Mending clothing and community: A Halifax TD Park People Grant Event
Nothing says summer like a road trip. This summer, my family and I ventured out to the beautiful eastern shores of this vast country, in an attempt at a break from reality after a year and a half of pandemic living. We spent some time enjoying the rugged beauty of Cape Breton and paired that with a stay in Halifax, the vibrant urban hub of the Maritimes.
The plan was always to work for a period while being away, which included being able to visit with numerous colleagues living and visiting Nova Scotia (do I hear Park People Halifax office?), and attending events supported by TD Park People Grants.
The author, Rachel Yanchyshyn (right of the picture) meeting with Park People friends in Nova Scotia: Leah Houston, Nadia Bello and Erika Nikolai (left to right)
As we say around here, vibrant parks feel magical, but they don’t happen by magic. It takes dedicated people to make parks vibrant people-places. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at how this community group made magic happen in their park.
Clothing Care and Repair Workshop
Art Bikers, the organizers of this event, is a mobile arts program that brings artists, children and community members together in public green spaces around Halifax/K’jipuktuk.
Their TD Park People Grant supported events were a series of three outdoor celebratory gatherings focused on clothing repair and reuse. Participants were each invited to bring a piece of clothing to repair or embellish and were provided with all the necessary tools and materials.
Credit photo: A participant who brought some clothing to repair by Carolina Andrade
The Art Bikers team were the experts on-site, patiently sharing techniques and encouraging skill sharing amongst participants, showing them creative, fun, sustainable ways to make damaged items useful again.
Before the event
“It’s important to think about the space that you’re interacting with,” says Kawama Kasutu, one of this year’s Art Bikers.”To make sure the activities work well with the community, but also that the setup works well. We try to build connections that are long-lasting.”
Partnerships are often the key to successful events, and in this case, recruiting volunteers to set up for an afternoon of sustainable crafting was handled by ISANS (Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia), one of the event partners. After a brief orientation huddle with the Art Bikers team, the volunteers worked like busy bees before the event, erecting pop-up shade tents, spreading colourful quilts on the ground, and getting acquainted with the myriad of materials and tools available for use.
Credit photo: Volunteers looking at supplies by Carolina Andrade
Holding events after Covid-19
Adapting an event while managing Covid 19 restrictions isn’t easy, but, as this event demonstrated, the right combination of creativity and organization can make masked magic happen.
“It was a counterintuitive way to organize an event. We couldn’t send out invitations to the larger community and garden members, to get as many people as possible to the event, as we normally would,” Heather Asbil from ISANS explains. “We usually would have food to share at this type of event.”
Credit photo: Heather at the sign-in table by Carolina Andrade
The group added a registration table, PPE and sanitizer to the event and made sure the setup allowed for physical distancing. All of this helped participants feel safe at a community gathering.
Make it beautiful!
“This mending workshop has been one of my favourite parts <of the program>…” Kawama says ”…it’s nice to have it in a park. It’s open and accessible. Being in the open air is really nice, especially with Covid-19. The event was very inviting to people passing by. People wonder, what’s going on in the park?”
Credit photo: Kawama Kasutu modeling her latest creation, by Carolina Andrade
What’s going on in the park, indeed. The colourful materials and hands-on activities supported by a TD Park People Grant attracted families from nearby apartment complexes and others who travelled from further afield, all lured by the idea of making something old feel new again.
Feature photo credit: Hands with embroidery, Glen Garden Park by Carolina Andrade
Thank you to our generous supporters:
Little house in the park: Vancouver’s fieldhouses bring all kinds of activities to their community
If you strolled past Elm Park during “League,” you might have scratched your head. Are those people really fencing with pool noodles? Playing bocce with a can of Campbell’s soup? Attacking a couch with bean bags?
Everyone who lives in Kerrisdale on Vancouver’s west side knows Elm Park as a home for baseball, soccer and tennis. But where did these strange new sports come from?
Artist Germaine Koh is the games master who moved into the park to generate these new ways to play. The park’s humble fieldhouse, once home to a caretaker, became her studio.
In 2011, the city’s park board came up with a new way to use these old buildings to benefit the communities they’re in, inviting artists to pitch residencies in exchange for use of the space rent-free. Koh’s proposal: work with the public to create brand-new sports and games.
Koh, who had played competitive badminton, volleyball and roller derby, wanted to explore the similarities between art and sport. Her artsy friends would always say they’re not jocks, and her sporty friends would always say that they’re not creative. She disagreed about this divide.
“In sports, you practice certain techniques over and over again. In that way, you gain mastery, but you also gain an ability to improvise, strategize and negotiate,” says Koh. “All of those are totally abilities and skills central to the creative process.”
The park board approved her residency for 2012 to 2014. Elm Park was a “tough nut to crack,” says Koh, “because people were used to organized recreation.” But the wacky ways that balls, discs, ropes, planks and trees were used caught the curiosity of passersby, with turnouts of a few dozen on the most crowded days.
Credit photo: Fieldhouse Sonic Pick-Up Sticks, courtesy of Germaine Koh
The fieldhouses themselves are humble places. They’re single-storey, beige or grey and often attached to the park’s public washrooms. But for artists like Koh, they’re precious spaces in an expensive city.
“The interior décor was taupe coloured, not my choice,” says Koh with a laugh. “But I felt so privileged to be able to sit in a park and work.”
“Eyes and ears”
Vancouver’s fieldhouses have a long history, but Koh and others are moving in during a new life stage for the buildings.
The city started building fieldhouses in the 1920s. About 70 of the city’s 230 parks have one. They were the living quarters for the park caretakers, Hagrids and Groundskeeper Willies who tidied up and kept a round-the-clock watch. Living rent-free in the park was a special perk of the job, something no other major Canadian city offered. Caretakers settled in for long tenures, typically two to four decades.
David and Normande Waine were caretakers in the most prized fieldhouse residence of all – the one in the city’s massive Stanley Park, steps from the ocean. To get it took 14 years on a waiting list “as thick as the Bible.”
“We never looked back,” David Waine once told the National Post. “It’s a privilege to be here.”
But 2005 would bring the beginning of the end of what the Waines called “eyes and ears” in public parks. The city decided that it would no longer install new caretakers to live in fieldhouses when the previous ones retired. Services were being consolidated, and the city was considering new uses for these buildings — though it took some time to determine what that would be.
When caretakers moved out, many of the fieldhouses were left empty or used for an unimaginative purpose: storage for sports equipment. One experiment turned the Grandview Park fieldhouse on the city’s east side into a community policing centre, but locals were displeased with the increased surveillance, and the police eventually left.
In Vancouver, a park board of seven elected commissioners oversees and determines the policy direction of the city’s parks. In 2011, the commissioners directed staff to come up with an idea for the future of park fieldhouses.
Credit photo: Fieldhouse Bean Race, courtesy of Germaine Koh
Staff returned with a solution that also addressed a growing Vancouver problem. Fieldhouses were valuable real estate in public hands; meanwhile, creative people were struggling with the cost of studio space in the expensive city. Why not invite them in?
Artists like Koh were invited to pitch residencies to the park board. Those who were approved got to use the fieldhouses as studio spaces rent-free for three years, with an option to reapply (though, unlike the park caretakers, the artists did not actually live in the fieldhouses). The park board welcomed an initial cohort of eight residencies.
