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.
September 27 we met with several local schools to celebrate Orange Shirt Day – a day to educate and raise awareness about the Indian residential school system and the impact this system had for more than a century in Canada – and the naming of the park. The children from the local schools had participated in tree planting much earlier in the development of the park so many had already been there. The park itself is a dedication to Residential School children; so many were lost in so many ways.
A local ceremonialist, Peetanacoot Nenakawekapo, had received the name of the park from Spirit. It is ‘Kapabamayak Achaak’ in Ojibwaywhich which translates to ‘Wandering Spirit.’ The parks’ colors are blue, green and yellow. The children got to learn about this ceremony and be a part of it that day. They sang together and celebrated a step toward reconciliation.
Education is the New Bison’ by artist Val Vint
The park will be part of the curriculum in at least four local schools and will serve as an outdoor classroom. The children’s participation in the process gives them some ‘ownership’ and ‘responsibility’ to the park and its wellbeing and continuation as a safe place.
The children brought their own lunches to the gathering but a traditional feast of smoked fish, berries, bannock and water was provided. I was really pleased with how many children tried and enjoyed the fish. It was a big breath of hope for our collective futures to see the children enjoying and learning and to have shared Orange Shirt Day and the Naming Celebration together as a community.
The children are now and will hopefully forever be connected to such beautiful experiences in their parks wherever they may be. Parks will have the connotation of community, learning, relaxing and enjoying the gifts given to us by the Creator.
About Val T. Vint
Born in Winnipegosis, Manitoba, Val spent the most meaningful part of her childhood in the bush chasing foxes and pelicans with her Grandfather, a conservation officer. She draws from a background of photography, engineering, design, theatre, music, travel, and work with other indigenous peoples. Her cultural heritage makes her feel that she has a license to investigate all forms of art. Val has been facilitating cultural art workshops, including drumming and singing for about forty years. These workshops have been held throughout Manitoba, Scotland and Latin America.
Systemic racism and white supremacy are prevalent and visible in our parks and public spaces where Black, Indigenous and racialized people experience suspicion, surveillance, harassment, violence and death.
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.
Park People’s work champions equity and inclusion. It is one of our core values, expressed as “parks are for everyone.”
However, we must do more to address the fact that racist systems of gatekeeping in public spaces mean that, in practice, parks are not for everyone. It is our job to actively work with communities across Canada to disrupt and dismantle the implicit and explicit structures of power, privilege and racism in parks and public spaces.
With humility, we admit that we are at the beginning of this process. This statement is a declaration of our intention to begin dismantling systemic racism as an organization including assessing our strategic plan, theory of change, programs and hiring, training and management practices. Coming out of this process we will establish a concrete organizational strategy to address systemic racism as Park People.
We support and stand with Black, Indigenous and racialized people and we are committed to listening and learning from their voices to shape our actions as we move forward.
Here are some useful readings we’re reviewing to better educate ourselves. We hope you’ll join us.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are a few readings that have resonated with us in confronting the pervasiveness of racism, and specifically anti-Black and Indigenous racism, in the planning, design, and management of parks and public spaces both in the U.S. and Canada.
Kappler confronts what she notes as Canada’s “angel complex” in comparing ourselves more favourably to the anti-Black racism that exists in the United States, by highlighting anti-Black racism in Canada’s history and contemporary society and linking that with anti-Indigenous racism. She argues that “[p]art of our reluctance to examine [anti-black racism in] our history is connected to the reluctance so many Canadians have in acknowledging the Indigenous people who lived on our land before European colonialists murdered them and tried to stamp out their way of life.”
Through essays from a variety of voices, this book will challenge your thinking to move beyond mottos like Toronto’s “diversity is our strength” to meaningfully integrate anti-racist and urban justice work into how we build our cities. While the book is centred around the Greater Toronto Area, its essays on subjects such as policing, arts, housing, mental health, and public space are relevant across Canada.
