A Tale of Two Parks

The summer of 2020 was in many ways, the summer of parks. Public health was promoting the optimistic message that being outdoors in parks made socializing safe. While the media ran with the message that parks are our safe spaces, Jenn Chan CEO, Co-Founder of The Department of Imaginary Affairs was becoming increasingly concerned that another story was being lost.

The Department of Imaginary Affairs (DIA) had received 2020 funding through Arts in the Parks to run a storytelling project in a Toronto park. DIA deferred the funding until 2021 and began reimagining how they could tell the story of two Toronto parks and feature the narratives of newcomers, immigrants and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour are at the centre.

DIA wanted to tell a story to highlight the vital role parks play in people’s lives and a story that takes an honest, unflinching look at parks as unsafe and unwelcoming places for newcomers, immigrants and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour. They decided to focus on two parks: Dentonia Park in East York and Edgeley Park in the Jane/Finch neighbourhood, both in Toronto’s inner suburbs.


Credit photo: The DIA Staff and Board participating in a Parks Future’s Design Lab, where we reflected on the land we take up space on and envisioned a better and safer future for parks in the Toronto area.


To centre these stories, DIA articulated a set of ambitious goals:


Foster a safe space for difficult stories


For A Tale of Two Parks DIA hired youth from two local communities and trained them in oral storytelling and techniques to connect with and build trust with the community. Working as Social Researchers the youth experimented with various engagement methods to learn more about the people who visit their park. One example of an intervention involved a Social Researcher sitting on a park bench holding up a sign asking a provocative question followed by the query: “want to change my mind?”


Credit photo: Program Caretaker Elvin and Social Researcher Ari participating in DIA’s Participatory Parks Planning Game in November 2021.


Over several weeks, the park goers became more comfortable with the Social Researchers, and eventually shared their stories about the park. They talked about what the park meant to them before COVID, its role during the pandemic, and the park they would hope to have in the future.

The Social Researchers observed that many of the newcomers, immigrants, and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour weren’t used to being encouraged to share their stories, they’d ask questions like: “Why do you want to know my story? Why does it matter?” It took patience and skill for the researchers to help local park-goers open up and feel safe talking about their park, and their vision.


Reimagine safer/braver spaces


The park stories of newcomers, immigrants and youth who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour said volumes. Their stories told the researchers that while people in these communities love their parks, they often don’t feel like they have the power to improve them.

For example, in Edgeley Park, BIPOC youth voiced concern about the wood chips covering the playground–the wood chips were messy, got caught in their shoes and made the playground feel unwelcoming.

They asked: “Why can’t we have sand in the playground?”

A different story was coming through. While park users in these communities love and value their parks, they feel helpless about making them safer or welcoming for those who need them.


Credit photo: Social researcher Ari interviewing members of Shwasti, a Bengali Seniors Walking Group that meets at Dentonia Park to exercise and share space with one another, at Dentonia Park in August 2021. 


By surfacing this tension, A Tale of Two Parks highlights that parks in equity-seeking communities often occupy an uncomfortable both/and space. In these communities, parks are both free and open green spaces that can offer a sense of respite and comfort, and they are tied to a colonialist agenda that only provides individuals with privilege an opportunity to have a sense of control over the conditions that govern their lives.

This both/and space is, in Jenn’s words, the “scary and magical” place where DIA and the Tale of Two Parks researchers learned to find a connection.

Better represent communities

The thoughtfully edited recordings gathered for A Tale of Two Parks will be compiled and featured on DIA’s website, providing a platform for diverse narratives of the park users who want their stories to be heard & shared.

But that’s just the beginning.

DIA is committed to making sure that the stories generated within the two parks are widely accessible. They’re currently planning a visual and audio installation as part of DesignTO’s 2022 lineup. The installation centres around the question: “What if parks were safe for everyone?” and will feature written and audio stories, photographs, artwork and videos from ‘A Tale of Two Parks’ to, in their own words, “elevate and amplify the stories we had the privilege of hearing and seeing as well as reflections from our team about how this project shifted their own relationships with parks.”

The audio recordings and upcoming installation will help represent the stories of BIPOC communities who hold space for simultaneously loving their parks while resisting the enforcement, violence, and acts of hate and racism that in large part define their park experiences.

