmonton’s river valley and access to the area for Indigenous cultural activities.
As the owner of the land, the city will construct two buildings on kihciy askiy, which will house changing rooms, washrooms, a small classroom to host land-based education, a meeting space, and a storage facility. There will also be an outdoor amphitheatre.
Cardinal said the goal is to naturalize the space and “not make a huge footprint on the site.”
There will also be a teepee area, with enough space for 10-12 teepees or Métis trapper tents, to hold storytelling ceremonies.
Credit photo: kihciy askiy Tipi and site v2, Teresa Marshall
Two fire pit structures will be able to support two sweat lodges simultaneously, with space for up to eight in total. Sweat lodges offer a ceremonial space that’s integral to Indigenous culture, which is important because the Indigenous groups in the Edmonton region have many different traditions surrounding the purification practice.
“Sweat lodge holders have been taught differently from their ancestors, or the ones who’ve transferred that ceremony to them. So we have to make sure that there is accessibility for all of those users,” Cardinal explained.
Once kihciy askiy is complete, Indigenous people in Edmonton won’t have to travel out of the city to Paul Band, or Enoch or Alexander First Nation to participate in a sweat.
The third element will be a medicine garden, building off of the traditional medicines accessible in the river valley, which is one of the reasons the site was chosen. It will be used as a teaching area, as well as a place to harvest things like sage, tobacco, sweetgrass, and more for elders.
Finally, a multi-purpose space will offer an alternative locale for Indigenous ceremonies and other traditional structures that may need to be built for some First Nation traditions.
“It will also be the place where we can do some teaching for non-Indigenous people, to welcome them to our ceremonies and to give them an introduction to our Indigenous worldviews and our history. It’s a great opportunity to create those interfaces to teach people about things,” explained Cardinal, who added that there will also be what they’re calling an “open program” where sweat lodges will be open to the public.
“The whole site is intended to foster good relations, help Indigenous people reconnect to the land and the teachings that come from the land, as well as to their culture, traditions, and history.”
Indigenous organizations and agencies will also be able to use the site to deliver their own cultural programming.
Cardinal said the only other park site he knows of that is remotely similar to kihciy askiy is Jasper National Park’s Cultural Use Area, which is an area developed by the Jasper Indigenous Forum and Parks Canada for Indigenous partners to reconnect with the land, and host cultural learning and ceremonies.
The site, which has been used since June 2013, is not open to the general public.
‘A safe haven’
Once construction on kihciy askiy is complete, IKWC will run the site. People will be able to access it by various means of transportation, including bus, which was an important factor in solidifying the site location, said Cardinal.
Cardinal, Mustus, and Sandu all envision the site as an important pillar for the Indigenous community in terms of offering a way to uphold traditions within the Edmonton region. The partnerships that were key to developing the site will continue, and new ones will hopefully be formed between the Indigenous communities who use it and non-Indigenous people who are eager to learn.
“Kihciy askiy offers a safe haven for the community. I don’t think it’s going to be the last (project of this kind) — I think you’re gonna see a trend of these in the coming years … to bridge that gap,” Sandhu said.
“I think this is a significant step towards truth and reconciliation that needed to happen.”
About Emily Rendell-Watson
EmilyRendell–Watson is an Edmonton-based multimedia journalist who is currently the Editorial Lead & Community Manager of Taproot Edmonton, a publication that seeks to help its community understand itself better.
She writes about tech innovation, urban issues, climate change, and anything else that comes across her desk. When she’s not chasing a story, you can find her coaching speed skating or adventuring in the backcountry with her rescue dog, Abby.
The summer of 2020 was in many ways, the summer of parks. Public health was promoting the optimistic message that being outdoors in parks made socializing safe. While the media ran with the message that parks are our safe spaces, Jenn Chan CEO, Co-Founder of The Department of Imaginary Affairs was becoming increasingly concerned that another story was being lost.
The Department of Imaginary Affairs (DIA) had received 2020 funding through Arts in the Parks to run a storytelling project in a Toronto park. DIA deferred the funding until 2021 and began reimagining how they could tell the story of two Toronto parks and feature the narratives of newcomers, immigrants and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour are at the centre.
