For the many Canadians who don’t have backyards or even balconies, parks are an important extension of their living spaces. While the environmental benefits of natural spaces are well-known, the social benefits of parks are less understood. From supporting mental health to reducing social isolation, the pandemic helped make the upstream health and social benefits of parks more visible.
Parks can absolutely make us healthier, happier, and more connected. But, only when they are safe and accessible. And, we know parks are less safe and quality parks are far less accessible to equity-seeking communities.
In Park People’s survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, those 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%).
For the past four years, TD Park People Grants have helped build vital connections between people and parks. While equity-seeking groups have been core to the program from the start, this year, we set a clear target to ensure that 50% of TD Park People Grants were awarded to equity-deserving groups in cities across Canada.
In Toronto, Youth Leaders of East York and Street to Trail are dedicated to making the benefits of parks, ravines, and public spaces accessible to equity-seeking communities.
Youth Leaders of East York walk on the wild side
At the start of the pandemic, Thorncliffe Park was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Dr. Jeff Powis, the medical director of infection control at the community’s Michael Garron Hospital made this clear, stating:
“It became quite clear to me that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people with health inequities — things such as housing, income, and racialization.”
As the needs of health-care sector, service industry and gig economy workers drew focus, the needs of the community’s local youth receded from view. Elmirah, the co-founder of Youth Leaders of East York, saw a need in her community and quickly banded together with like-minded peers to build a network of support for local youth. As a first-generation Canadian, Elmirah wanted to provide ways for local youth, like herself, to become engaged and active in their communities.
The Youth Leaders of East York help youth connect to jobs and volunteer positions, foster leadership and teamwork skills, learn about a range of topics like accessing funding for post-secondary education, reducing community violence and accessing racism.
The group launched the ‘Green Team’ to bring youth together to address environmental issues in their community and globally. The Youth Leaders of East York secured a TD Park People Grant to host “Summer Environmental Stewardship Series” events which included a ravine walk with Floyd Ruskin who is a principal member of the volunteer conservation and stewardship group Don’t Mess With the Don and has been actively working to protect, restore and revitalize the Don Valley for more than 30 years.
I joined Youth Leaders of East York for a stroll through the valley of the Don River. For the Youth Leaders, who grew up in adjacent neighbourhoods like Thorncliffe Park, certain neighbourhood parks are quite familiar. But, this more unruly and hidden space was new, unexplored territory. Along the way, Floyd drew our attention to some of the space’s wilder features. Previous online sessions prompted participants to explore what nature and stewardship mean to them, and what emotions are evoked when they spend time in nature. The walk with Floyd brought these emotions to the surface, demonstrating that terms like stewardship, invasive species management, and conservation may not seem like terms likely to stir up strong feelings, there is no one better suited to make ravines matter than Floyd Ruskin.
We all left the walk with a new appreciation for the valley and had a whole new level of confidence and comfort in the wild and wonderful ravine space.
Street to Trail zooms in on nature with unhoused people
Street to Trail brings homeless and marginalized adults into nature for day hikes and camping trips. They do this to provide people living in poverty and marginalized communities with opportunities to find even temporary relief from “the challenges of city life.”As Toronto’s only wilderness-based organization for marginalized adults, Street to Trail knows that time spent in nature has a multitude of benefits, and that “regular access to nature improves lives with its inherent power to feed an individual’s mind, body and soul.”
Lately, because of the pandemic, their trips have been closer to home.
Street to Trail received a TD Park People Grant to lead events including a photovoice hike in High Park. Simply put, photovoice uses photography to enable to empower people to document their point of view and share their experiences. The camera’s lens becomes an extension of participants’ eyes and helps amplify their perspective-both for themselves and others.
By hosting a nature-focused photowalk, Street to Trail offered participants a new way to build connections with the natural world. After a brief introduction to the core principles of photography, participants were invited to select the camera of their choice – ranging from point-and-shoot to larger professional ones.
Stopping at several points along the walk, participants put their newly honed photographic skills to good use. By the end of the photovoice hike, I shared participants’ enthusiasm for zooming in on unique natural features that might otherwise be invisible. We each had our own nature narrative and it both belonged to us and to the larger landscape.
It was a privilege to join both Street to Trail and Youth Leaders of East York on their nature excursions. Participating alongside them made it clear that both community groups are actively and creatively bridging the gap between our city’s most natural green spaces and people who long to build connections to nature. By prioritizing equity-seeking groups in the outreach and granting process, TD Park People grants are helping to integrate ideas of social access into our vision of “accessing green spaces.”