This past year, parks have been used more than ever, but their benefits have not been equally enjoyed—a point highlighted in our 2021 Canadian City Parks Report.
The onset of COVID regulations and their enforcement have given rise to a growing culture of surveillance, policing, and fear that could easily become part of our “new normal” if not recognized and resisted.
A new report by Toronto’s ombudsman provides insight into these realities and offers lessons for moving forward. The report, released earlier this month, found that COVID-related rules in Toronto’s parks were unfairly communicated and enforced during April and May 2020.
Park circles Steve Russell Toronto Star via Getty Images
We know city resources have been stretched throughout the pandemic. Staff have had to deal with fast-changing situations and public health recommendations—all while under-resourced. For example, 60% of cities in our Canadian City Parks Report said COVID has impacted park operation budgets, making it even more challenging to do more with less. There is an opportunity, however, to look at past and present actions, as the ombudsman has done, to understand a new way forward.
The ombudsman report’s findings include that Toronto’s guidelines on use of certain park amenities were unclear—for example, benches were not listed on the city’s website as a closed amenity, yet people were issued tickets for using them. The ombudsman concludes that:
“because of confusing and inconsistent messaging, some people were afraid to use our public parks at all, for fear of being ticketed. This was unfair.”
The report also found that bylaw officers were directed to adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to enforcement—an approach described by the ombudsman as “unacceptable, unclear, and unfair”—leaving some officers feeling that they had to abandon their usual discretion in favour of ticketing in all cases.
This enforcement had a disproportionate impact on poor, marginalized, and unhoused park users, the report found. Independent investigations confirmed two serious incidents of racial discrimination in enforcement between May and June 2020.
We’ve seen similar cases play out across Canada. In Montreal, for example, a group of five women of colour were singled out and fined in a busy Jeanne Mance Park. In Ottawa, a Black man was assaulted by a bylaw officer while out in a park with his seven-year-old daughter. A report by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association found that similar instances of discriminatory enforcement were widespread, often taking place in parks.
Findings from our 2021 Canadian City Parks Report confirm that these issues extend across Canada and beyond the early stages of the pandemic. Of the 32 cities we surveyed for the report, 84% said that they increased by-law enforcement in response to COVID-19 physical distancing measures.
This increase in enforcement has coincided with increased barriers to park use—barriers that are not evenly experienced.
In our survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, respondents who identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour (BIPOC) were more likely to report experiencing social judgement from other park users (28%), fear of ticketing/policing (24%) and harassment/discrimination from other park users (22%). The response from white Canadians was lower on all counts at 17%, 15%, and 8%, respectively.
Given these barriers, it is perhaps unsurprising that we also found BIPOC Canadians were less likely to experience health benefits of parks during the pandemic. For example, 88% of respondents who identified as white said that parks had a positive impact on their mental health, compared to 69% and 72% for those who identified as Black and Indigenous, respectively.
These findings highlight the concerning impacts of the growing securitization of parks—a trend that existed before the pandemic but has since accelerated.
Sometimes, this plays out subtly. Consider benches with middle armrests that prevent people from lying down—a classic example of defensive design. This can also manifest in “ghost amenities”—a term coined by scholar Cara Chellew that refers to the absence of features like washrooms or sheltered gathering areas that are thought to attract “undesirable” behaviour. As some cities closed park washrooms during the pandemic or removed group seating to support physical distancing, it will be essential to ensure these amenities return to parks as restrictions are lifted.
Taped off bench. Cara Chellew
Or consider the culture of interpersonal policing (i.e. neighbours watching neighbours) that has crept into parks, fuelled by COVID “snitch lines.” Since April 2020, Toronto has received over 30,000 complaints related to COVID rules in parks. Not only does this strain staff resources, but also comes with “considerable risk of unfounded complaints, overfocus on marginalized people, and discriminatory enforcement by police and by-law officers,” experts argue.
Although outside the scope of the ombudsman’s enquiry, few examples illustrate the securitization of parks more clearly than last month’s eviction of encampment residents in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park—a brutal show of force that involved hundreds of police officers, private security guards, and city staff overseeing the eviction of only a couple dozen encampment residents.
The city repeated this again on July 20 in Alexandra Park when it surrounded the park with police and security to evict encampment residents, including arresting nine people and barring journalists from entering the area.