DIA wanted to tell a story to highlight the vital role parks play in people’s lives and a story that takes an honest, unflinching look at parks as unsafe and unwelcoming places for newcomers, immigrants and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour. They decided to focus on two parks: Dentonia Park in East York and Edgeley Park in the Jane/Finch neighbourhood, both in Toronto’s inner suburbs.
Credit photo: The DIA Staff and Board participating in a Parks Future’s Design Lab, where we reflected on the land we take up space on and envisioned a better and safer future for parks in the Toronto area.
To centre these stories, DIA articulated a set of ambitious goals:
Foster a safe space for folx to share difficult stories,
Reimagine what it looks like for BIPOC communities to have safer/braver spaces within their communities, parks and the city of Toronto.
Better represent the communities living near Dentonia and Edgeley Park.
Foster a safe space for difficult stories
For A Tale of Two Parks DIA hired youth from two local communities and trained them in oral storytelling and techniques to connect with and build trust with the community. Working as Social Researchers the youth experimented with various engagement methods to learn more about the people who visit their park. One example of an intervention involved a Social Researcher sitting on a park bench holding up a sign asking a provocative question followed by the query: “want to change my mind?”
Credit photo: Program Caretaker Elvin and Social Researcher Ari participating in DIA’s Participatory Parks Planning Game in November 2021.
Over several weeks, the park goers became more comfortable with the Social Researchers, and eventually shared their stories about the park. They talked about what the park meant to them before COVID, its role during the pandemic, and the park they would hope to have in the future.
The Social Researchers observed that many of the newcomers, immigrants, and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour weren’t used to being encouraged to share their stories, they’d ask questions like: “Why do you want to know my story? Why does it matter?” It took patience and skill for the researchers to help local park-goers open up and feel safe talking about their park, and their vision.
Reimagine safer/braver spaces
The park stories of newcomers, immigrants and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour said volumes. Their stories told the researchers that while people in these communities love their parks, they often don’t feel like they have the power to improve them.
For example, in Edgeley Park, BIPOC youth voiced concern about the wood chips covering the playground–the wood chips were messy, got caught in their shoes and made the playground feel unwelcoming.
They asked: “Why can’t we have sand in the playground?”
A different story was coming through. While park users in these communities love and value their parks, they feel helpless about making them safer or welcoming for those who need them.
Credit photo: Social researcher Ari interviewing members of Shwasti, a Bengali Seniors Walking Group that meets at Dentonia Park to exercise and share space with one another, at Dentonia Park in August 2021.
By surfacing this tension, A Tale of Two Parks highlights that parks in equity-seeking communities often occupy an uncomfortable both/and space. In these communities, parks are both free and open green spaces that can offer a sense of respite and comfort, and they are tied to a colonialist agenda that only provides individuals with privilege an opportunity to have a sense of control over the conditions that govern their lives.
This both/and space is, in Jenn’s words, the “scary and magical” place where DIA and the Tale of Two Parks researchers learned to find a connection.
Better represent communities
The thoughtfully edited recordings gathered for A Tale of Two Parks will be compiled and featured on DIA’s website, providing a platform for diverse narratives of the park users who want their stories to be heard & shared.
But that’s just the beginning.
DIA is committed to making sure that the stories generated within the two parks are widely accessible. They’re currently planning a visual and audio installation as part of DesignTO’s 2022 lineup. The installation centres around the question: “What if parks were safe for everyone?” and will feature written and audio stories, photographs, artwork and videos from ‘A Tale of Two Parks’ to, in their own words, “elevate and amplify the stories we had the privilege of hearing and seeing as well as reflections from our team about how this project shifted their own relationships with parks.”
The audio recordings and upcoming installation will help represent the stories of BIPOC communities who hold space for simultaneously loving their parks while resisting the enforcement, violence, and acts of hate and racism that in large part define their park experiences.
