Park and Civics: A Conversation with 2023 Conference Keynote Dave Meslin

mars 10, 2023
Park People

With the Park People Conference quickly approaching in June, we caught up with keynote speaker Dave Meslin. Dave is a community organizer and activist and author of Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up. He is the Creative Director of Unlock Democracy Canada and founder of many impactful initiatives including Toronto Public Space Committee and Cycle Toronto.

Dave’s talk will be presented in conversation with Zahra Ebrahim.

Early bird pricing for the Park People Conference ends April 2, 2023. Be sure to register now.

Jodi Lastman: Ok Dave, what do parks have to do with democracy?

Dave Meslin: Parks and public spaces, to me, are sacred because everyone has equal access. What I love about all of our parks and our sidewalks and our alleyways is that no one gets across the street first based on which credit card they have in their wallet. So, I think there’s something beautiful and sacred about them that we need to speak up for and protect. 

Women laughing outside

The Edmonton Knowsy Fest celebrates community knowledge and invites residents to interpret stories. These stories can then transform into concrete ideas for street-level changes. Photo Credit: Daniel Chamberlain.


JL: I’m curious about your use of the term sacred with respect to parks and public spaces. Can you explain why you refer to parks as sacred?

DM: So many aspects of my work and my belief system feel sacred to me because it’s not just about work and it’s not just about politics and votes and lobbying and legislation. It’s where I find spiritual grounding.

We’re at a time when people are increasingly turning away from organized religion. That raises the question: what replaces the rituals of gathering in synagogues, churches, mosques or temples?  Where do people find spirituality, grounding and meaning with organized religion playing less of a role? 

To me, public spaces are one of those places.

Something sacred is something that you feel you would be willing to defend even at personal cost. Something you would make sacrifices for. I feel that way about our public spaces.  I feel that without that type of protection, they’re at risk from various forces. 

JL: What are the forces and risks that you’re most concerned about in our public spaces?

DM: I think the biggest risk to public spaces and parks is actually advertising. The only reason advertisers aren’t there right now is because we have considered parks to be sacred. Let’s face it, advertisers will put their logo on anything. That is unless we declare a space as sacred, and the list of what we consider sacred is rapidly shrinking.

I could see a municipal council saying: “Well, here’s a new revenue source we can tap into. We can put digital billboards in all our parks. People go to parks. Advertisers want to reach people. They would love to reach people who enjoy nature. We could sell to advertisers to reach that target market in our parks.”  The only way you fight against that is by saying: No, this is sacred space. That would be like putting a billboard in a church or in a mosque and no, we’re not doing that.”

JL: In your book, you talk about how people lose faith in democracy when they show up to a public meeting and find the door closed. What signs do you think make ordinary people believe that they can’t influence what happens in public spaces?

DM: I think that the biggest hurdle a lot of people experience is believing that their ideas have value and are important enough to be worth fighting for. That their voice that is worthy of being heard.  That’s the equivalent of the closed doors. 

Another huge obstacle is that people just have no idea where to start. Most people don’t really grasp the difference between municipal, provincial and federal government, in terms of jurisdiction. And that’s not their fault. We don’t teach it well. It is complicated. Like, who does health care? Well, there’s a Provincial Minister of Health. There’s a Federal Minister of Health. And then municipal governments do things like long term care and daycare and harm reduction.

Also, City Hall can be an intimidating place. I talked about this in the book: there’s no one at the doors of City Hall saying, “Hi, how can I help you?” There is at Walmart. There is at the Apple Store. 

That’s why getting people to join together in groups is so important. That’s why what Park People does is so important. People are more likely to make stuff happen in a group because it creates the sense that “I’m not alone.” It helps build people’s confidence. There’s strength in numbers because it’s scary to do things alone.

If you’re intimidated about something in the first place, the chance of you doing it on your own is almost zero. But the chance of a group saying, “Hey, this is something we can work towards. This is something we can organize together.” That’s like a much more appealing invitation. It’s actually revolutionary.

JL: What makes you optimistic about participatory budgeting?

I really like the educational component of it. They take a small piece of the capital budget, and then divide that up among a bunch of neighbourhoods, and let the local residents decide how to spend it. 

 It’s a great way to build democratic experiences, but it’s also a great way to learn about municipal budgeting, and what government actually does. 

One of the main roles of a council is to decide how much money to bring in and how to spend it. The best way to teach that is by giving a little bit of money to people in the community, and asking “well, what do you want to do with it?” It’s just an incredible civics class.

JL: The topic of participation makes me think about public consultations. What do you think would make them better?

DM: There’s this thing called Arnstein’s Ladder. It’s one way of looking at the different levels of engagement. Essentially, the bottom rung of the ladder is token engagement. That’s where the government decides what they want to do, and then it’s a fake survey or a fake townhall. I don’t think there’s evil intent, but do I think it is a kind of arrogance. It’s municipal staff and politicians thinking they know what’s best and treating the consultation like a nice gesture. It’s not a good approach. Not only is it not democratic, but it always creates really angry people.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there’s direct democracy. That’s where ordinary people get to vote and make all of the decisions. I’m not in favour of that either. Not only do I think that people don’t want to read 200 page staff reports, but more importantly, if you created a system where everyone gets to vote, who would actually have the extra time to do that reading? It’s going to be wealthier people who have babysitters and have house cleaners. Not the folks who are doing three jobs to pay the rent and feed their kids. So what some people think is the highest level of engagement is actually incredibly inaccessible to ordinary people.

JL: So where’s the sweet spot? 

DM: I think it’s context-specific. Let’s say, there’s gonna be a redesign of a park that asks: what do we want to happen in this park? That’s the kind of thing where people who use the park and live in the park and near the park should vote on it. That’s actually an ideal opportunity for direct democracy. I feel the same about the naming of parks. I don’t think politicians should get to name parks after other politicians. It should really be up to the people who use the park. 


Display of the Movement Strategy in High Park, Toronto, where park users were asked which transportation mode should be allowed in the park and where.


Parks are a perfect example where direct democracy makes sense. It’s a small bite-sized level, and the decisions aren’t super complex compared to you know, a multi billion dollar operating budget of a city.

Municipalities have a moral obligation to invest real money in actively advertising opportunities for engagement beyond the usual suspects. How about actually paying people to participate? Everyone’s got a different perspective based on their age and their gender and their confidence and how they’re using the space. And I just think the city should make more of an effort to actually invest in getting those voices heard. 

I think about people like my mom and my sister.  Super caring, super smart people who would never be caught dead at a “town hall meeting”. They wouldn’t even know there was a town hall, let alone take the time to go to it. 

But, they know so much about their parks. My mom is nervous to walk on the track in her park because there’s a place where it kind of dips down and people could hide and you wouldn’t see them. I never thought of that. It’s not something I worry about or think about.  She didn’t know who to talk to, so she asked me what she could do.

If you’re trying to find the people to consult about a park, why just not go to the park? That’s what credit card companies do to get people to get their cards. They stand at the store or at the airport and solicit people. They don’t invite you to come to a meeting to talk about credit cards at a community centre. They go straight to their target audience.  We should be doing the same thing.  It’s not hard to find your target audience if you’re talking about parks. They’re at the park.

Really, there should never be indoor consultations about parks. The best place to talk about parks is in parks.

Presenting sponsor

TD Ready Commitment

Host City partner

City of Toronto