Park People Parks Platform 2022: Toronto Parks as Core Urban Infrastructure

septembre 9, 2022
Park People

Parks are not “nice to haves,” they are critical social, health, and environmental infrastructure for Toronto. City parks are lifelines in extreme heat waves. Social connectors in an age of increasing polarization. Keepers of biodiversity despite ever fragmenting urban landscapes.

To meet the biggest challenges we face in Toronto—climate change, biodiversity loss, social polarization, rising inequality—we need whole new ways to plan, design, manage, program, and govern parks.

This shift requires doing things differently. It requires ensuring proper funding, sharing decision-making power, addressing inequities head-on, and prioritizing action on truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

As Toronto faces upcoming municipal elections, we urge candidates for Mayor and Council to accelerate the transition to a more equitable, resilient future for city parks by working with us on the ideas presented in this platform.

Money Matters

Credit: MABELLEarts

All of the ideas in this platform require us to invest more time and money into city parks. In our 2022 survey of residents of Canadian cities, 87% said they support more investment in parks.

Responsible for 60% of Canada’s infrastructure, municipalities like Toronto receive only 10 cents on every tax dollar. That means our three levels of government, each of which has responsibilities for our natural environment and human health, all need to come to the table.

This is easier said than done. The multiple benefits of parks—health, environmental, social, economic—actually make it harder to invest at the scale we need to. Why? Because the benefits of investing in parks are distributed across many different ministries and government departments, each of which is accountable for its own budgets and plans. That is why we need to support governments to pursue an ambitious, whole-of-government approach to investment in Toronto parks.

Investing more in city parks is not an imposition or an obligation. It is an opportunity to transform Toronto for the better.

Fund core amenities and prioritize equity-deserving communities

What we Know: Parks in Toronto’s Equity-Deserving Communities are Under-Resourced

There is a clear and growing disparity in who has access to quality green spaces in Toronto. As COVID laid bare, equity-deserving communities face complex, interrelated health crises. Toronto must recognize how race, income and the built environment conspire to make parks a pressing environmental justice issue in our city.

  • Park planning has long tracked development growth to guide investment. This has led to a growing disparity between who has access to quality green spaces and who does not because it ignores other important factors like income levels and climate change impacts.
  • While Toronto started to move forward with an equity framework in the 2019 Parkland Strategy, concrete actions still remain limited. Recent research shows that neighbourhoods with higher proportions of racialized and lower-income residents don’t have the same access to quality green spaces as whiter, wealthier neighbourhoods in Toronto.

Park Policy Directions

  • Equity frameworks must be embedded into park plans, and resources must be focused on equity-deserving communities where there has been historic underinvestment in parks. The following data should be used and made transparent to direct new park investments:
    • Income
    • Race and ethnicity (e.g., the proportion of racialized residents)
    • Climate justice (e.g., tree canopy coverage, urban heat islands)
    • Public health (e.g., chronic disease prevalence, mental health indicators)
    • Housing type/tenure (e.g., apartments, single-family houses)
    • Historical investment and disinvestment patterns
  • In Toronto, the 2019 Parkland Strategy includes new measures such as income, but in order to create transparency and accountability, Toronto should follow Vancouver’s lead in not only collecting richer data but making the information readily accessible to communities to help guide investment.

What we Know: Lack of Basic Amenities in Toronto Parks Restricts Use

Usable parks are the bar for entry. Toronto’s parks maintenance and operating budget have not kept pace with use and demand. There’s an urgent need to increase park operating budgets to ensure basic amenities like bathrooms and water are the standard in every single Toronto park.

  • In Toronto, park washrooms are frequently closed in the winter and locked early in the summer. This failure restricts park use and contributes to accessibility barriers. Toronto has just 6.4 washrooms per 100,000, less than half the national average of 13.1. Of the 178 washrooms available, only 45 are open in the winter.
  • Drinking fountains are dormant until late June even though our changing climate means we experience warmer weather earlier. Anger around this reached a boiling point this summer.

Park Policy Directions

Spending on park operating budgets must start to keep pace with demand. It is basic: amenities like bathrooms and water must be the standard in every single Toronto park, with a priority focus on equity-deserving and high-use parks. Investments in basic amenities that promote park use must include:

  • All-season washroom access with longer open hours.
  • Working water fountains & bottle fill-up stations.
  • Daily maintenance including garbage removal and basic repairs.
  • Rain-shelter and shade structures to support all-weather use.

Further reading

Invest in the co-benefits of parks for climate resilience and adaptation, nature connection, and biodiversity

What we Know: Parks Mitigate Climate Impacts and are key to Toronto Climate Adaptation

Credit: Bonnyville Ravine Toronto, Joel Rodriges

People living in Toronto will need to adapt to hotter, wetter and more unpredictable climates. Climate change is here and is already impacting our city. With the right investment, parks can serve as climate infrastructure and provide people with critical places of refuge in hot, dense cities where a major health crisis is looming.

At the same time, people are seeking out nature more for its mental and physical health benefits. People want more places to experience nature close to home: 71% of survey respondents said they value visiting naturalized spaces within a 10-minute walk of homes, such as a native plant garden or small meadow. In fact, 87% of respondents said they were in favour of more native plant species within parks—the second most requested amenity after public washrooms. Toronto’s Ravine Strategy offers a strong road map for ensuring these vital biodiversity and natural habitats are safeguarded for the future and enjoyed by residents, but funding has remained limited.