Feature photo credit: The youth at Edgeley Park participating in the Arts Event through the Youth Program our Social Researcher Delux facilitated in September 2021.
TD Park People Grants Invite Creative Approaches to Connecting Canadians to Parks
In 2021, with the support of the TD Ready Commitment, TD Park People Grants brought renewed energy, joy and connection to communities across Canada. These $2,000 microgrants sparked 72 community park groups to host 216 events that provide environmental education, sustainability and stewardship – all in local parks. Close to 60% of TD Park People Grants were focused on equity-seeking communities, ensuring that the benefits of parks and green spaces are widely accessible. This focus will continue in 2022.
Credit photo: Neighbours Sharing Native and Pollinator Plants, Toronto.
Starting today, qualified organizations and community groups are invited to apply to receive a $2,000 grant to host activities that connect communities to their local parks and green spaces.
The application process is simple, and we’ve developed a number of resources to help groups host engaging community events.
The deadline to apply is February 28, 2022, and all events must take place from April 16 and December 31, 2022.
“It’s clearer than ever how much parks and green spaces mean to Canadians,” says Carolyn Scotchmer, Executive Director of TD Friends of the Environment Foundation. “We’re excited to launch the next round of TD Park People Grants because we know that they help deepen Canadians’ connection to nature, and in turn, promote the wellbeing of both people and the planet.”
TD Park People Grants are open to almost any community event in a publicly accessible green space – whether it’s a city park, social housing property, or schoolyard. Your environmental education, sustainability or stewardship event can be as unique as your community. Want to host a climate change workshop? A nature walk? Promote Indigenous stewardship? Host a bike repair workshop?
“The possibilities are open and creativity is really encouraged,” says Dave Harvey, Park People’s Executive Director.
Community groups and organizations in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Gatineau, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax can apply now. Grassroots community groups representing diverse communities or neighbourhoods are especially encouraged to apply.
We simply can’t wait to see what this year’s TD Park People Grant recipients have in store for their communities. Apply now.
Park People is seeking candidates to join our volunteer Board of Directors. This is an exciting opportunity to join a great group of people from across Canada who are helping to guide and shape the work of a growing, dynamic national charity improving parks and communities in cities from coast to coast.
The Board of Directors is legally responsible for the governance of Park People. The Board sets policies, budgets and plans to ensure that Park People achieves its goals and mission. They support the management team to set the mission and Strategic Plan of the organization, evaluate the performance of senior management and ensure fiscal accountability and the long-term resiliency of the organization.
Park People mobilizes and supports community park groups, community organizers, non-profits, park professionals, and funders to activate the power of parks to build strong communities, healthy environments, and resilient cities.
Park People is dedicated to promoting equity, multiculturalism, and inclusion in all of the work that we do. We are striving for a Board of Directors that is representative of the communities where we work, and encourage applications from BIPOC candidates.
We are open to candidates from across Canada and seek a broad representation of regions and backgrounds. At the moment, we’re looking for the following skills and expertise on our Board. In your application, we ask that you tell us what you would bring to the Board:
Passion for Park People’s mission
Good understanding of the charitable sector and the role of boards
Background or understanding of any of the following: governance, finance/accounting, experience working with equity deserving communities, human resources, marketing, fundraising, legal, park management, planning or design.
Our Board meets five times a year by Zoom. Board members are expected to also participate in one of our committees focused on Governance and Human Resources or Finance. Committees meet generally twice a year. There is also an annual in-person gathering usually in the Greater Toronto Area and Park People will cover any travel costs associated with this gathering.
Anticipated Start Date: This can be flexible to meet candidate needs.
We will be reviewing applications and conducting interviews on a rolling basis. We are thankful for all applications, and will only be contacting candidates invited for an interview.
Please send your resume and cover letter in one electronic file in confidence to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you require accommodation in order to participate in the recruitment process, please contact us at email@example.com to provide your contact information.
“I think my favourite part is the original Scarborough Centre Butterfly Trail,” says Katie Turnbull, referring to the initial pilot project that launched The Meadoway in Toronto.