“Black existence in public space is itself seen as criminal and thus subject to scrutiny, surveillance, frequent interruption and police intervention,” Maynard writes. Through in-depth research, Maynard traces the roots of present day anti-Black racism, surveillance, and policing to Canada’s 200-year history of slavery. She writes of how “both historically and in the present, policing Blackness occurs alongside and as a part of the policing of Canada’s Indigenous communities,” as a way of upholding “the aims of settler colonialism.” As a key site of racial profiling and policing, Maynard explains the psychological harms Black communities experience in public space:. “The hostile and scary imposition into the lives of Black communities is experienced as a form of violence and intimidation, in which the act of leaving one’s house is fraught with danger and anxiety for fear of harassment by police.”
A response written to the racial and socioeconomic inequities in the impact and response to COVID-19 by cities, Pitter calls for a deeper evaluation of place-based solutions, such as opening streets for people, that recognizes racial inequities in our cities. “While mainstream urbanists are loudly advocating to widen sidewalks and public parks – two important but narrow points of focus – individuals living in forgotten densities are pleading to have their urgent concerns heard,” she writes. “Black men, disproportionately profiled and murdered by police on streets, are weighing the risk of ignoring directives to wear a mask and possibly contracting the virus or wearing a mask and suffering the humiliation of being asked to leave stores when attempting to shop for essential supplies.”
Mock writes about how privileging white voices in public consultation perpetuates inequities in what is prioritized for parks planning and design. He highlights a study of Houston parks planning process that found different community priorities for amenities when consultation specifically reached Black and Latino communities. Mock argues that cities “need to be inclusive of voices typically under-represented in planning processes, namely those of racial minorities and low-income populations.”
Lee writes about the implications stemming from how “many parks have been socially constructed as white space….conceptualized, built, and managed by upper- and middle-class white males.” When doing an interview with a local woman to look at why Black visitorship to a park was so low despite the racial make-up of the neighbourhood, he finds that “Jennifer’s description [of a park being for white people] had a striking resemblance with what Elijah Anderson and others call ‘white space,’ the racialized spaces in which people of color are typically absent or not expected. In such so-called white spaces, the presence of people of color can be perceived as out of the ordinary, dangerous, or criminal.”
In an article aimed at parks and public space managers and organizations, Mock argues that to confront racism and parks “diversity just starts the conversation; only justice can complete it.” He writes that “[i]t is not enough to merely scholarship in a few black and Latino kids to a parks academy or camp project. Nor is it enough to hold up a few examples of African Americans or Native Americans who are doing nature hikes and biking programs in the mountains.” He argues that park managers and operators “have to abandon their siloed expertise around ‘parks’ and attend the academies of racial justice thought leaders.”
In calling for a “politics of placemaking”, Koh argues that “inclusion [in public space] doesn’t undo existing injustices.” Discussing examples like Jane Jacobs’ suggestion that neighbourhoods need “eyes on the street”, Koh writes, “we should ask ourselves if those eyes are attached to a person socialized to see non-white people as inherently dangerous.” Likewise, Koh points out that language around “activating under-used space” is reminiscent of “justifications that Indigenous people weren’t properly improving the land that colonists wanted to control.” In highlighting these examples, Koh calls for public space professionals to engage deeper with systemic racial and class inequities.
Whose Park is it Anyway?
In On This Patch of Grass, the Hern-Couture family explores the question of ownership and enjoyment of Canada’s city parks.
Victoria Park is not unlike any neighbourhood park you would encounter in your city or community. It has a playground, a small field, and more notably, a bocce ball court. It is a small park, roughly the size of a city block, and is situated in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Grandview Woodlands near Commercial Drive, which is the city’s eclectic Little Italy neighbourhood.
The park is full of families playing with their children, older men playing bocce, young people hanging out, and people passing through to get to Commercial Drive. It means something unique to every one of these people, including Matt Hern, Selena Couture, Sadie Couture, and Daisy Couture, the authors of This Patch of Grass, a book that explores the politics of land ownership as it relates to Victoria Park, and all city parks.
Victoria Park bocce court, currently closed due to COVID -19 pandemic (photo: Jillian Glover).