But there was a key condition. Artists were required to do 350 hours of public programming as part of their residency.
“We would not do a closed art studio, where you’re a jeweller just working on your jewelry practice,” says Marie Lopes, who coordinates arts, culture and engagement at the city. “You have to have some interest in working with the community.”
Composer Mark Haney seized the opportunity to do neighbourhood storytelling through music. He held a residency at Falaise Park, in the middle of the Renfrew Heights Veterans Housing Project, built to house soldiers who had returned from the Second World War. Haney and a partner researched the lives of 11 veterans who had a connection to the area, interviewing relatives and digging through archives. On Remembrance Day 2014, he debuted a piece inspired by the veterans called “11”, with musical cues that nodded to their lives. It was performed by eleven musicians on the hillside park, each playing a brass instrument chosen to fit a veteran’s personality.
The park board has since expanded the program to welcome a variety of disciplines: athletes, ecologists, chefs, cultural groups and more. It is currently in place in 23 parks, and now provides office space for non-profit groups, as well as studios.
One residency at Adanac Park teaches locals how to fight the “alien invasion” taking over public parks and private gardens: the fieldhouse is home to the Invasive Species Council of Metro Vancouver, battling everything from knotweed to the European fire ant.
Mr. Fire-Man at Maclean Park teaches locals how to harvest wood and make their own musical instruments. Night Hoops, which helps out at-risk youth, runs a free basketball program and connects young people with mentors on and off the court. The Iris Film Collective at Burrard View Park shares the love of celluloid; if you prefer a different visual medium, there’s the Cloudscape Comics Collective at Memorial Park.
With each round of residencies, the park board publishes which fieldhouses are available and a recommended focus for each. A fieldhouse in a park near a diverse ecosystem, for example, could be targeted for environmental stewardship. Applicants can indicate which park fieldhouse they prefer, but, ultimately, the park board makes the decision. For example, the Strathcona Park fieldhouse hosts a residency by the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty. It’s a significant match, as the park is near where many Indigenous residents live and is a rare green space in that part of the inner city.
The park board provides each residency with a staff liaison to connect them with people and programs at the nearby community centre. That way, residencies get a sense of who locals are and what they might be interested in.
Some fieldhouses were ready to go, some needed renovations, but for the most part, “they just needed a coat of paint,” says Lopes. “With a little spit and polish, we were able to turn them into active spaces again.”
A league of its own
Not every artist is interested in spending 350 hours with the public, even if rent is covered. But it was perfect for Koh because League, as she named her residency, was not an art project she could have done on her own. She needed players to try out, refine, even invent the games with her and was able to emerge from the residency with a batch of tested and crowdsourced games.
Koh was pleased to see people of different athletic abilities get in on the action, whether as players or as “Bossypants” who direct play.
“It’s an interesting thing: some games are more cerebral, others are more physical,” she says.
In “Scrumble,” players wear t-shirts with a letter on the front and back and attempt to spell words by rearranging themselves. In “Petri,” players score by throwing balls into different-sized “Petri dishes” – circles drawn on the field. The balls each have different bacterial qualities and can multiply points, so the exponential growth might suddenly rocket someone into first place. (Perhaps a good post-COVID game? Koh now wonders.)
Credit photo: Fieldhouse Petri, courtesy of Germaine Koh
Players also improvised with the park itself, not just the field. The fieldhouse had a yard, and teams competed to build the best structure for growing beans. It was a summer-long race to see whose beans would grow the tallest, a game of patience and engineering. Koh describes it as a “slow race to new heights.”
An old couch lent to the fieldhouse wouldn’t fit through the door, and so it was placed outside for games of “Couchie,” which was introduced to the League crowd by two friends who had invented it during their university days as roommates. Players throw beanbags to try and lodge them into the couch’s cracks for points.
Some games took players outside of the park’s boundaries. The Arbutus Corridor was nearby, a disused Canadian Pacific rail track that ran north from the Fraser River, through the park’s neighbourhood of Kerrisdale, and up to False Creek. It would eventually be purchased by the city in 2016 and converted into the 8.5-kilometre Arbutus Greenway for recreational use.
Even back when it was a disused track, Koh saw its potential. Similar to fieldhouses, the track was an underused urban space waiting for reinvention. She encouraged players to walk the length of the track and turn the experience into some kind of game. One player found a bunch of lost pages from a book and read them during the walk. Koh herself scooped a glass of water from the river and carried it all the way to the creek, where she deposited it.
Koh muses a lot about the theoretical question of what play is, but her simple hope for League’s participants was that they would learn to adopt a playful attitude in their lives.
“One of the intentions was to expand the notion of where play begins and where the play ends, and stop thinking that play is just a thing for kids or something that just happens on a sports field,” she says. “Play is a way of developing useful problem-solving skills, an attitude of everyday creativity.”
A new lease on the land
Before Fresh Roots moved into its fieldhouse, the urban farming non-profit was already getting creative with underused urban land. The organization was founded in 2009, and partners with schools to turn their yards into edible gardens and to educate young people on how to grow fresh food.
When the opportunity came up for a fieldhouse, Fresh Roots applied and settled into the one at Norquay Park. It has just been approved for a second term.
Norquay Park is right on the city’s busy thoroughfare of Kingsway, and the fieldhouse is beside the playground and spray park. It’s a high-traffic spot in a high-traffic park, and Fresh Roots has grown a sharing garden that passersby can’t miss, tended by staff and volunteers.
Photo credit: Fieldhouse Sharing Garden, courtesy of Fresh Roots
“It takes a lot of labour, and the weeds are taking over!” sighs Caroline Manuel, the communications and engagement manager, who works out of the fieldhouse office. The pandemic’s dip in volunteers has made maintaining the sharing garden a challenge. Still, the crop is plentiful this year. There are green beans, beet greens, rhubarb, raspberry canes, red-flowering currant, sage, thyme and more — and the public is welcome to take from any of them.
Planted in this part of the east side, Fresh Roots partners with other groups nearby, such as summer camps and seniors groups
“We tested the waters and there’s lots and lots of interest to have hands in the dirt, direct access to a space to tend to,” says Manuel.
Fresh Roots also runs “Art in the Park” events. The art that they did with summer camps — crafts like seed bombs — proved to be so popular that they offered them to the public.
The fieldhouse has helped give the non-profit a physical presence in the community with which to make wider connections. That contact is especially helpful because 40 percent of the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood exclusively speaks a language other than English at home.
“Not everyone’s on social media,” says Manuel. “We’re putting signs in as many languages as we can, chatting with people chatting with people as they come by, basically just trying to be here so people do start to feel comfortable to ask questions.”
Credit photo: Fieldhouse Norquay Park, courtesy of Fresh Roots
Lopes is pleased the park board can help by situating artists and cultural groups in the middle of the communities they serve.
“In a city where rents are what they are, [the program] relieves that pressure for an artist studio or a non-profit office,” she says.
Your friendly neighbourhood fieldhouse
Marie Lopes can’t stress enough that it’s the “open door” that’s key to the program’s success.
By bringing art and engagement into everyday parks, the fieldhouse program removes some of the barriers that stand in the way of accessing art and other activities through museums or formal programs. And that engagement can be as casual or as collaborative as locals like. They might stop by a nearby park to enjoy music put on by the residency for half an hour. Or they might work closely with the fieldhouse residency for the full three years as a collaborator.