“That portion has been established since 2013. There’s wildflowers and grasses, a couple of allotment gardens, as well as shrub nodes, and the grass buffers are all nicely mowed. To me, that’s the spot that I just love to walk with family and friends. But I also love taking them through the sections that we haven’t restored yet and showing the difference between the mown grass and what could be there.”
Turnbull has been working on The Meadoway since the beginning, as a Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) Senior Project Manager. She’s witnessed it grow from that butterfly trail into a plan to turn 16 kilometres of the Gatineau Hydro Corridor into a linear park of continuous greenspace and meadowlands, along with a walking and cycling trail, that cuts across Toronto’s eastern suburb of Scarborough to connect downtown Toronto to the Rouge National Urban Park on the eastern edge of the city.
Hydro corridors are ubiquitous in cities, and The Meadoway is a new way of thinking about them as sites of recreation, connectivity, wildlife habitat, animal migration and a unique melding of human and natural landscape. “It’s an industrial reuse project,” says Corey Wells, also a Senior Project Manager at TRCA.
“We’ve taken what has been typically viewed as not a place that someone would want to ride their bike or hang out, and flipped it on its side.” Wells points out there are more than 500 kilometres of hydro corridors in Toronto, and the Scarborough project is something that can serve as a blueprint for how they can create new space for parks and wildlife.
The Meadoway is big sky country. At some of the higher points, there are vistas many kilometres long piercing all the way to the downtown, unencumbered by trees or buildings. Toronto is known for its ravines, wild fissures that weave their way from north of the city down to the lake, generally running from north to south but not connecting laterally. The hydro corridors that cross Toronto are like human-made ravines, portage routes over the tablelands between one ravine system and another. As Wells says, “It’s the backbone of Scarborough.”
The Gatineau corridor climbs out of the Don Valley at what will be the Bermondsey Road “Western Gateway” to The Meadoway, connecting from the East Don Trail that will lead right to downtown Toronto. From here the corridor runs east, linking seven rivers, 15 parks, 13 neighbourhoods and what will be more than 200 hectares of cultivated meadows on its way to Rouge National Urban Park. Though not yet completed, much of The Meadoway can now be followed on foot or by bike to experience the various stages of this seven-year project. It takes the traveller along a series of long and gentle grades rising from and lowering to, the watersheds. Cycling the trail is a meditative experience as it meanders through the hydro towers, passing dozens of “no mow” signs along the way that protect what Turnbull calls this “central habitat.” There’s much more to The Meadoway than simply letting the grass grow, though.
From lawn to meadow
Before The Meadoway, the Gatineau corridor would typically be mowed six times a year.
“It’s pretty in-depth, what needs to be done,” says Turnbull. “We look at it as a three-to-five-year process. In year one we start off doing farming practices and actually use farm equipment to remove the turf.”
After the existing turf is taken care of by mowing and tilling, a cover crop of oats is planted. Its role is to reveal what other seeds are in the soil and might grow in place of the turf. The oats allow invasive species like dog-strangling vine and Canada thistle to grow, but also keep them in check, making them easier to remove. That crop will be mowed, and the process repeated four times throughout the summer until they are satisfied they have suppressed all the non-desired and invasive species.
Then it will be seeded in the fall to allow natural stratification – a process by which a period of cold and moist weather breaks seed dormancy through freezing and thawing, cracking the seed shell to allow it to absorb moisture – and then subsequent germination in the spring.
“We use a variety of seed mixes depending on the moisture regime in the soils and where we are within the 16 kilometres,” says Turnbull. “All seeds used are from local nurseries that provide native species sourced within Southern Ontario. We try and pick species that will help to increase species diversity, improve ecosystem health, provide a variety of bloom times throughout spring to fall, provide plant host species for pollinators and birds, have long root depths to help stabilize soils, be resilient to drought and provide food sources in the winter for birds.”
There are dozens of different species planted, and the choice depends on the particular landscape, such as butterfly meadow, wet meadow, dry grass mix, upland slopes, and so on. The most seeded species are: big bluestem, New England aster, oxeye, wild bergamot, evening primrose, switchgrass, black-eyed Susan, cup plant, blue vervain, common milkweed – and there are many more.