Feature photo credit: The youth at Edgeley Park participating in the Arts Event through the Youth Program our Social Researcher Delux facilitated in September 2021.  

The Accessibility Arc: Arts in the Parks at Five Years

Arts in the Parks is a program with accessibility at its core. Five years ago the initiative was established by the Toronto Arts Foundation to make the arts more accessible to more people.

The organization’s 2014 and 2015 Arts Stats surveys found that while most Torontonians value the arts, higher-income households were significantly more likely to attend arts performances. Among those that experience barriers to the arts, the most notable challenges were: cost, time and geographical distance.

And so, Arts in the Parks set out to eliminate cost, scheduling and geographical barriers by bringing family-friendly free, live performances to local city parks outside the downtown core.

The program launched in 2016 and has brought some of Toronto’s best live events including dance classes, workshops, theatrical performances, movies and festivals to parks in Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York and North York.

MABELLEarts at Broadacres Park in 2016. Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

Getting Arts into Parks

I met Jaclyn Rodrigues when she first started in her role as Community Engagement Manager at the Toronto Arts Foundation. The challenge before her was a daunting one. All summer long, all across the outskirts of the city, hip hop dancers, big band performers, puppetry professionals and drummers would explore new stages and connect with new audiences. Park People became an official partner of Toronto Arts Foundation helping the artists connect with local community park groups. And, Arts in the Parks took off out of the gate.

The first wonderful and exhilarating season of Arts in the Parks was exhausting and thrilling, and it was just the beginning. As Jaclyn shared:

“As much as we thought we were by reducing barriers by taking performances to parks, we quickly recognized other barriers and others that were just behind them. We never let that be demoralizing. Instead, it became part of the creative process. What can we learn? What can we do? How can we be better?”

Jaclyn describes this process as an “accessibility arc.” In other words, the more one leans into accessibility, the more barriers are revealed. However, it’s vital to think of the arc as never-ending. Jaclyn says: “it’s a circle, there’s no end to our accessibility journey.”

Translation builds Community Connection

Although often described as a universal language, the arts can sometimes be experienced in a language that makes some feel excluded.

In the second year of Arts in the Parks, the focus turned to connecting local communities to artists and artists to communities. As Park People and Toronto Arts Foundation worked more closely with community park groups language gaps became apparent.

Shadowland Theatre in Scarborough’s Alexmuir Park in 2018. Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

For example, Jaclyn remembers working with Shadowland Theatre in Scarborough’s Alexmuir Park, home to many Asian and South Asian residents. Working directly with then Councillor Chin Lee, Shadowland was able to translate all of their promotional materials into simplified Chinese. Jaclyn explains that while Shadowland’s giant puppet, stilt walker and musical performances could be enjoyed by virtually anyone, the invitation they extended needed to be accessible and welcoming:

“If someone receives an invitation from you, and it’s not in their language, they’ll automatically say ‘it’s not for me. That’s the opposite of the message we wanted to send to communities’

Today, promotional materials are not only translated into multiple languages but signage, audience evaluations and outreach all incorporate translation. Moreover, language interpretation, including ASL, has been offered from the stage during several Arts in the Parks performances.

Ballet Creole at Scarborough’s Alexmuir Park in 2018. Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

Being a Host

Even though the art performances take place in shared, public spaces, Jaclyn, her team and many of the artists who produce events still view themselves as hosts:

“When we the artists and the local park groups invite people to the park, we are the hosts. We collectively make it our job to think about what will make the audience, our guests, be most comfortable.”

This hospitality lens helped Arts in the Parks identify transportation as a key barrier that stood in the way of people accessing the free performances. To address this hurdle, they invested in renting busses and establishing key pick up points throughout the community.

They also offered snacks to audiences because, as Jaclyn puts it:

“We’re setting the stage for an enjoyable afternoon. Part of hospitality is making sure we’re thinking about the fact that people will need something to eat. So we provided people with food.”

Quality wayfinding, temporary seating, shade structures and publicly accessible bathrooms have all been added each year of the program. The next part of the curve will involve providing rubber matting, bussing and wheelchair accessible bathrooms that make the park space accessible to those with physical disabilities.