Policy Directions:

Invest in the co-benefits of naturalized spaces as climate resilience infrastructure, urban biodiversity habitat and vital nature connections in Toronto.

  • Accelerate funding for the Ravine Strategy with a focus on:
    • Critical restoration projects to ensure biodiversity and natural habitats are safeguarded.
    • Increasing accessibility and wayfinding through new and improved access points, signage, maps, and education about how to explore the ravines safely while respecting sensitive habitats.
    • Investment in ravine programming to help communities connect to nature in the ravines safely, which could include funding for community leaders to devise local initiatives.
  • Create more naturalized spaces close to where people live, such as native plant gardens and mini-meadows, to increase nature connection, climate resilience, and urban biodiversity. Include:
    • Funding for stewardship and educational opportunities in collaboration with Indigenous peoples and organizations who hold knowledge about these plants and how they fit into a larger kinship network of species.
    • Prioritization for investments in equity-deserving neighbourhoods that have lower levels of green space and tree canopy.
  • Adopt publicly available climate resilient standards as part of every municipal Request for Proposals for new or redesigned Toronto parks. Standards should include:
    • Standards for rainwater capture and reuse (e.g., bioswales, permeable pavers).
    • Percentage of naturalized space, tree canopy coverage, and native plants.
    • On-site educational opportunities (e.g., signage, programming).

Further reading

Updated Park Governance is Key to Inclusive Parks

There is an urgent need for new models of Toronto park governance rooted in shared decision-making power. We need a new way of managing city parks that are more inclusive, community-focused, and respects the land rights of Indigenous peoples and the knowledge of communities.

What we Know: Unhoused Toronto Constituents Deserve Humane Treatment in Parks

Credit: Bench with centre bars to prevent lying down in Winchester Park Toronto

  • We found that nearly two-thirds of city residents who noticed a park encampment did not feel it negatively impacted their personal use of parks.
  • There is no easy answer to park encampments, but we know there are alternatives to the violent encampment clearances we saw in Toronto in the summer of 2021. In 2021, City Council rejected a motion to co-create a strategy with encampment residents—this was a mistake.

Policy Directions:

  • Toronto must fulfill its human rights obligations to people sheltering in parks as outlined in the UN National Protocol for Encampments in Canada—and as Toronto organizations called for in a joint statement. The city needs to act on the Ombudsman’s recommendations.
  • Toronto must develop an encampment strategy in collaboration with unhoused residents and community partners. The strategy can guide decision-making on park issues affecting unhoused communities, identifying core values such as harm reduction, reconciliation, and leadership of people with lived experience.

What we Know: Truth and Reconciliation Must be Advanced in Toronto Parks

Credit: High Park Turtle Protectors, High Park Nature Centre, Toronto, 2022

  • Toronto has taken positive steps with the adoption of a “place-keeping” strategy and engagement with Indigenous peoples in the Toronto Island Park Master Plan. There are also some excellent recommendations for supporting reconciliation in parks in Toronto’s recently passed Reconciliation Action Plan. But concrete resources and action plans must be created to move forward with deeper collaboration and shared stewardship, applying practices already being implemented in Canadian municipalities.

Policy Directions:

  • Begin to work immediately with communities to implement and fully fund the recommendations for parks in the Reconciliation Action Plan.
  • Expand commitments to working with treaty & territorial partners, urban Indigenous communities and organizations to explore co-management and collaborative governance opportunities in Toronto, including funding for this work.
  • Establish co-management and collaborative governance initiatives with treaty & territorial partners, urban Indigenous communities and organizations in Toronto, which include:
    • Shared decision-making in park management (e.g., permitting)
    • Maintenance practices and stewardship (e.g., plant care)
    • Park (re)naming, programming, and cultural use
    • Park planning and design practices

What we Know: Power Sharing Impacts Communities

Credit: InTO the Ravines Champions, 2022, Earl Bales Park, Toronto. Clémence Marcastel

Over the past several years, communities have been actively working to decentralize power in institutional spaces.

It is time for Toronto to give communities more decision-making power on the park issues that affect them most, particularly in equity-deserving communities.

  • A dismal 22% of residents of Canadian cities said they felt they had a voice in influencing decision-making about their local park.
  • New strategies are needed to ensure people feel able to get involved, including overhauling confusing and costly permits for community programming.
  • The work of Toronto’s park consultation staff on a more meaningful engagement strategy is certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s just the beginning.

Policy Directions:

  • Co-create neighbourhood-level park plans with Toronto residents and community organizations that:
    • Identify opportunities for park improvements, acquisitions, and programming within a defined local area.
    • Examine both the quantity and quality (e.g., amenities, cultural relevance) of public space and opportunities for how parks can contribute to social cohesion.
    • Include all publicly accessible open spaces (e.g. parks, streets, laneways, schoolyards, hydro corridors, etc.).
    • Prioritize “quick start” projects to implement first or trial during the development of the plan so action is not held up.
  • Break down barriers for community programming and offer more targeted support, including:
    • Remove park permit fees for equity-deserving communities as well as all Indigenous programming and cultural ceremonies.
    • Designate a staff contact for engagement with community park groups to facilitate programming opportunities.
    • Reduce barriers to community-based economic development in parks (e.g., local markets, fresh food stands, culturally responsive food kiosks/cafes) through grants, reduced permits, or free/reduced leases.
  • Deepen engagement opportunities and longer-term community involvement:
    • Incorporate discussions of social life and cultural practices into park consultations.
    • Employ local residents to co-lead engagement processes.
    • Fund a community programming plan for after the ribbon is cut.