At this point, TRCA moves to an adaptive management and monitoring phase, watching for more invasive species, monitoring how the meadow is coming up and doing infill seeding where necessary. While this is happening, the City of Toronto mows a three-and-a-quarter metre grass buffer along the trail, as well as a five-metre buffer edge along homes that back onto The Meadoway. Ongoing maintenance is needed because, as Turnbull explains, every meadow will want to turn into a shrub thicket and then a forest.
Rewilding – a new habitat with a lot of benefits
“A big thing I always find in talking to residents along the path is that they are hearing pollinators,” says Turnbull. “A lot of residents hadn’t seen a lot of these insects or heard birds calling before, and all of a sudden the meadow brings a whole new habitat.”
This effect is part of what Turnbull calls enhanced ecological services: increasing the biodiversity and ecosystem resilience along the corridor. With taller meadow plants, birds, along with butterflies and other pollinators, now find a home there. For those staying through the winter, the meadow can now help them through the cold season; for migratory birds and butterflies, it provides a feeding and resting ground as they pass through. Deer and other larger wildlife can travel between ravine systems.
There’s also the mitigation of pollution, as having a more robust flora cover provides air filtration. The larger root systems of the native meadow plants, some more than two metres long, mean the landscape can now hold more water, which also helps with flood attenuation by slowing down water runoff. Less mowing means reduced maintenance costs and lower emissions. And the addition of more meadows could also have a cooling effect.
“We’re looking to see what the temperature differences between turf and meadow is right now,” says Turnbull. “It’s just preliminary but results are showing almost a nine-degree difference in temperature.”
“For me, its power lies in its connectivity,” says Nina-Marie Lister, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and Director of the Ecological Design Lab, which ran a design workshop for The Meadoway.
“It’s a space of connection across communities but it’s also a space across landscapes and topography.” Because a meadow has so much open sky, Lister says there’s opportunity to see birds in ways we can’t in the forest, and the open quality allows for sunlight that is good for growing things both for human consumption, through urban agriculture, and for enjoyment. “I would describe it as a very different landscape experience,” she says. “On the one hand it’s physical, about connectivity, but visually it’s about openness. The Meadoway is a kind of counterpoint to the ravines, which are folds in the landscape, whereas this provides a view across the tablelands.”
Active industrial corridor and partnerships
“A lot of the classic industrial reuse projects globally are ones where there was a historical industrial usage which has now stopped and it’s been converted into a public space, like the High Line in New York,” says Wells. “The Meadoway is unique in that it’s still functioning for its primary purpose.”
Wells points to Hydro One’s “Provincial Secondary Land Use Program,” which provides opportunities for other uses in the corridors as long as the primary one – transmitting electricity – can still function. These could include, for example, an adjacent developer building a parking lot, or the city maintaining playing fields under the wires. A spokesperson for Hydro One says that while the primary use of corridors is to deliver safe and reliable power, they welcome the opportunity to work with local municipalities and organizations as a community partner to create additional safe uses of hydro corridors.
“I think Hydro One is learning a lot, just as much as we are, about becoming a little bit more comfortable about what has typically been seen as a place where no people really spend any time,” says Wells.
Apart from not planting trees that could interfere with the wires, Wells says the locations of plantings and trails are designed to be in harmony with maintenance needs, and that a meadow is a perfect in-between landscape that is compatible with all these uses.
That learning curve has been shared by a number of agencies and groups including TRCA, Hydro One and the City of Toronto’s various departments, as each group, with their own mandates and core interests, have found a way to work together on this common project.
The Meadoway is also an example of a public-private partnership – a concept more common in US parks than in Canada. This public-private partnership was first created through the Weston Family Parks Challenge, a city parks initiative that funded the Scarborough Centre Butterfly Trail pilot. The success of that first revitalization led to a pledge of up to $25 million from the Foundation to revitalize the entire 200 hectares.
