Reaching New ‘Heights’: How Cornerstone Parks Uplift Equity-deserving Communities

août 14, 2023
Park People

Large urban parks are critical spaces for city residents to build meaningful connections to nature and each other. We already know that people who engage in hands-on, nature-focused activities in parks experience powerful social connections; a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose in their lives; greater physical health; and overall life satisfaction. We need more parks that can lead by example in extending those benefits to equity-deserving communities across Canada.   

This summer, Park People welcomes new partners into the Cornerstone Parks program. Everett Crowley Park & the Champlain Height Trails join founding parks High Park, Mount Royal and Stanley Park and new members: the Darlington Ecological Corridor and Meewasin Valley Authority. Together they hold space for nature in cities and demonstrate what’s possible for communities within large urban parks.

Sharing the benefits

The Cornerstone Parks Reports on Stewardship and Park Use demonstrate that volunteer park stewardship makes people healthier and happier. Among the findings:

  • 99% of volunteer stewards say stewardship makes them feel happy and satisfied
  • 97% say stewardship contributes to their mental well-being
  • 90% say stewardship contributes to their physical health     

Unfortunately, these benefits aren’t equitably enjoyed:

  • 68% of surveyed sizeable urban park users identify as cis-gendered women
  • 86% identify as able-bodied
  • 76% identify as white  

The Canadian City Parks Report also found that post-pandemic, surveyed BIPOC Canadians became more interested in stewardship activities (70%) than white respondents (54%). 

So what are the ongoing barriers to park stewardship for diverse communities? And who is helping to support those communities’ well-being by overcoming them?

Source: Everett Crowley Park Committee

In equity-deserving communities such as Champlain Heights in South Vancouver, B.C., park groups play a crucial role in supporting residents’ health and well-being. Champlain Heights contains a former city landfill and now boasts the fifth largest park in Vancouver, Everett Crowley. Everett Crowley is a 40-hectare park home to Avalon Pond and Kinross Creek, which provide critical habitats for birds, amphibians, fish, and other wildlife. The park and adjoining Champlain Heights trail system are part of the only 4% of native forest remaining in the city. Champlain Heights has hundreds of low-income, co-op, strata, and seniors’ housing units alongside some of the city’s oldest trees. 

The City of Vancouver dedicated Everett Crowley Park in 1987 after lobbying by local residents. Those residents then created the Everett Crowley Park Committee (ECPC), a sub-committee of the Champlain Heights Community Association. The committee’s mission is to encourage stewardship of this resilient urban forest by hosting community stewardship events, outdoor education, and an annual Earth Day festival. In 2022, 306 volunteers contributed nearly 1,000 hours towards park stewardship, removing approximately 80 cubic meters of invasive plants. 

Just east of Everett Crowley, another stewardship group is hard at work in the trail system that winds through Champlain Heights. In 2021, local residents noticed invasive plants taking over the trails. Together they formed Free the Fern. Like the ECPC, Free the Fern brings their community together through environmental stewardship activities such as invasive plant pulls and native planting events. Since 2021, their 277 volunteers have removed 50.33 tons of invasive plants. They’ve also planted over 1,300 native plants. 

Catalyzing social impact through parks 

“Parks are not simply places of respite with grass and trees. They are critical pieces of the social infrastructure of our cities. We believe they have a role to play in creating more inclusive, equitable places shaped by and for the people living there.” – Sparking Change Report

Our Sparking Change Report suggests five ways of catalyzing social impact through parks, particularly in underserved neighbourhoods:

  1. Creating a sense of change and shared ownership
  2. Building confidence and inspiring civic leaders
  3. Reducing social isolation and creating inclusive communities
  4. Providing a place for diverse people to gather 
  5. Supporting local economic development

We spoke with Grace Nombrado, Executive Director of Free the Fern, to understand how these five factors appear in Champlain Heights.  

Source: Free the Fern, with Grace Nombrado

1. Shared ownership

Becoming involved in a local park can foster a sense of possibility, creating momentum for change that can galvanize others. One strategy for creating shared ownership is pairing park improvements with conversations about ongoing community involvement.   

The Champlain Heights Community Centre is jointly operated by the Vancouver Park Board and the Champlain Heights Community Association (CHCA). The CHCA is also the steward of Everett Crowley Park. The community centre is a neighbourhood “anchor” that offers residents leisure activities and an entry point for involvement in the park and trails. Through community events, notice boards, and tool storage, the centre creates a relationship between the (indoor) resources available to community members and their potential to create change through improvements within the park, along the trails, and beyond.    