This type of enforcement causes direct harm to encampment residents. As we explored in our 2020 Canadian City Parks Report, research shows that encampment clearances often uproot support networks, push people into more isolated locations where they are subject to increased safety risks, and violate the rights of Indigenous peoples, among other damaging consequences.
Actions like these also contribute profoundly to the stigmatization of homelessness. As part of the Trinity Bellwoods eviction, the city erected fencing, patrolled by security guards, around the perimeter of the former encampment to allow for “environmental remediation,” effectively barring people from using the space.
Similar fences have been put in place at other former encampment parks, including Toronto’s George Hislop Park and Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park. While surely the grass in these parks would benefit from some TLC, the same can be said of many other parks across the city that remain fence-free. It’s hard not to imagine there are ulterior motives—namely, keeping unhoused people out of the parks.
The fences have not only a functional role in preventing access to the park, but a symbolic one—they deepen existing hostilities by contributing to a blame dynamic where housed people attribute the “loss” of their park to environmental damage caused by their unhoused neighbours.
It’s not uncommon for homeless communities and the environment to be pitted against each other in parks conversations, but we need to keep things in perspective: the environmental impact of a person experiencing homelessness is likely much less significant than any housed person with more disposable income to participate in consumption (just witness the environmental impact caused by the hundreds of partiers in Trinity Bellwoods over several weekends). These cruel actions frame homeless communities as destructive to the environment, positioning them as scapegoats when the real attention should be on our collective failure to realize the right to housing for all.
The ombudsman’s report offers 14 systemic recommendations that the city has committed to implementing, including directing the Municipal Licensing & Standards (MLS) division to develop an anti-racism strategy, as well as a plan “to hear directly from community organizations, particularly organizations serving vulnerable and marginalized people,” to ensure their feedback informs enforcement activities.
A creative workshop at Place Émilie Gamelin in Montreal. Audrey-Lise Mallet for Exeko in 2017
Building on these recommendations and drawing on past Park People research, we offer the following advice to help create parks that do not rely on enforcement and securitization:
Park rules can be helpful—even outside the context of a public health crisis. Past Park People research has found that a lack of clear rules can create anxiety about whether certain uses are welcome, inhibiting people from engaging with a park. By contrast, positive rules—those that are framed in terms of what you can do—can be enabling, by helping to remove the guesswork. In other words, rules can be freeing—as long as they are clear, reasonable, and culturally appropriate. For example, placing a sign in the grass that says “have a picnic here” rather than wrapping picnic tables in caution tape.
But rules need not be coupled with punitive enforcement. A McGill University report exploring COVID-related enforcement highlights that there is weak empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of monetary fines as a strategy for gaining compliance. Moreover, as the report authors argue, such measures “can be reasonably believed to cause greater harm than good, especially for marginalized populations.”
Rather than aiming to push homeless communities out of parks, recognizing unhoused people as legitimate park users in planning, programming and engagement processes can help us build more inclusive parks and learn how to better co-exist together.
We can learn from the work of organizations across Canada that are showcasing possibilities for more inclusive approaches: from hiring a park-based social worker to facilitating outdoor art workshops that build bridges between housed and unhoused neighbours, to employing homeless community members at a park cafe that celebrates Indigenous cuisine.
Using art to engage users of Montreals Viger Square in consultations prior to redevelopment. Mikael Theimer for Exeko
These strategies not only protect unhoused park users from violence but serve to support their basic needs. In addition, programs like these help establish community-based bonds between housed and unhoused park users—cultivating greater empathy and understanding that is difficult to foster in other settings.
Strengthening relationships and communication channels between city staff and community groups is a recommendation offered in both the ombudsman’s report and our own Canadian City Parks Report. As the ombudsman writes, the city is “missing a critically important opportunity to listen to voices from Toronto’s communities when designing and evaluating its enforcement activities. This should be a priority, especially with vulnerable and marginalized communities.”
Rather than relying on punitive bylaw enforcement, cities should instead prioritize building relationships with local community park groups—over 1,000 of which exist across Canada—and partner organizations. These groups can provide valuable information about on-the-ground needs and realities, help spread information about safe gathering practices, and collaborate on programming that gets people back to enjoying the park together.
We would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to The Weston Family Foundation for its foundational support in the creation and launch of the 2021 Canadian City Parks Report.
Cover photo: Will Kwan, A Park for All, 2018, Text installation with Evergreen’s Public Art Program. Photo: Claire Harvie.