The book poses challenging questions, such as whether city parks are really designed for everyone and how we can address complicated issues around park ownership and management while trying to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. Each author of the Hern-Couture family seeks to answer these questions by examining them through the lens of their neighbourhood park. According to the authors:
“Like every park, Victoria Park contains so many stories, so much history, so many relationships…it is a vehicle for thinking about land occupation, the history of Vancouver, the uses of urban parks, and their quasi-spiritual claims to the natural world.”
Origins of the Urban Park: Pacifying the Chaos of the Industrial City
New York City’s Bryant Park in the 1930s (photo credit: unknown).
Parks are “particularly fertile places to talk about land,” says Matt Hern. He notes that people tend to speak of parks as unqualified good things. They are lionized as “natural oases” in cities, when they are actually as natural as the roads and buildings around them, and just as political.
Historically, parks were introduced as natural oases during the Industrial Revolution, when cities were considered polluted, cramped, disorderly, and deprived places. Nature was the antidote to the threat of disgruntled masses rioting against the city’s poor living and working conditions. But nature was also wild and untamed, so the answer was to introduce a peaceful orderly version, like a park, in the midst of this urban chaos.
City parks were originally manicured to be serene and uplifting, with gardens and foliage, pathways, fountains, and contemplative pools. These parks were supposedly created for everyone, but they were tools of displacement from their beginnings. New York’s Central Park displaced Seneca Village, a primarily African-American village, and more close to home, Vancouver’s Stanley Park displaced an Indigenous village called Xwayxway, where potlatches were held as late as 1875.
Parks as Colonial, Controlled Spaces
Italian game “Bocce” takes place in Victoria Park (photo credit: City of Vancouver).
Although city parks became commonplace as a balm to the confines of life in the industrialized city, they were also tightly controlled and regulated spaces.
“Park rhetoric deploys all kinds of depoliticized b.s. about how parks are open to all, when really they are extremely tightly controlled, monitored, and supervised in order to disallow certain behaviours and aggressively promote other activities – all of which is fine – all space needs to be regulated,” says Matt Hern. “But being open about that process is critical. Parks are currently overt displays of whiteness and coloniality. Facing that requires acknowledging it first and admitting there is a problem.”
We like to think city parks are open to everyone to act as they please. But in addition to presenting an orderly, controlled version of nature, city parks are designed to present “carefully structured renditions of what constitutes appropriate human behaviour.” The types of appropriate behaviour are predominantly white.
According to Matt, city parks are highly politicized, highly regulated spaces for ordering the “good urban subject: white, property-owning, productively employed, happily recreating and passively pacified.”
The idealized city park is one where people do only what the park is designed for: tennis in the tennis courts, children at the playground, soccer on the grass field, sitting on the benches, etc.
What about the people who challenge these social norms? For example, the skateboarder doing kickflips near the water fountain, the homeless person sleeping on the bench, or the teenagers drinking late at night on the playground swings?
One of the book’s authors,Sadie Couture, interviews a variety of people who use Victoria Park to discover the unique significance it plays in each person’s life. For a mother, it is a place she has watched her children grow up. For a teenager, it is a favourite hang out spot. For an elderly Italian man, it is a gathering place to play bocce with friends.
Daisy Couture’s 365-day photo essay of Victoria Park (photo credit: Daisy Couture).
“Victoria Park has a huge diversity of users who have differing and sometimes competing wants and needs around the use of the space,” said Sadie Couture. “Like most city parks, homeowners and more privileged park goers have an outsized presence and influence in decisions about what respectability means. While there are many differing understandings about who and what the park is for, only some understandings are validated by the city, the police, and the community at large.”
According to Sadie Couture, the answer is not to allow anarchy in our local parks, it’s a matter of making sure that park behaviour is managed in an equitable and just manner.
“I don’t think parks are currently too tightly regulated necessarily – it’s more a question of who is doing the regulating, who is the object of all that governance, and to what ends. More than that, parks and parks officials need to be less duplicitous about all this regulation,” said Matt Hern.
Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples
The Saoyú-Ɂehdacho Cooperative Management Board meets during the 2015 Knowledge Camp on the peninsula of Saoyú on Sahtú – Great Bear Lake – in the Northwest Territories (photo credit: Parks Canada).
One of the groups that has historically been left out of this conversation on park usage and management is Indigenous peoples, who have tended to this land for millenia, prior to colonization.
Victoria Park is on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-waututh, and Squamish Nations. This means the land was not purchased, nor was a treaty negotiated, nor a war fought to change the status of the land. This is the case with most land throughout British Columbia, since there are 198 First Nations in the province and only 7 signed treaties.
Historically, Indigenous Peoples have been removed from their land, sent to residential schools, robbed of their cultural practices and ways of life. In Canada, reconciliation is happening at all levels to address these historic wrongs and chart a new relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
In This Patch of Grass, the Hern-Couture family suggest decolonization of city parks could be a significant act of reconciliation and a way to address the murky question of park ownership.
“Decolonization of our parks is the irreplaceable and inescapable first step for talking about commonality. If parks are supposed to improve us, surely that is the place to start.”
The Future of Park Stewardship
Vancouver Park Board hired Geordie Howe, Canada’s first municipal archaeologist (left) and Rena Soutar, a Reconciliation Planner (centre). The Reconciliation Planner consults widely with Indigenous leaders to ensure Indigenous history, heritage values, and memory practices are reflected in their policies and programs (photo credit: Vancouver Park Board).
In Selena Couture’s essay on the history of Indigenous peoples and land title in Victoria Park, she offers a hopeful metaphor of what future park stewardship with Indigenous peoples might look like.
“In the language of most Indigenous peoples of the Lower Mainland, the word for visitor is made up of the work “walk” and the suffix “alongside.” A visitor is one who walks alongside. This word guides my conception of how to behave – walking, a continual movement and present engagement with land that has minimal long-term impact, and alongside – in relation to the people who are already present and also in motion.”
I asked the Hern-Couture family what this metaphor of a visitor walking alongside Indigenous peoples could mean for the future of park stewardship.
“I think for us, to walk alongside the Indigenous people means a few things. On a personal level, it means that we first acknowledge our heritage as settlers in this place, and the discomfort and responsibility that comes with it. Then, we can move towards dismantling colonial structures and building up Indigenous communities and governance systems,” said Sadie Couture.
She notes that this would also involve first acknowledgement and education about the past and current inheritances that we all have in a settler-colonial society. And making the long-term commitment to changing our collective relationship to Indigenous peoples and the land.
“A good place to start would be learning from and listening to Indigenous communities who are connected to each particular park about what they envision, what their needs are, and what capacities they have.”
According to Selena Couture, this process would not involve institutions rapidly transferring all management and responsibility of parks, but rather remaining committed to these spaces, to healing these relations, and working collaboratively with Indigenous communities to figure out what makes sense.
“Successfully moving towards a different type of stewardship and management of parks is going to start with relationships, and beginning to forge those relationships so that we can work together on solutions.”
Jillian Glover is a communications professional who specializes in urban issues and transportation. She is a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner and holds a Master of Urban Studies degree from Simon Fraser University. She was born and raised in Vancouver and writes about urban issues at her blog, This City Life.
Join Park People and the global climate strike on September 27
Months ago, I signed on to receive updates from my local chapter of Fridays for Future, a global movement that started in August 2018, when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish parliament every school day for three weeks, to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis. My goal was to take some time away from work on a few Fridays to join youth, including my two teenage daughters, at Queen’s Park on Fridays to connect with others and form a collective sense of urgency and action for climate change.
I’m ashamed to say, I have not gone once.
Like many, I live in two worlds: one where daily to-do lists keep me focused on the present, while horrible existential dread about climate crisis makes me feel overwhelmed and afraid.
Greta explained her rationale for striking from school this way:
“Why study for a future that isn’t there? Why spend effort becoming educated when the government doesn’t listen to or behave like the educated?”