“Making the performance more accessible for one group enhances the experience for everyone,” says Jaclyn. “Rubber matting is not only ideal for wheelchair users, but it’s helpful for moms with strollers and for seniors who may use walkers, canes or other assistive devices. It’s just good design.”

Seating available in Little Pear Garden in Beverly Glen Park, 2019, Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

Taking it Online

Due to the impacts of COVID-19, many of this years’ Arts in the Parks events happened virtually. It was not an ideal way for Arts in the Parks to celebrate five years of bringing the arts to communities. However, the virtual format had a surprising upside for artists and communities that may not have otherwise attended the performances.

When jes sachse an artist, writer and choreographer who addresses the negotiations of bodies moving in public/private space, accepted her Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award at the Mayor’s Arts Lunch she shared that there were indeed benefits that came with the virtual format. In her acceptance speech she shares:

“I feel gratitude for a world where I can be comfortable at home with ASL and closed captioning and treated with dignity at an event like this. Grateful to folks hosting this and learning how to host accessible events.”

The “accessibility arc” it turns out, is a perfect metaphor. It curves and bends, and continually offers opportunities for those eager to lean in and learn. Through their Arts in the Parks program, Toronto Arts Foundation has demonstrated that they’re eagerly leaning into each new accessibility challenge and fully embracing what it means to make the arts accessible.

Thank you to Toronto Arts Foundation for the photos. Cover photo credit: Arts Etobicoke & Delta Family Resource Centre in Wincott Park, 2020

Arts in the Parks is an initiative of the Toronto Arts Foundation, in partnership with Toronto Arts Council, the City of Toronto and Park People.


Why Artists-In-Residence Make Sense for Parks

One of the things that draws us to parks is that they give us the chance to step back from our daily lives and return to the world just a little better. That’s partly why arts make sense in parks. As Picasso said” “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Together, art and parks give life a major power-wash.

Together, art and parks give life a major power-wash.

Our recent blog showcased the benefits the arts make for parks and communities, but here, I want to zoom in on how the artistic community flourishes when urban parks become public stages.

Let’s look at two very different arts initiatives happening in Toronto parks this summer–one in a 20,000 acre Urban National Park, and the other in a small community parkette in a neighbourhood on the Danforth.

A Tale of Two (Very Different) Urban Parks and Artists:

Vista Sunset. Heike Reuse. July 7 2016 (87)

Photo Credit: Heike Reuse

Rouge National Urban Park is Canada’s first National Park right smack in the city. Unlike many national parks that are tucked away in remote parts of the country, Rouge National Urban Park is in close proximity to 20 percent of Canada’s population. Its urban setting means that the Rouge can build connections with the kind of people and institutions that are rooted in cities.

Parks Canada has a long history of documenting its parks, but the Rouge saw an opportunity to find what Omar McDadi, the park’s External Relations Manager called “Canada’s next Edward Burtynsky.” Parks Canada wanted to create a Photographer-In-Residence program to capture the park for posterity, but also to create a launching pad for a budding photographers’ career.

Omar and Parks Canada pitched the concept of a Photographer-in-Residence to the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University. OCAD loved the idea and helped the Rouge find and employ, up and coming photographer Heike Reuse. Heike has landed an 8 month internship as Rouge National Urban Park’s Photographer-in-Residence and is charged with capturing everything from the Rouge’s natural vistas, to wildlife, to people enjoying the park (the park had over 30 events in July alone).

Heike’s internship is culminating into a photography show featuring images from The Rouge, produced in partnership with OCAD some time in the fall.


Photo Credit: Heike Reuse

In a parkette across the city, bordering Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood, artist Jerry Silverberg is laying out art supplies for the next batch of kids arriving at Phin Avenue Parkette for Art in Phin Park. Like Heike, Jerry is the parkette’s Artist-in-Residence.

Art in the park - 2016 printmaking jerry demonstrating

When Jerry’s long career as a visual and theatre artists began to wind-down, he approached The Pocket Community Association and proposed a free summer art program for neighbourhood kids in his beloved local park. Jerry secured funding from the Toronto Arts Council through their Community Arts granting stream and was part of this summer’s Arts in the Parks initiative through the Toronto Arts Foundation.