She says the park board occasionally gets calls from other cities curious about the fieldhouses, as they’ve become a “flagship” program.
Nearby, North Vancouver runs residencies out of the Blue Cabin, a remodelled 1927 float home. Richmond runs residencies out of the heritage Branscombe House, one of the first settler homes in what was the village of Steveston.
Lopes has this advice for cities looking to start similar programs, whether it’s out of fieldhouses or other unused buildings.
“Look at your assets really carefully,” she says. “Stop thinking about your unused spaces as problematic. They’re opportunities. Look for collaborators where everybody wins. The community benefit is just boundless.”
About Christopher Cheung
Christopher Cheung is a Vancouver journalist. He is interested in the power and politics behind urban change, and how Vancouver’s many diasporas strive to make a home in a city with colonial legacies. He is a staff reporter at The Tyee.
Exploring the Community Park Groups in Montreal’s Park People Network
Parks and green spaces cover 11% of the City of Montreal (2.8 hectares of park per 1,000 residents). This area is made up of 20 large parks managed by the City of Montreal’s large parks department and over 1,200 neighbourhood parks in the 19 boroughs. These public parks are enjoyed by millions of people every year.
Today, more than 72 Park People groups in Montreal are part of Park People’s network. But, we know there are many more. Together, these community park groups actively contribute to the preservation, maintenance, improvement and activation of Montreal’s parks.
This year, in the midst of a pandemic, we had the opportunity to meet five more inspiring Montreal groups and learn about their work as well as their hopes, challenges and current needs. What we learned has helped paint a picture of the unique make up of Montreal’s community park groups.
These 5 case studies shine a light on the various definitions of parks, what motivates Montrealers to get involved in their parks, and how groups are working to grow the movement to support city parks.
Here’s some of what we learned:
Parks and groups of different shapes and sizes
What people in Montreal consider a “park” is extremely variable, imprecise and sometimes surprising!
The groups that we met with allowed us to explore what the term ‘park’ really means. From the site of an abandoned rail line to a large metropolitan park to the concrete backyards of social housing developments, to creating infrastructure to establish public access to a river, the park itself seems to inform how, when, and why community park groups exist.
In Montreal, as in other parts of Canada, residents living close to the park tend to spearhead park improvements. By engaging in their park, residents gain a sense of ownership over their neighbourhood park and their community.
Again and again, we saw how community park groups foster greater community cohesion. For example, les AmiEs du parc Lalancette children and families play together. In Racine MTL-Nord, the community worked together to beautify their common space and to build a new sense of connectedness.
Credit photo: RACINE-Mtl Nord
Another benefit of resident engagement is building urban nature connectedness. This connection to nature enhances people’s mental and physical health since biodiversity is essential to the well-being of residents. By working together to improve their parks, Montreal’s park groups are giving back to the natural world. For example, CAP Jarry has introduced more diverse tree species into Jarry Park. Similarly, the Friends of Gorilla Park have greened an urban forest previously faced with destruction. The Friends of Courant Sainte-Marie have focused on connecting the community with the St. Lawrence River, and Racine Mtl-Nord is teaching its members how to nurture and grow healthy ecosystems.
How friends of Montreal’s parks are mobilizing to boost the power of their city parks
Our review of Montreal’s community park groups revealed how park engagement leads to greater community cohesion.
For les AmiEs du parc Lalancette, this cohesion resulted from the group working together to improve their shared living environment.
Credit: les Amis du Parc Lalancette
Other groups found success by prioritizing concrete, short-term activities that generate quick wins and create a sense of accomplishment among volunteers. The Friends of Gorilla Park, for example, started by hosting modest cultural and social events. Similarly, Racine MTL-Nord hosted activities that required little cost or equipment.
Across all of the groups we featured, activating the power of urban parks meant working with the right partners.
The first of these strategic partners is the City of Montreal. The Friends of Gorilla Park works with the City and its teams to establish a formal partnership like the one established between the City and Les amis du champ des possibles in 2017. In the case of CAP Jarry, working with the City allowed the group to understand the relationship between the borough of St Michel Parc-Extension and the central part of the city. Finally, when it comes to the large metropolitan parks a magical event like the Ephemeral Christmas Tree Forest sets the stage for future success.
Photo credit: Marie-Hélène Roch
Once the door to park engagement is opened a crack, Montreal’s vibrant community organizations are eager to step forward. For example les AmiEs du courant Sainte-Marie was able to create the Village au pied du courant because they created an inspiring collaboration with La Pépinière. This type of park event programming has spread beyond Montreal and has helped make the city an international leader in the appropriation of urban public spaces. The group Racine MTL-Nord is supported financially by Paroles d’excluEs, a Montreal non-profit organization (NPO) that fights poverty and social exclusion by speaking out, has mobilized residents to work collectively to improve living conditions in a community housing community.
Seeing the Oculus through Fresh Eyes: A Public Space Incubator Supported Collaboration between Toronto Architectural Conservancy and Giaimo Architects
Park People launched its Public Space Incubator (PSI) program in 2018 to spur on new models of publicly accessible open spaces in dense cities like Toronto. Funded by Ken and Eti Greenberg and Balsam Foundation, the program, which ran for two years, transformed Toronto’s public spaces including laneways, parking lots, parks, streets, and plazas.
In 2019, the charitable non-profit Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s Toronto branch (ACO) and Giaimo Architects received PSI funding to restore and revitalize a 1959 space-age park shelter along Etobicoke’s Humber River Recreational Trail. The Oculus, which looks like a spaceship parked along a wooded trail, had fallen into terrible disrepair.
The Oculus in 2019. Credit: Stephanie Mah
These two groups collaborated to create a bold new vision of heritage conservation and brought the Oculus back to life. By harnessing the Oculus’ inherent optimism and community-building potential, their work has redefined what heritage conservation work can look like.
The Spirit of Optimism
When first unveiled, the modernist park pavilion designed by architect Alan Crossley and consulting engineer Laurence Cazaly featured washrooms, storage, a shaded concrete canopy with oculus opening and a flagstone patio. The modernist design and use of simple materials epitomized the optimism of Toronto’s post-war years.
As Spacing Magazine shared, “Though Crossley and Cazaly were only designing a rest stop, their blueprints elevated a simple structure to something truly exceptional and joyful.”
This same optimism fueled the restoration project. Delayed by a year because of the pandemic, the two groups were truly unstoppable. They continued their work, even as the city battled the gloom and doom brought on by months of isolation.
Credit: Giaimo Architects
“People in the community were asking, ‘when are you doing something?’ says Stephanie Mah, VP of ACO’s Toronto Branch and project co-lead. She adds, “we couldn’t have this project be yet another disappointment.” Ria Al-Ameen from Giaimo concurred: “With everything shuttered, we realized this outdoor space could serve a higher purpose. We could capture the original optimism and lift people’s spirits.”
Together, they launched Brighter Days Ahead in the fall of 2020. The temporary public art installation transformed the Oculus into a literal symbol of the joy-the sun. Radiating vinyl yellow stripes were carefully applied to the structure. Like magic, the pavilion was transformed by beams of sunlight glowing across the canopy.
Credit: ACO, Toronto branch
People across Toronto rediscovered the pavilion and understood the optimization inherent in its design.
