Park People at 13: What’s Changed in Canada’s City Parks Landscape

juin 20, 2024
Dave Harvey

I will retire from my co-leadership position at Park People at the end of June 2024, thirteen years after I founded the organization.

This milestone has me considering the many positive changes that have happened in urban parks in Canada since 2011 and the special role that Park People has played in advancing them. It’s been quite a journey for me, the organization, and Canada’s incredible ecosystem of city parks. 

Since the very beginning, Park People’s work has been about creating new connections—between people and nature, between neighbours when they meet by chance in public spaces, and between leaders and bold ideas that can make our parks even better.

Park People’s own origin story echoes this theme brilliantly. In 2010, I released a paper for the Metcalf Foundation, “Fertile Ground for New Thinking,” with my ideas for improving Toronto’s park system. Its final recommendation was to start a park-focused NGO in the city. At the time, I had absolutely no intention to start or lead such a group, but an enthusiastic group of people were inspired by the paper and pushed me to start an NGO. In return, I cajoled them into becoming our founding board members and volunteers. We then embarked on a bold plan to support more people to see themselves as park leaders and to connect them to the tools they would need to create great parks for everyone.

On April 12, 2011, we officially launched Park People with our Toronto Park Summit. This was our first opportunity to connect park professionals and emerging advocates in our city. Through these lively conversations, we began building the collective power required to support and sustain vibrant green spaces that all urban residents can enjoy.

Source: Toronto Park Summit. Toronto, 2012

In the years since our original group of board members and volunteers has expanded exponentially: Park People now has more than 25 staff members, offices in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, and a national board of city and community builders. We’ve also engaged thousands of new supporters — our Park People Network now unites 1,400 local park groups in 35 cities in every province, and we’ve provided grants to grassroots community leaders to animate their parks in 21 urban areas.

Source: First Park People work retreat, Ontario, 2022

Yes, Park People has grown and thrived — but what has this meant for parks in Canada?

When launching Park People, our goal was to spark a city parks movement that could fundamentally change how our society sees the value of these public green spaces. It was an ambitious vision, but I think that through our work with many great partners and community leaders, we’ve achieved it. 

Canada’s parks have changed significantly in these last 13 years, mostly for the better. Park People is proud to have been a small part of these shifts, contributing vital research on trends and opportunities and working with governments and park leaders to support progressive park policies.

As a result:

  • Parks have become our communal backyards. The major increase in park use during the height of the pandemic wasn’t a one-time blip: I’ve never seen so many people using our parks in so many new and creative ways. Parks are where we meet with friends, celebrate occasions, mourn losses, sample great food, hear music, and experience art—they’re key to the diversity, richness, and joy of urban life.

Source: Clean Toronto Together and Trees Across Toronto, Toronto, 2013

This belief has long guided the design of Park People’s grants, training, and networking programs, which have helped hundreds of people turn their parks into dynamic community hubs. We’ve consistently made the case for the unique value of parks, from our parks-focused platform for the 2014 Toronto election to solutions papers, national conferences and our Canadian City Parks Report.

  • Parks are no longer seen as “nice-to-have” amenities but essential urban infrastructure. They aren’t frills—they’re core to the character of our communities. Our research has shown that they measurably improve our physical, mental, and overall well-being and can serve as antidotes to the social isolation and loneliness epidemic.

Source: Park Summit, Toronto, 2015

  • Equitable access is now central to park planning. Who isn’t using parks is as important as who is. Through programs like Sparking Change, Park People centres equity-deserving communities in our program planning and delivery, collaborating with them to ensure their knowledge and experiences make parks accessible for all. As we embark upon this work and share what we have learned from it, we’ve observed that equity metrics have increasingly become a core part of park planning and acquisition strategies in municipalities across the country.