Every day, 15-30 kids from local day camps and the neighbourhood come to the park and join Art in Phin Park to learn drawing, painting, sculpture, theatre, storytelling, puppetry, mask making and stencil. Jerry’s also invited special guests for early evening performances that are targeted to adults and children, encouraging families to experience art together.

Two very different parks and two very different artists. What are the common elements that make park-based Artist-in-Residence programs so great for artists and artistic communities?

New Artistic Experiences Build New Skills:

Vista Sunset. Heike Reuse. July 7 2016 (199)

Photo Credit: Heike Reuse

Heike Reuse shot the photograph above after setting out to capture a sunrise in Rouge National Urban Park. The sunrise was disappointing but an eerie fog caught Heike’s attention and she switched gears to capture it. “It takes a lot of patience to experience something amazing” Heike says. Shooting in parks has helped Heike build and flex a new muscle that helps her remain open to new ideas and welcome the unexpected in her work.

In Phin Avenue Parkette, Jerry welcomes kids who shyly saunter over to his program with the explanation: “We’re making art.” It’s notable that he doesn’t say “we’re making puppets or we’re making books.” Jerry thrives on helping kids understand that “Art making happens everywhere.”

Art in the park - 2016 collage week 2 clown collage

The element of surprise helps unlikely suspects engage in art making.  Kids may not be lured to the park with the promise of art, but they benefit all the same.

As Intermission Magazine recently made the following case for Arts education: “People who have had authentic arts experiences understand how to innovate, how to be creative, and how to be empathetic. They’re good people and I think we need more good people in the world.” Children and adults who engage in Art in Phin Park come away with new skills that are applicable to many aspects of daily life. And, unlike some traditional forms of learning, kids learn while having fun.

Park Programs Support Artists and Shape their Talents:  

OCAD’s Career Launcher program was designed to give OCAD grads a solid start in their careers. The Photographer-In-Residence position in the Rouge has helped Heike build her portfolio, her profile and her networks. “Lots of people do this type of thing in their spare time, but I get to do it every day and get paid,” Reuse told Metro. “It’s been a dream.” While Heike set out  to focus her career on what she calls “fine-art photography that appears on gallery walls,” Heike says her work in the Rouge has cultivated a new interest in pursuing a career in wildlife photography.


Photo Credit: Heike Reuse

Jerry Silverberg is at a very different stage in his career. After 30 years running a touring theatre company,  Jerry Silverberg was looking for a way to continue working with kids on a part time basis. Nearing 60, Jerry wanted to slow down, but was determined keep arts education central to his life.
Jerry applied and received TAC’s Community Arts grant to support “Art practiced at a community level.” The grant covered the costs of supplies and some of his time and some administrative costs. Partnering with the Toronto Arts Foundation through their Arts in the Parks program helped spread the word about Art in Phin Park. “I’m 66 years old,” confesses Jerry, “but when I’m working, I’m 18.”  Now in its third year, this Artist-in-Residence program keeps Jerry sharing his gifts with the community.

Partnerships Build New Connections : 

OCAD University, a school dedicated to Art and Design, has forged a new connection to Parks Canada through Rouge National Urban Park. OCAD students, faculty, art lovers and the local community will congregate at the art opening in the fall and will leave with new knowledge and insights about the National Park just down the road.  Also, Heike hopes that more people will see the valuable intersection between art and nature, and take a camera along as they explore the parks’ trails. This makes art more relevant to whole new communities of interest.


Photo Credit: Heike Reuse. 

Art is often seen as rarified and inaccessible. Many people have never set foot inside an artists’ studio. However, Jerry describes his studio as “three park benches underneath a chestnut tree.” Jerry’s park-based studio brings art to the Danforth and, as he puts it “brings the community to art.” As Artist-in-Residence, Jerry creates meaningful opportunities for children and adults to embrace creativity and artistic expression. This connection not only benefits communities, but artists, who can find new audiences for their work.

[This initiative is part of Park People’s Sparking Change Program, which works to create green community hubs in underserved neighbourhoods. It is made possible with generous support from TD Bank Group, The John and Marion Taylor Family Fund, City of Toronto, Cultural Hotspot, Toronto StreetArt, Toronto Arts Foundation, Toronto Community Housing and Ontario Trillium Foundation.


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