Both ACO and Giaimo have a specialized focus on heritage conservation. As a non-profit charitable organization, mostly run by volunteers, ACO Toronto’s purpose is to set the stage for the conservation of the built environment through advocacy and public education. As an architecture firm, Giaimo integrates design and heritage conservation. Together, the two organizations formed a powerful collaboration that redefined what heritage conservation can look like.
Credit: Giaimo Architects
While ACO specializes in heritage conservation, most of their previous work was focused on galvanizing community support to preserve heritage buildings.
“The PSI grant gave us a new opportunity to expand the kind of work. We’ve seen how tangible changes like restoration and community programming help draw people to a place,” says Mah. Giaimo has expertise in highly technical heritage restoration. But, the pavilion is of a much smaller scale than typical architectural conservation projects. “We usually work at a much bigger scale,” says Giaimo’s Al-Ameen, adding, “but we all agreed that the Oculus is small in the most wonderful kind of way.”
The restoration of the pavilion included cleaning the exterior, applying an anti-graffiti coating, restoring and painting the columns & the canopy, refurbishing the flagstone, and installing new seating. The bulk of restoration work including two concrete benches designed by Giaimo is now complete. A City of Toronto heritage plaque will be revealed later this year. Daily, people walking and biking along with the trailing stop and thank the team for bringing the pavilion back to its former glory.
Bringing People Back to Oculus
Part of the Oculus’ appeal is its presence along a secluded, wooded pathway. That same isolation makes the pavilion vulnerable to vandalism and misuse.
“You can restore a place, but that doesn’t prevent it from becoming derelict again,” says Mah. With this in mind, ACO and Giaimo are using the PSI grant to host events that bring the community back to the pavilion, helping them see it as their gathering place.
With lockdowns lifting, the two groups have launched their latest public exhibition with this express purpose.
From now until September an art installation featuring uplifting, brightly coloured and mirrored panels features engaging information about the space’s past and future. Of course, this includes a panel dedicated to answering the perennial question: “Why does it look like a flying saucer?”
Credit: Giaimo Architects
It turns out, from space-age architecture to the role of park pavilions, The Oculus has many stories to tell. Giaimo designed the educational panels as triangular prisms to compliment the bold geometric forms that define the modernist structure. Designing the panels to meet the City of Toronto’s maintenance and safety needs was no simple task.
“We had to redesign the exhibit a few times to get through the approvals process,” says Al-Ameen. And, of course, installing without road access presents a whole host of challenges. But, the two teams were determined to re-envision the Oculus as an essential neighbourhood outdoor amenity and landmark.
Public Space Incubator is a program of Park People and is generously funded by Ken and Eti Greenberg and Balsam Foundation.
Transforming a neglected park to bring a community together
Tasmeen Syed was five years old, walking down Mabelle Avenue with her cousins when she came across people painting in the park that sits between seven large residential towers in central Etobicoke.
Previously just a neglected space with broken fences, an out-of-order water fountain and eroded slopes that people cut across to get to the Islington subway station, Mabelle Park is now a vibrant park whose lush art gardens, log seating, ice hut, wooden shed and colourful camper trailer bring together the residents within the surrounding Toronto Community Housing buildings, many of them newcomers to Canada, low-income families, and seniors.
“I wanted to paint on rocks and spray paint canvases and wear a funny giant shirt that makes me look like a tiny mad scientist covered in paint, and I’m doing all these fun things and they said, ‘come back tomorrow, we’re gonna do something even crazier’,” recalls Syed of that first encounter with MABELLEArts, an initiative that aims to bring together the Mabelle Avenue community through the creative arts.
She spent that entire summer with the MABELLEarts team and has spent every year since with them. She’s currently wrapping up a role with them as a community mobilizer before she heads off to university.
Her experience seems indicative of the way many of the residents of Mabelle Avenue, the 4,000 people who live in the towers belonging to Toronto Community Housing, have come to encounter MABELLEArts: an initial sense of curiosity that leads to committing many days and nights enjoying activities with the dedicated MABELLEarts team.
Credit: MABELLEarts, Iftar Nights. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.
Creating a sense of place
Nicolette Felix, the director of community mobilization at MABELLEarts, says that the area is an underserved pocket that nobody really knew existed. It’s a drop of density in the largely low-rise suburban west end of Toronto, and although tucked between fairly busy streets it only has walkable access to a small number of amenities, including a dollar store, a middle school, and a smattering of restaurants.
“It’s surprisingly small considering how much happens,” says MABELLEarts Artistic Director Leah Houston.
“It’s quite hard to find, if you’re driving by you may not even see it,” adds Felix. But, she adds, MABELLEarts “really put Mabelle on the map.”
That attention, in turn, generated funding opportunities, which help to sustain the programming. The additional funding “allows us to serve more people in our community, and we’ve been able to create employment, because, as our programs expand, we need more hands-on-deck,” says Felix. “There are no better people to hire than folks who live on the block, who understand the needs.”
The park itself is owned by Toronto Community Housing, and its support enabled the opportunity to work directly with the residents of Mabelle Avenue. “We’ve been able to co-imagine and make real the kind of park we want to have in a way that could be more challenging if it was a City of Toronto park,” says Houston.
Houston founded the organization in 2007, born out of working with Jumblies Theatre, which brings theatre into urban neighbourhoods. Houston brought the spirit of Jumblies to Mabelle Avenue, with a focus on bringing art into places where it normally doesn’t exist and bringing people together in public spaces.
Credit: MABELLEarts, Iftar Nigths. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.
Children and their families who are involved with the Arab Community Center of Toronto (ACCT), a non-profit that helps in the settlement of newcomers to Canada, are among those who have benefited greatly from participating in MABELLEarts events.
“When it comes to newcomer families that we serve – and ours is not an area that is paid attention to for many reasons – where they come from, art is a luxury type of thing,” says Dima Amad, the executive director of ACCT. “Children, youth and families don’t get to really participate in art-based activities that will contribute to their mental health and well-being, that will bring them together in a space where they are learning new things, but also to know other people.”
Credit: Tamara Romanchuk. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.
Despite the pandemic pause on many of the activities in the MABELLEarts calendar, you’ll still find their stamp everywhere on the grounds, with colourful flags, engraved art, and gardens and planters filled with brightly coloured flowers and native species. Comfortable spots with benches and hand-carved wooden stools invite passers-by to sit. A signature fire pit with a MABELLEarts cover on it is dormant, waiting for the time when it can be fired up for cooking once again.
Setting up a presence in that space was integral to building trust among MABELLEarts’ community.
“[Trust] comes from being in the same place for so long and publicly visible because we’re out in a park,” says Houston. “Even people who don’t participate know us, and they see a kind of tangible outcome of our presence.”
A number of temporary outbuildings include a trailer that serves as a mobile café, a woodshed, and a former ice fishing hut, all of which have been “Mabelle-ized,” meaning artfully decorated with brightly coloured paints. The organization plans to open a permanent space in Mabelle Park through the Mabelle Arts Project (MAP), a community centre that will be a clubhouse for MABELLEarts programming and serve food via its community kitchen.
“My interest as an artist was really in land-based work, public space, working outdoors, fusing food and gardening and outdoor activity with art,” says Houston. “More of ceremony, ritual, and events rather than a classic theatre piece with a script and actors.”