2. Inspiring leaders 

Building skills and confidence through volunteering in the park can ripple outwards, leading to greater civic engagement. Hiring a community organizer from within the local neighbourhood can be a crucial support pillar for volunteers. This helps build capacity and ensure groups remain community-led.

 As Free the Fern’s founder-turned-Executive Director, Grace is a passionate volunteer who recruits, coordinates, and supports fellow neighbourhood stewards. “All our current 9 board members live within the neighbourhood of Champlain Heights,” Grace notes.

“Most of our volunteers who attend our monthly pulls and fall planting live a short walk from the trail. This year, as part of our Native Food Forest project, we have incorporated outreach events so that the larger community can be informed and share their ideas with the project. We distribute flyers to townhouses adjacent to the trail and post them on local community Facebook groups. In addition, we have signage on the trail that directs people to our website to learn more and get involved with Free the Fern. It is so important that those living within this neighbourhood have a hand in stewarding the Champlain Heights Trail system.” 

Source: Everett Crowley Park Committee

3. Creating inclusive communities

While improving a park’s physical infrastructure can invite more people to use it, what really brings a park to life are activities and events that engage people in meaningful ways. Park programming needs to be inclusive and representative of the local community.

“Inclusivity is a journey, one that will continue as long as you seek to understand and better serve your community,” Grace says. “I have learned so much about how to be more inclusive by listening to volunteers.” She cites stories of community members directly shaping Free the Fern’s inclusion practices: from purchasing extendable garden tools for wheelchair users and ergonomic tools for people with arthritis to offering free food and beverage for volunteers and ensuring all events remain free. Future plans include budgeting for babysitting at events and offering prepaid transit vouchers.

“Everyone deserves access to environmental education, no matter their financial situation.” 

4. Providing a place for diverse people to gather

Parks have a long history as democratic spaces, catalyzing interactions between people of different backgrounds. It’s important to recognize and remove barriers to those people working together. One strategy is for municipalities to review park oversight through an equity lens to ensure they are not creating obstacles–like a lack of clarity around park management and what’s permitted.

“When people ask me, ‘Is this city land?’, I say, ‘Yes, and WE are the city.’ We, as citizens, should see park spaces as spaces for all of us. Spaces for us to gather and spaces for us to care and connect with the land.” 

Grace talks about balancing the initial fear of breaking city rules with a determination to be transparent. Free the Fern formed when diverse citizens decided to steward the land together. The city was not sure what to do to support the group. Should they set safety guidelines? Who in the city should oversee the group? Just as the process seemed to be getting tangled in red tape, Free the Fern decided to invite the city workers on a tour of the trail. Walking past hundreds of ferns, Oregon grapes, huckleberries and Douglas firs, the city workers were impressed that local citizens had accomplished so much on their own. The city pledged full support for Free the Fern’s stewardship effort.  

5. Supporting local economic development

The economic effect of parks is often spoken about in terms of increasing property values. This sometimes sparks concerns about gentrification. However, parks can offer many benefits to people living in the community–including leverage.

“Champlain Heights [is] an experimental mixed-income neighbourhood built in the late ‘70s,” Grace explains. “Rather than single-family homes, the city chose to build townhouse complexes here–a mix of strata, co-op, low-income, and senior townhouses… Many of these co-op townhouse leases are coming to the end of their term. There is a concern if the city will renew leases or if they will choose to redevelop our neighbourhood, perhaps to include towers for higher density levels.” 

“The Champlain Heights trail system, a strip of the original Douglas fir forest, is also on leasehold land and not protected from development. One of the best ways citizens can protect the trail from development is to steward it. By removing the invasive plants and replanting native plants, we show that the trail system is a thriving, biodiverse ecosystem rather than a hazardous area. By connecting as a community and volunteering, we also increase the connections with each other and future chances for advocating in the neighbourhood as leases run out. With our thriving, diverse community, we have proved that this ‘experimental’ neighbourhood of Champlain Heights works.” 

Source: Free the Fern

Volunteer park stewardship has the potential to make all people healthier and happier. However, our ability to extend these benefits to equity-deserving communities like Champlain Heights relies on reducing barriers to engagement. Free the Fern and the Everett Crowley Park Committee are critical additions to Cornerstone Parks, as they demonstrate what’s possible in their neighbourhood. 

Cornerstone Parks lead by example. They offer opportunities for people of all identities, ages, languages, and abilities to pursue health and happiness through park stewardship. Read the Cornerstone Parks Reports to understand how park stewardship makes us happier and healthier. And follow our new partners, Free the Fern and the ECPC, as they demonstrate how you can better support your equity-deserving communities.

Made possible by the generous support of an anonymous donor, the Hilary and Galen Weston Foundation and

TD Ready Commitment