Six Things We Need More of in Canadian City Parks in 2021

février 2, 2021
Park People

Last year was tough. But it was also illuminating.

We learned how resilient our communities can be and how parks are a big part of that by providing a place for people to stay active, de-stress, and connect with others (safely).

But we also learned we have work to do to ensure equitable access to parks and inclusive policies and programming that help everyone feel welcome and safe.

We’ve assembled this list from research we’ve done through our Canadian City Parks Report and COVID-19 surveys, our COVID-19 webinar series, our 2020 program learnings, and the resources and writings of others.

With that, here are six things we want to see more of in Canadian city parks in 2021.


Leading with equity


Photo credit: Aboriginal Fridays at Cabot Square Montreal by Lori Calman


If 2020 was anything, it was a bright hot light exposing the already present inequities in our cities. We often speak about parks as “for everyone,” but this obscures the racism, inequitable enforcement, historic underinvestment, unequal access to amenities, and social judgement that excludes many in our cities from enjoying, benefiting from and accessing these spaces.

As experts noted in our webinar on Urbanism’s Next Chapter, in 2021 we need less talk about “returning to normal” and more conversations leading to actions that address systemic discrimination, the displacement of people experiencing homelessness, and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in our park systems, policies, and organizations. Let’s take a look at who is at and who is not in decision-making circles, and make sure that community engagement and consultation exercises are additive, not extractive, by working with communities to address core needs.



Improving local parks


A small pollinator garden in Toronto


Last year we were told to stay home to stay safe from COVID-19 and that message continues into 2021 in many communities. This heightens the importance of our local neighbourhood parks as places of respite. But we know these parks are not distributed equally–and this has real impacts on people’s mental and physical health. Our own research also shows that Canadians who said they didn’t have a park within a five-minute walk were 5x more likely to not have visited a park at all between March and June 2020. In order to derive benefit from parks, you first have to have one nearby.

In 2021, we foresee a renewed focus on the local park. Access to quality, nearby green spaces will be on the agenda and we hope to see more emphasis on basic amenities like washrooms, drinking fountains, shade structures, and plentiful seating. Many parks have seen heavy use during the pandemic, so an increase in maintenance will be key. But we can go further. Integrating urban agriculture and even local economic development opportunities like markets for locally produced goods and food will help these parks become resilient hubs. Planning our neighbourhood parks in these ways ensures they will be solid ground during times of crisis, providing accessible space and services.



Growing access to nearby nature


Photo credit: Hives for Humanity in Vancouver, photo by Park People


As our stress levels rocketed in 2020 and Canadians’ mental health declined, many turned to spending more time outdoors as a way to re-centre themselves–often taking solace in nature. Our own survey in June 2020 found that 80% of Canadians said parks had become more important to their mental health during the pandemic. The connection between human wellbeing and spending time in nature has long been established in science. But access to nature is not an experience everyone enjoys. Racist acts and exclusionary programs and policies can keep people feeling unsafe and unwelcome in natural spaces.

In 2021, we hope to see more focus on neighbourhood greening projects that insert naturalized gardens into the places where we live our everyday lives: our streets, yards, parks, laneways, and schools. Let’s build on the heightened awareness of the connection between mental health and nature through new programs and stewardship opportunities, providing funding specifically to Indigenous land stewardship practices and community-led projects in underserved neighbourhoods. Local greening projects are also key in increasing the climate resiliency of our communities, mitigating climate change impacts by reducing flooding and cooling the air.



Expanding parks beyond their boundaries


Credit photo: PlazaPOPS illustration, 2018


Responding to the need for more space for physical distancing, many cities quickly “found” acres of new open spaces in 2020 in roadways and other public spaces to open up to people. This created more space for cycling, running, rolling, and walking. Our research found that people wanted more of this type of intervention. However, many of these interventions were focused more on downtown neighbourhoods.

In 2021, let’s continue creative rethinking about the space in our cities to be more people-friendly, but expand it so more neighbourhoods can benefit from slower streets, expanded public spaces, and safer walking and cycling connections. We can learn a lot from projects like plazaPOPS, which provided community green space in a suburban strip-mall parking lot, and projects that animate the green spaces around the base of high-rise tower communities. Let’s also look for ways to continue these spaces in a modified format in the winter to encourage people to get outside.



Supporting community-based programming


Photo credit: Women from the Jamestown community plant native flowers in outdoor children learning centre in Toronto


Community park groups have always been the backbone of Park People’s work. Many grassroots park groups struggled in 2020 with the impacts of COVID-19 restricting access to park amenities and the need to keep track of fluctuating public health guidelines on safe gatherings. Despite these hurdles, over 40% of park groups we surveyed in June 2020 said they had provided support to those in need in their communities during the pandemic. Some even pivoted to activities like sewing masks to distribute.

As we start the process of recovery from COVID-19 in 2021, we hope to see greater support for the value park programming provides to communities. We heard that the top two areas park groups will need help with are funding and re-engaging community members in participating in park gatherings. City staff can work with communities and partner organizations to provide funding and institute policies like simplified permits that allow park groups to do more with less paperwork and fees. Working with local leaders and community organizations can help spread information about safe gathering practices and collaborate on programming that gets people back enjoying the park together.



Celebrating winter


Photo credit: A Montreal park in winter by Park People


It’s often said that Canada is a winter nation–and it’s true: for many months of the year, our weather is wet and cold. But people are continuing to turn to parks and trails this winter to get outside, keep active, and lessen the winter blues. Some Canadian cities certainly do winter in parks better than others (we’re looking at you Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal), but in many, park infrastructure and maintenance practices don’t reflect the winter reality, including non-winterized washrooms and trails that aren’t plowed regularly.

Let’s jump into winter in 2021 by making parks and trails accessible to more people by keeping washroom access open and clearing snow and ice for safe use. And to keep people connected and active, we want to see more support for local communities to provide safe and engaging winter programming. It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated–it could be as simple as bringing your Christmas tree to the park for others to enjoy.

Further reading

What are some of the things you’re hoping to see more of in parks in 2021? Tell us on Twitter by tagging us: @park_people.

Credit cover picture: Naturalized Mouth of the Don River by Waterfront Toronto

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