That philosophy has resulted in years of activating a space that would have otherwise been unused and encouraging the community of Mabelle Avenue residents to come together through performances, workshops, events, and activities like smashing watermelons to mark the end of the school year. For that event, the youngest or newest child in the community smashes the first watermelon on the ground, while a marauding chorus of trolls yells and shakes their fists in the direction of the local school.
Credit: Mobile MABELLE. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.
The focus on every age being engaged is a core part of what MABELLEarts does, including a range of youth and elder events. “Working intergenerationally was really important because it was an opportunity for whole families to do something together, which is often missing in our society,” says Houston. “You sign up for a program for your son or your grandma,” she adds, pointing out that not many full-family activities exist in the city.
Adjusting to the pandemic
Just as many other organizations had to rethink how they could operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, MABELLEarts had to pivot as well, temporarily putting aside much of its in-person arts programming, which required gathering in large groups.
“Being there every day was something powerful about us as an organization,” says Houston. “We’re not there every day anymore, but in some ways, we’re even more connected to people with wellness calls, and that initiative continues to this day.”
The pandemic also brought out the launch of the MABELLEpantry, after the discovery that Mabelle Avenue was in a food desert. The program is dedicated to getting food to those who need it. It takes place every Wednesday in the park, which is set up to look and feel like a farmer’s market, with bales of hay stacked near tables full of fresh produce.
Credit: MABELLEarts, the MABELLEpantry
Houston began driving to the grocery store and buying food for 10 households, “hoping that people didn’t think I was a hoarder.” Now the pantry assists 550 households, with volunteers bringing food to building lobbies for those who can’t travel to the park.
There are no plans to close up the pantry once the pandemic is over. “No matter what phase we were in, or what reopening, we realized that this was something that needed to continue,” says Felix.
A core mission of MABELLEarts is infusing all activities with art, theatre and design, and Houston admits that finding a way to incorporate that into food security was hard. They decided to have two therapeutic clowns play with people in line at the pantry, while at the same time ensuring everyone stayed safe and six feet apart.
“On the one hand, it encourages and actually enforces people to social distance, but it’s also like bringing a kind of black humour into what is a very serious situation,” says Houston. “I’ve loved watching them play with people in the pantry, and defuse anger and conflict with their silliness.”
Houston participates as well, as the emcee, in an eye-catching outfit. “I try to be really funny, silly, and warm with people,” she says. “The premise is that we’re playing with the pantry as if it’s a party or rock and roll. But what it is, is a food bank.”
“Most people in the food bank business care a lot about human dignity and privacy, and they want people to leave feeling good, but not a lot of food banks are concerned with humour and beauty. And we really are,” she adds.
Focusing on food security during the pandemic has also brought in more participants than usual, in particularly isolated seniors.
“People who might not have necessarily been comfortable coming out to sit and listen to some music if they didn’t know people, or just that it was too much work with their walker, those people are all coming down now,” says Claudine Crangle, MABELLEarts fundraising lead. “There’s a broader group of people who, I’m positive, will be even more involved in the arts and culture pieces as they’re starting to really ramp back up.”
“What people tell us over and over again is, you are my family. I’m here from another place, I don’t know a lot of people and I see you as my family,” says Houston, recalling a common refrain she hears at the pantry. “Between us as a staff, I would say we know everyone unless someone is new …. We can greet them almost all by name between us.”
For senior Bernadette Shulman, participating in MABELLEarts has eased her loneliness and introduced her to new things, like drawing, sewing, beadwork, and even some dances.
“It makes life more enjoyable,” she says. “When I walk down Mabelle Avenue, people are calling my name and sometimes I don’t even know them. But I smile because they have to know me from MABELLEarts because it’s only MABELLEarts in this community where everyone actually knows each other.”
Looking to the future
The future of Mabelle Park is all about doubling down and creating permanent infrastructure that will enable the organization to invest even more time with the residents.
“We’ve been in the neighbourhood for so long, and because our work was so deeply collaborative, we built a profound amount of trust and eagerness to do things,” says Houston. “Imagine 100 households who are just really keen to do stuff with us, and we realized that that was a really unusual opportunity, so we started to think about what we might be able to do with that level of trust and willingness to collaborate.”
Credit: MABELLEarts, the MABELLEpantry
That brought them to create MAP, the multi-year strategy to really solidify MABELLEarts’ position in the community with a permanent clubhouse, a more official role as an intermediary between TCH and the tenants, and a plan to work together for more community improvements.
MAP is moving forward, and Houston says they’re busy working on the final design for the permanent community centre and securing funding.
Felix says that having a permanent space dedicated to MABELLEarts will allow for the expansion of arts programming, provide a community kitchen, and enable the seeding of micro-businesses that would be run by community members.
The social enterprise projects are in the planning phase, and Felix says there are many untapped potential business ideas waiting for an opportunity.
“There are a lot of folks who live on Mabelle that have prior experience in the food industry and we’re seeing people coming into the pantry and telling us about things that they’ve done in the past, and all their hidden talents, and we’re hoping that we can harness that and develop some programming that trains people how to run their own business and then cycle it through the MABELLEpantry and sell back to the community while keeping many of our other initiatives going,” she says.
For the moment, the team of youth summer staff is working on beautifying the park, with a lot of gardening and planting, for the community that’s slowly emerging from their towers. The MABELLEarts team is putting down seeds for what they hope will be more beautiful community engagement for years to come.
The people behind this community arts organization are passionate about the work they do, and it’s that commitment that truly unifies the Mabelle Avenue residents in unexpected ways, from smashing watermelons together to intercultural Iftar nights, with food, ceremony and arts that activate the park during the month-long Ramadan observance. It’s a bright, joyful spot in a pocket of Etobicoke that could have remained dark and unused.
“I’ve never even heard of anything else like this,” says Syed. “It surprises me that other people don’t have a weird organization in their park.”
About Kelly Boutsalis
Kelly Boutsalis is a writer and journalist, based in Toronto. She is Mohawk, and from the Six Nations reserve. Her words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Spacing, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus.
This past year, parks have been used more than ever, but their benefits have not been equally enjoyed—a point highlighted in our 2021 Canadian City Parks Report.
The onset of COVID regulations and their enforcement have given rise to a growing culture of surveillance, policing, and fear that could easily become part of our “new normal” if not recognized and resisted.
A new report by Toronto’s ombudsman provides insight into these realities and offers lessons for moving forward. The report, released earlier this month, found that COVID-related rules in Toronto’s parks were unfairly communicated and enforced during April and May 2020.
Park circles Steve Russell Toronto Star via Getty Images
We know city resources have been stretched throughout the pandemic. Staff have had to deal with fast-changing situations and public health recommendations—all while under-resourced. For example, 60% of cities in our Canadian City Parks Report said COVID has impacted park operation budgets, making it even more challenging to do more with less. There is an opportunity, however, to look at past and present actions, as the ombudsman has done, to understand a new way forward.
The ombudsman report’s findings include that Toronto’s guidelines on use of certain park amenities were unclear—for example, benches were not listed on the city’s website as a closed amenity, yet people were issued tickets for using them. The ombudsman concludes that:
“because of confusing and inconsistent messaging, some people were afraid to use our public parks at all, for fear of being ticketed. This was unfair.”
The report also found that bylaw officers were directed to adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to enforcement—an approach described by the ombudsman as “unacceptable, unclear, and unfair”—leaving some officers feeling that they had to abandon their usual discretion in favour of ticketing in all cases.