Source: Weston Family Parks Challenge, Toronto, 2014

  • City parks can support reconciliation. As Rena Soutar of the Vancouver Parks Board says, “There is no such thing as a culturally neutral space that’s been touched by human hands.” The 2022 Park People Conference featured three of Canada’s leading Indigenous park professionals, Rena, Lewis Cardinal, and Spencer Lindsay, who addressed how colonialism plays out in park practices and how we can embed reconciliation and decolonization into the places we call parks. As an example, the Vancouver Park Board has implemented co-management and guardian programs with Indigenous communities. At the same time, Edmonton worked closely with Indigenous leaders on kihcihkaw askî, the country’s first urban Indigenous culture park site.
  • Parks are acknowledged as key components of urban resilience to climate change. As our climate changes, urban parks are becoming increasingly important spaces to mitigate heat, absorb stormwater, and protect plants, animals, and people. Park People has been at the forefront of highlighting opportunities for parks to serve as powerful tools for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Source: Park People staff at a Global Climate Strike, Toronto, 2019

  • Underused spaces are becoming great parks. The value of a park doesn’t lie in size. Small pockets of green space can be far more meaningful to our well-being. As our cities increasingly densify and the cost of land rises, we’re seeing neglected spaces such as those under highways, roads, electricity corridors, railway lines, and even old landfills being transformed into beautiful natural spaces. Our research and financial support helped spur such innovative parks as Toronto’s Meadoway and Bentway and Calgary’s Flyover Park. 

Source: Park People staff at The Meadoway multi-use trail tour, Toronto, 2024

  • Working for a city parks department has gotten more challenging but also more rewarding. We’re asking a lot of our municipal parks departments. More people are using parks, and staff are now entrusted with addressing issues of homelessness, equity, reconciliation with Indigenous people, climate change mitigation, and adaptation. In my opinion, their work is more interesting and rewarding, and park staff are making a positive difference in our cities and communities. But it’s certainly a tougher job than it used to be. In response, Park People has made supporting and connecting our municipal park staff partners one of our top priorities.

Source: Second National Park People Conference, Montreal, 2019

  • Parks department budgets are falling behind. The populations of our cities are rapidly increasing, and park budgets in Canadian cities are frankly not keeping up. If this longtime trend continues, I’m concerned about what our parks will look like 13 years from now. Without appropriate funding, there won’t be enough parks to meet community needs. We’ll slide down into an American-style model, where a lack of government support created a crisis in parks that philanthropy and private conservancies had to address. Partnerships and philanthropy are great, but there is absolutely no replacement for properly funded city parks departments.
  • Solutions lie in collaboration. Creative community partnerships are no longer the exception for city parks; they’re the norm. From working with local volunteer groups to creating formal park conservancies, park departments are embracing collaborations with unexpected partners to add value to city park resources, not replace them. Park People made the case for such partnerships from our earliest days, and we have helped to nurture and lay the groundwork for some of Canada’s leading park partnership models. Meanwhile, the federal government is becoming an important player in city parks. Canada was once one of the few jurisdictions without a strong federal role in city parks. But after creating Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto, the federal government has initiated a process to create six new national urban parks across Canada in the next few years. Provinces like Ontario, which have traditionally stayed away from pursuing provincial parks in cities, have also committed to new urban parks. Park People has been excited to partner with governments and support these game-changing efforts. 

Park People didn’t invent community involvement in parks — there were people across Canada doing that long before 2011. But we played a critical role by bringing them together, amplifying their voices, sharing their successes, inspiring others, and most fundamentally, making it easier for them to unlock resources and address barriers so that they can make their parks more vibrant and their neighbourhoods stronger.

The last 13 years have seen incredibly positive changes in Canada’s urban park system. I’m proud to say that Park People has played an important role in advancing these developments. 

Source: Park People’s Co-Executive Directors Dave Harvey and Erika Nikolai, 4th Park People National Conference, Toronto, 2023

As I leave the organization, I’m confident that the Park People team — in close partnership with government, community and funders — will keep driving positive change in the coming decades and work to ensure everyone receives equal access to the great benefits of public green space.


Dave Harvey