“As soon as we saw the enthusiastic community response to the Scarborough Centre Butterfly Trail, we knew this pilot project had the potential to expand,” says Emma Adamo, Chair, Weston Family Foundation. “The Meadoway really has it all – from environmental benefits, to research and education, to promoting active transportation. It has the potential to have a significant impact on the mental and physical well-being of the surrounding community members.”
The project is even more complex when considering how much ongoing public consultation goes into it.
“We developed something called the community liaison committee, reaching out to a number of local organizations, residents, NGOs, groups like WalkTO and BikeTO, and Scarborough bike repair groups,” says Wells. “Like-minded individuals with different perspectives on how they might be able to utilize the space. We used them sort of as an initial sounding board.”
This kind of feedback was critical to how trails and connections were planned, as locals know the space and know-how they use it, and plans were adapted in response before introducing them to the broader public in open houses and public information centres. TRCA developed a “visualization toolkit” with lively and engaging renderings, virtual-reality experiences and even a twenty-four-foot-long scale map of the entire corridor, which was brought out to public meetings so people could put stickers and notes on it. TRCA also reached out specifically to new Canadians among Scarborough’s diverse population to engage them with The Meadoway initiative, and students at local schools were given seeds so they could learn about what was being planted. All of this outreach produced buy-in and a sense of ownership from residents.
After The Meadoway’s designers digested the input they had received, details were sorted out: benches, bike lock-ups, litter bins, and the design of trail intersections, where The Meadoway crosses north-south trails, to include ample seating, play areas and more manicured garden sections. A wayfinding system is still in the planning stages. It will include educational signage telling people where they are and where they can go, but also informing them of the natural and Indigenous heritage of the area, as well as the geomorphology of the waterways The Meadoway traverses.
There are some big obstacles in the way of creating a seamless natural corridor through a crowded city. Lister notes there are more than 30 road crossings along The Meadoway that pose challenges, not just for humans but for wildlife. “If we prioritize pedestrians, and we prioritize the creatures who are most vulnerable to traffic, it’s done by slowing the traffic,” says Lister.
“If The Meadoway is a priority, we need to think really big about what it means to have a healthy, accessible green space for the safe movement of people and wildlife and that it’s worthy of capital investment, as important as sewers and railways.”
While tunnels under roads are not a preferred solution, bridges are expensive. A smaller but useful example of the traffic slowing Lister mentions can be seen where The Meadoway crosses Crockford Boulevard in the Golden Mile neighbourhood. Rather than a signalized crossing, the road is “pinched,” or narrowed, and the usual asphalt replaced with bricks, all of which push drivers to slow down.
Highway 401, with its expanse of express and collector lanes, is perhaps the biggest barrier to a continuous Meadoway. It crosses the hydro corridor just north of the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, as the corridor nears its terminus at Rouge National Urban Park. TRCA may route active transportation users through the campus, in harmony with the that are part of the school’s masterplan, including the completed switchback path that leads from the ravine floor up to the campus, and onto Conlins Road, where protected bike lanes were recently installed to provide a route over the highway.
Taking on a life of its own
TRCA has been contacted by a number of municipalities and organizations who are looking at their inventory of these kinds of corridors in their jurisdiction and thinking about what other purposes and uses could be envisioned.
However, TRCA is also hoping The Meadoway takes on a life of its own and becomes a catalyst for other changes along its path. “In 10 or 15 years, I’d like to see a fully connected and seamless trail system from east to west,” says Wells. “When new developments are being planned and parks are being enhanced, I hope they’re all thinking of ways to connect to The Meadoway. I’m really hoping it becomes the veins of a leaf right across Scarborough.”
Lister calls it the “ultimate teaching garden,” one that will influence not just other cities, but individuals and their private property. “If the City and TRCA can do this, we can all do it.” She sees it as a literal, and metaphorical, seedbed for natural gardens. As for Turnbull, she hopes it will inspire people. “I’m hopeful it will be a place where the community and the public can come and enjoy nature and biodiversity,” she says. “I hope it will help them visualize that a different type of habitat in cities is possible.