This enforcement had a disproportionate impact on poor, marginalized, and unhoused park users, the report found. Independent investigations confirmed two serious incidents of racial discrimination in enforcement between May and June 2020.
Findings from our 2021 Canadian City Parks Report confirm that these issues extend across Canada and beyond the early stages of the pandemic. Of the 32 cities we surveyed for the report, 84% said that they increased by-law enforcement in response to COVID-19 physical distancing measures.
This increase in enforcement has coincided with increased barriers to park use—barriers that are not evenly experienced.
In our survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, respondents who identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour (BIPOC) were more likely to report experiencing social judgement from other park users (28%), fear of ticketing/policing (24%) and harassment/discrimination from other park users (22%). The response from white Canadians was lower on all counts at 17%, 15%, and 8%, respectively.
Given these barriers, it is perhaps unsurprising that we also found BIPOC Canadians were less likely to experience health benefits of parks during the pandemic. For example, 88% of respondents who identified as white said that parks had a positive impact on their mental health, compared to 69% and 72% for those who identified as Black and Indigenous, respectively.
These findings highlight the concerning impacts of the growing securitization of parks—a trend that existed before the pandemic but has since accelerated.
Sometimes, this plays out subtly. Consider benches with middle armrests that prevent people from lying down—a classic example of defensive design. This can also manifest in “ghost amenities”—a term coined by scholar Cara Chellew that refers to the absence of features like washrooms or sheltered gathering areas that are thought to attract “undesirable” behaviour. As some cities closed park washrooms during the pandemic or removed group seating to support physical distancing, it will be essential to ensure these amenities return to parks as restrictions are lifted.
Taped off bench. Cara Chellew
Or consider the culture of interpersonal policing (i.e. neighbours watching neighbours) that has crept into parks, fuelled by COVID “snitch lines.” Since April 2020, Toronto has received over 30,000 complaints related to COVID rules in parks. Not only does this strain staff resources, but also comes with “considerable risk of unfounded complaints, overfocus on marginalized people, and discriminatory enforcement by police and by-law officers,” experts argue.
The city repeated this again on July 20 in Alexandra Park when it surrounded the park with police and security to evict encampment residents, including arresting nine people and barring journalists from entering the area.
Actions like these also contribute profoundly to the stigmatization of homelessness. As part of the Trinity Bellwoods eviction, the city erected fencing, patrolled by security guards, around the perimeter of the former encampment to allow for “environmental remediation,” effectively barring people from using the space.
Similar fences have been put in place at other former encampment parks, including Toronto’s George Hislop Park and Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park. While surely the grass in these parks would benefit from some TLC, the same can be said of many other parks across the city that remain fence-free. It’s hard not to imagine there are ulterior motives—namely, keeping unhoused people out of the parks.
The fences have not only a functional role in preventing access to the park, but a symbolic one—they deepen existing hostilities by contributing to a blame dynamic where housed people attribute the “loss” of their park to environmental damage caused by their unhoused neighbours.
It’s not uncommon for homeless communities and the environment to be pitted against each other in parks conversations, but we need to keep things in perspective: the environmental impact of a person experiencing homelessness is likely much less significant than any housed person with more disposable income to participate in consumption (just witness the environmental impact caused by the hundreds of partiers in Trinity Bellwoods over several weekends). These cruel actions frame homeless communities as destructive to the environment, positioning them as scapegoats when the real attention should be on our collective failure to realize the right to housing for all.
Takeaways for moving forward
The ombudsman’s report offers 14 systemic recommendations that the city has committed to implementing, including directing the Municipal Licensing & Standards (MLS) division to develop an anti-racism strategy, as well as a plan “to hear directly from community organizations, particularly organizations serving vulnerable and marginalized people,” to ensure their feedback informs enforcement activities.
A creative workshop at Place Émilie Gamelin in Montreal. Audrey-Lise Mallet for Exeko in 2017
Building on these recommendations and drawing on past Park People research, we offer the following advice to help create parks that do not rely on enforcement and securitization:
Rules can be positive, and need not be enforced
Park rules can be helpful—even outside the context of a public health crisis. Past Park People research has found that a lack of clear rules can create anxiety about whether certain uses are welcome, inhibiting people from engaging with a park. By contrast, positive rules—those that are framed in terms of what you can do—can be enabling, by helping to remove the guesswork. In other words, rules can be freeing—as long as they are clear, reasonable, and culturally appropriate. For example, placing a sign in the grass that says “have a picnic here” rather than wrapping picnic tables in caution tape.
But rules need not be coupled with punitive enforcement. A McGill University report exploring COVID-related enforcement highlights that there is weak empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of monetary fines as a strategy for gaining compliance. Moreover, as the report authors argue, such measures “can be reasonably believed to cause greater harm than good, especially for marginalized populations.”
We can learn from the work of organizations across Canada that are showcasing possibilities for more inclusive approaches: from hiring a park-based social worker to facilitating outdoor art workshops that build bridges between housed and unhoused neighbours, to employing homeless community members at a park cafe that celebrates Indigenous cuisine.
Using art to engage users of Montreals Viger Square in consultations prior to redevelopment. Mikael Theimer for Exeko
These strategies not only protect unhoused park users from violence but serve to support their basic needs. In addition, programs like these help establish community-based bonds between housed and unhoused park users—cultivating greater empathy and understanding that is difficult to foster in other settings.
Tap into community networks
Strengthening relationships and communication channels between city staff and community groups is a recommendation offered in both the ombudsman’s report and our own Canadian City Parks Report. As the ombudsman writes, the city is “missing a critically important opportunity to listen to voices from Toronto’s communities when designing and evaluating its enforcement activities. This should be a priority, especially with vulnerable and marginalized communities.”
Rather than relying on punitive bylaw enforcement, cities should instead prioritize building relationships with local community park groups—over 1,000 of which exist across Canada—and partner organizations. These groups can provide valuable information about on-the-ground needs and realities, help spread information about safe gathering practices, and collaborate on programming that gets people back to enjoying the park together.
We would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to The Weston Family Foundation for its foundational support in the creation and launch of the 2021 Canadian City Parks Report.
Cover photo: Will Kwan, A Park for All, 2018, Text installation with Evergreen’s Public Art Program. Photo: Claire Harvie.
What Community Park Groups Told Us About Their Year in City Parks
We’ve learned a lot about our National Network of community park groups in the last year. The more than 1000 groups that makeup Park People’s National Network and achieve their missions in whole or in part through parks, stepped up for their communities in new, and vital ways. And, we could not be prouder.
Here’s what we learned about the awesome people who make up Park People’s National Network from our annual survey of community park groups.
As diverse as parks themselves
Of course, no two parks are exactly alike. The same is true of communities. Not surprisingly then, the groups dedicated to the power of parks take many forms. In fact, across Canada community park groups are a healthy mix of non-profit organizations, neighbourhood associations, community garden groups, resident groups and more. What is consistent among them is that the vast majority, 80% of community park groups are volunteer-led and run.
More than half of the groups making awesome things happen in parks have been embedded in their communities for ten or more years. In other words, half of our network of community park groups serves as local infrastructure with a long-standing presence in neighbourhoods. Thankfully, the resources and learnings we develop based on the learned experiences of long-standing groups can help support newer community park groups who are in the early stages of working in parks.
Regardless of how long community park groups have been in their communities, they tell us that fundraising continues to be their biggest challenge. This year, 66% of respondents to our survey reported that fundraising for their work is a significant challenge. At the same time, that park groups’ efforts in communities are needed more than ever, municipalities are facing significant financial shortfalls. We know this will be a critical issue to address going forward.
Park groups step up during COVID
Community park groups have stepped up for their communities during the pandemic. Even though gatherings were prohibited in parks across Canada, more than ⅓ of park groups surveyed said they pivoted to new ways of offering services.
The Glenelm Neighbourhood Association in Winnipeg made it clear that they had a critical role to play in managing isolation in their community: “We were able to pivot and offer programs and initiatives to keep the neighbourhood connected at a time of so much loneliness, fear, uncertainty and boredom.”
We were delighted to hear that 91% of community park groups reported that Park People’s work was valuable to their organization.
Montreal’s Groupe Ethé Vert Saint-Léonard thanked us by saying: “We would particularly like to thank you for your practical and financial support. Without that, we would not have been able to help our community connect with their special green spaces.”
At a time when financial uncertainty was top of mind, we were heartened to hear that we were able to support community park groups most by helping to raise funds (76%), help them stay motivated about their work in parks (76%) and enhance their knowledge and skills (71%) to enhance their park efforts.
As the days continue to get longer and the load starts to get a little bit lighter, parks and public spaces will continue to be bright spots in our cities and lives. Much of that is due to the community park groups that make up Park People National Network – the people dug deep to make their communities stronger this year. These are the people who collectively help keep our parks bright spots in our lives and communities. We simply cannot thank you enough.
Thank you to our generous supporters:
Hot Cities, Cool Parks
After three years without air conditioning, my partner and I finally bought one. Before that, we would sit in front of fans, or, even better, plunge into the Don Valley ravine to beat the summer heat. It was there, leafy trees above me, that I would find relief.
I thought about this as I watched British Columbians deal with an extreme heat event. I know from growing up in Vancouver that few people have air conditioners, which made me think about the role parks play in heat crises–and who has access to life-saving trees and green space.
Elbow River, Calgary. Photo Credit: James Tworow (FlickrCC)
It’s no secret that our cities are getting hotter due to climate change and that Canada is warming faster than the rest of the world. By building concrete cities, we’ve created “urban heat islands” that absorb the sun’s heat, keeping temperatures hot into the night.
This extreme heat is uncomfortable, but also deadly. More than 700 people died during BC’s recent heat wave. In 2018, 66 people died in a Montreal heat wave. People who lived in neighbourhoods deemed urban heat islands were twice as likely to die.
This will only get worse. As we outlined in our recent Canadian City Parks Report, Health Canada notes that by the middle of the 21st century the number of days with temperatures over 30 degrees will double in Canadian cities. A 2018 study found that, depending on mitigation measures, Canada could see a rise of 45% to 455% in heat-related deaths between 2031 and 2080. If that’s not a national health crisis, I’m not sure what is.
Green spaces are fundamental to reducing the urban heat island effect. We all know the bliss of standing under a shady tree, but vegetation also helps cool cities through evapotranspiration. This is basically when plants sweat, cooling the air around them.
Not every park is the same. A review by the David Suzuki Foundation found that size, (bigger parks extended benefits), shape (irregular-shaped parks increase cooling effects), and connectivity (closer together parks were cooler) have big impacts on the heat-mitigating powers of parks.
Even plantings make a difference. Sorry to the lawn lovers, but densely planted naturalized meadows are better at cooling than grass. This makes projects like Vancouver’s recent low-mow meadows, which naturalize park lawns to support biodiversity, an important climate resilience project.
Parks also provide places for people to build social connections. This can quickly become life-saving during a crisis, where people who may be isolated and more vulnerable to heat–like older adults–are able to draw on connections for help. As one study put it, the social connections afforded by parks “may be a lifeline [for isolated individuals] in extreme temperatures.”
This highlights the importance of redressing inequities in high-quality green space access–another topic explored in Park People’s 2021 Canadian City Parks Report.
Multiple studies have shown that wealthier, often whiter, neighbourhoods are also greener. As Health Canada notes, neighbourhoods most affected by heat “disproportionately impact marginalized populations and residents of lower-income communities” who have less green space.
Even when trees exist, they are healthier in wealthier neighbourhoods. A Canadian study found neighbourhoods with high socioeconomic vulnerability had fewer trees and less resilient canopies.
As journalist Jen St. Denis pointed out, urban heat islands map onto areas of Vancouver based on income, with wealthier west side neighbourhoods greener and thus cooler than east side neighbourhoods.
Canadian cities are beginning to step up with more equity-focused plans that, with proper funding and implementation, could start to redress these inequities.
Vancouver’s recent parks master plan includes a mapping tool using indicators such as tree canopy coverage to prioritize green space investments. Ontario’s Peel Region has also done heat mapping, noting that this could be used to target improvements for vulnerable populations.
Meeting this challenge will require an all-hands-on-deck approach. It must involve parks departments, but also streets, city planning, and community organizations. Federal funding for green infrastructure and tree planting should contain equity guidance to ensure improvements are made in the areas that need them first.
If we all work together, we can create cooler, greener, more equitable cities.
In the report, we focus on how parks can foster more resilient, equitable cities—not only as we recover from COVID-19, but as we address another looming crisis: climate change.
Park use during the pandemic spiked across the country as people flooded into outdoor spaces to seek safe ways to connect with others, experience nature, and get some exercise. Parks became more important to Canadians in their daily lives, but cities also faced new challenges with rising demands and public health considerations.
The Canadian City Parks Report documents these trends and challenges by gathering key data and leading practices from across the country. Whether you’re city staff, a community volunteer, a funder, a non-profit organization, a park professional, or a resident who loves city parks, we hope this report provides you with useful data and stories that both inspire and challenge you.
In this report, you’ll find the results of our April 2021 COVID-19 and Parks survey of nearly 3,500 Canadians, interviews with a range of experts, as well as new data and practices from 32 participating Canadian cities. Stories and data are organized by section—Nature, Inclusion, Growth, Collaboration, and Activation—and city-specific data are available in City Profiles.
You’ll also find a special section: Lessons From a Pandemic Year. This section dives deep into the ways COVID-19 impacted our park systems and our use of parks during the last year—both positive and negative—and the ways we can move forward together.
Parks saw high use and showed high value.
94% of cities reported increased use of parks in the last year. This elevated use may stick around with 82% of Canadians who indicated using parks more during the pandemic saying they expect their current use to continue or increase.
Parks were also used more in the winter with 50% of Canadians saying they had used parks more during winter than pre-pandemic, and 73% expected this use to continue.
Of all park types, Canadians say they prefer to visit local neighbourhood parks (71%), natural areas (61%) and trails (60%), reflecting the importance of nearby green spaces.
Community park groups continued to animate their local parks with nearly 300 groups across the country putting on over 3,600 events—half of which were virtual.
New challenges brought new ways of using parks.
City staff moved quickly to address the pandemic: 84% instituted COVID-19 related pilots, such as temporary washrooms, one-way trails to ensure physical distancing, and keeping seasonal recreational facilities, like tennis courts, open into the winter.
Measures that Canadians would most like to see permanent include winterized washrooms (57%), outdoor cafes (55%), and outdoor arts/culture events (53%).
Cities creatively implemented these new measures, and responded to the challenges of high park use, all while grappling with increased budget pressures: 60% of cities reported COVID-19 had negatively impacted parks operating budgets.
Canadians want to see their parks funded well: 85% said they would like to see more public funding of parks split between maintenance (43%), new amenities and higher quality designs (27%), and community programming (23%).
Parks were recognized as critical public health infrastructure.
Increased park use reflected the benefits Canadians get from parks, with nearly two-thirds saying their appreciation of parks had increased during the pandemic, particularly for mental health (85%), physical health (81%), and social connection (71%).
60% of cities said that COVID-19 had increased attention on parks as public health infrastructure, with 89% of those cities saying they believed this would be a long-term trend.
The pandemic also catalyzed new partnerships with 84% of cities reporting increased collaboration between parks and other departments, such as public health.
The equity gap was made clearer.
The work of community advocates was key in highlighting inequities within parks and public spaces, such as access and safety, bringing attention to these issues throughout the pandemic.
Cities are tuning into the impacts of systemic inequities and discrimination, with 43% reporting that addressing these issues was a challenge—roughly the same percentage also indicated the pandemic had increased attention on these issues.
Canadians who identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour were more likely to report experiencing barriers to park use during the pandemic, such as fear of ticketing (24%) and harassment (22%). Despite this, they were more likely to cite an increased interest in stewardship activities (70%) than white Canadians (54%).
Canadians are thoughtful about how people may engage with parks differently from them, with 77% agreeing that aspects of people’s identity (e.g., race, gender, age) affect how a person experiences parks.
Climate action through parks is a growing priority.
While COVID-19 consumed attention in 2020, the climate crisis is also a priority: 84% of cities reported dealing with climate change impacts and extreme weather as a challenge.
Cities are moving on this, however: 72% of cities reported having a climate action plan in place. This is a rise over last year, attributable to both the inclusion of additional cities in the 2021 report and recently approved climate action plans.
Climate change is also on the minds of park users: 92% of Canadians said they would support climate-resilient infrastructure built into parks.
There are two ways to read this report. It is available as an interactive website and as a downloadable PDF. The COVID-19 lessons, key insights, takeaways, and city data are included both online and in a downloadable PDF format. The stories—which share leading practices and interviews with city staff, researchers, and community leaders—are available exclusively on the website: ccpr.parkpeople.ca/2021.
We would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to The Weston Family Foundation for its foundational support in the creation and launch of this report.
We would also like to thank the RBC Foundation, Toronto Foundation, Maglin Site Furniture, and an anonymous donor for their support.
A report of this size is a team effort. First, huge thanks to the dozens of city staff that worked with us to compile city data, answer our questions, and respond to interview requests. We know this takes a tremendous amount of work and this report is not possible without you.
Lastly, thank you to the entire Park People team for their support and input.
Cover picture credit: Frankel Lambert Park Toronto, Adri Stark
Racism is a parks and public space issue: Park People and anti-racism one year on
Note: This piece discusses racial and colonial violence, including George Floyd’s murder, Islamophobic attacks, and residential school deaths.
“Park People cannot achieve its mission to ‘activate the power of parks to improve quality of life in cities’ without acknowledging that systemic racism, oppression, and injustice are part of the daily lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people in parks and public spaces.”
In that statement, we committed to: “begin dismantling systemic racism as an organization.”
Today, more than a year after Floyd’s murder, the barricades at the intersection renamed George Floyd Square have been removed to, as city council members said in a recent article, “help restore and heal the community.”
The same week that flowers and artwork were being collected from George Floyd Square, Canadians laid down countless pairs of shoes in public spaces as a tangible display of deep sadness and horror at the discovery of 215 Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at a former Kamloops residential school.
Even more recently, an Islamophobic terrorist attack in London, Ontario targeted a family of five out for an evening stroll on a public street. The event highlights how a simple activity that has been so essential for many of us during the pandemic—getting out for a daily walk—entails risk and danger for many racialized communities.
With these devastating events in mind, we at Park People are providing an update on our ongoing journey to embed a culture of anti-racism in our organization and in our work in parks and public spaces. To date, our efforts have been deliberately focused on creating a shared, internal understanding of systemic racism and how we can begin to adopt an anti-racist approach.
We humbly share the steps we’ve taken so far.
Establish Leadership and Accountability
In the summer of 2020, Park People established an Anti-Racism and Equity Committee to support the development of an Anti-Racism and Equity Framework and Strategy for the organization. The Committee’s purpose is to establish internal accountability, ensure anti-racism is an organizational priority and create tangible, measurable actions we commit to in our work.
The Committee created a draft Anti-Racism and Equity Framework, soon to be reviewed by Park People’s Board of Directors. The Anti-Racism and Equity Framework establishes the principles, organizational values, and commitments that Park People will use to guide all of its work.
Embed Anti-Racism into Purpose and Plans
Park People is currently updating its Theory of Change, the critical document underpinning every aspect of our work. We’re using this opportunity to embed an intersectional, anti-racist lens into all of our programs, partnerships, and communications. This updated Theory of Change will embed anti-racism into our organization at a fundamental level.
Examine, Improve and Measure Efforts
Park People is working with an expert in Organizational Development and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) to support our internal equity efforts. So far, we have conducted an internal staff survey and a full audit of Park People’s operations. The survey and audit have given us a preliminary understanding of staff experiences and knowledge and allowed us to benchmark our efforts to date.
Coming out of the survey, we have identified tangible policies and practices to help us become a more inclusive organization. For example, the survey identified that staff lacked a shared understanding of key terms like inclusion, equity, diversity, and reconciliation. One outcome of the survey was to create staff-led definitions of terms that will support more productive dialogue on equity issues.
In addition, we recognize that Park People is a white-founded and white-led organization with disproportionately few Black, Indigenous, and people of colour on its staff and leadership teams.
We have taken steps to ensure our hiring and internal policies are equitable and are committed to having a staff team that is more representative of the diverse communities we serve going forward.
Adopting a Learning Culture
We have dedicated time, space, and resources to train and educate our staff and Board of Directors to better understand and address systemic racism and white supremacy in our organization and work.
By providing both formal and informal learning opportunities across the organization we are working to make equity, diversity and inclusion a live conversation. To do this, we’ve established staff training, shared resources, and created spaces for conversations on equity, diversity and inclusion issues.
As our Anti-Racism Framework lays out, Park People is committed to creating space for shared learning and welcomes challenging conversations about racism and white supremacy in our organization and work.
Being released this month, the 2021 Canadian City Parks Report centres on an equity perspective. In the report, we explore how racial inequities mediate access to the benefits of parks for everything from mental and physical health to climate resilience. In the report, we highlight and celebrate the work of communities of colour who, despite facing greater barriers to park use, continue to act as park advocates and stewards building more inclusive public spaces.
In short, this year’s report demonstrates how race and inequity are inseparable from parks and public spaces and points to anti-racist pathways forward. It’s a critical shift we look forward to sharing when we launch the report. We are committed to using the approach featured in the report to move towards embedding anti-racism into every aspect of our work and culture.
Park People recognizes that our work is still in its early stages and that we have a great deal of progress to make in addressing systemic racism and white supremacy. We are committed to addressing the enormity of the task at hand and accept that we will make mistakes in the process. We will continue to have courageous conversations with each other, hold ourselves accountable as we learn, and keep moving forward.
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