Of course, the same can be said about work. I remember turning to my husband a few years ago, saying, “if what they’re saying about the climate crisis is true, why don’t we all stop everything, stop working, and put all of our energy into saving ourselves?” This is what Greta was brave and smart enough to do when she stopped going to school.
Now it’s our turn to take a stand with kids and youth like her and put human life and the life of species that share this planet before our daily work lives. In Greta’s own words:
“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope, but I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
It’s scary, but she’s right. And we support her and all of the other youth who face a scary and uncertain future.
In our weekly staff meeting last week, two of my brave and smart colleagues encouraged us to strike together and walk out of our offices on September 27th because our house is on fire. Our Founder and management agreed. That’s why I, along with all of my Park People colleagues will stop work on September 27th and walk out in solidarity with students all across Canada who will strike from school to express the urgent need to address the climate crisis.
Park People’s work is strongly connected to the environmental movement. We know that many of our community park groups focus on environmental stewardship and have a deep love of nature. But more than that, all of us are humans who want to continue living on this planet and sharing it with other species, and we know that we must act now.
We hope you’ll join us in your communities and Strike for the Climate on September 27th.
Here are ways you can get involved:
To strike with Park People in Toronto: Please meet us at the Richmond East entrance of 401 Richmond Street West at 10:00 as we begin our walk to Queen’s Park.
Join us at Toronto’s Queen’s Park. Email us at email@example.com and we’ll provide you with a cell number you can use to connect with us on site.
In cities across Canada: Find a Fridays for Future chapter in your city. Or, plan to attend or lead a strike. Invite others affiliated with your community park group to strike along with you using your website and all of your social media chapters. Fridays for the Future has a great promotion kit you can use to spread the word.
If you can’t strike: Check out Global Climate Strike to find other ways to participate, including a digital strike.
Canadian City Parks Report Released Today
The Canadian City Parks Report, released today, finds tight parks budgets, increasingly extreme weather events, and changing use of parks by residents are challenging cities across the country. But it also finds many cities are leading the way on solutions through an increasing focus on collaborative partnerships, proactive parks planning, and inclusive engagement practices.
Launched as an interactive website, the Canadian City Parks Report 2019 was developed by surveying 23 cities across the country in five thematic areas: nature, growth, collaboration, activation, and inclusion.
The report is the first of its kind and fills a gap in information sharing about Canadian city parks. It is a new resource to inform and inspire city staff, community members, professionals, politicians, and non-profits by highlighting leading-edge Canadian practices and tracking the pulse of city parks.
Key indicators and stories that bring context to the data.
Actionable ideas and park practices from across the country that support learning, inspire action, and foster a culture of information sharing.
Key Findings in Cities We Surveyed
Budgets tight while populations grow. Cities across Canada are experiencing budget constraints at the same time as growing populations and changing demographics create demand for more parks, amenities, and programming. This has led some cities to reduce design standards in parks so they are more easily maintained, while others indicated making tough choices about which parks receive more maintenance funding.
Resilience must be scaled up. As instances of extreme weather increase, additional pressure is placed on park systems to absorb effects, like flooding. While cities are piloting green infrastructure in parks, there is a need to scale up and standardize these efforts. We found only 48% of cities have citywide green infrastructure strategies that include parks. Vancouver’s Rain City Strategy leads the way with projects like a new green infrastructure plaza built to soak up rainwater from surrounding streets while providing additional community green space.
The future is connected. Population growth and urban development is necessitating a focus on proactive parks planning and creative methods to expand and connect parks. Currently 70% of cities have updated park system master plans. This includes Halifax, whose new Green Network Plan, ensures the city develops responsibly around a park system that is planned around green connections for both wildlife and people.
Partnerships are powerful. Cities are developing non-profit partnerships and collaborations with resident groups to bring creative programming, alternative funding, and specialized knowledge to help meet new demands on city parks. We found 74% of cities currently have at least one non-profit park partnership, including Montreal where key partners work collaboratively with the city to manage large nature parks, such as Mont Royal in Montreal.
Inclusion means going deeper. Cities are beginning the work of ensuring parks foster inclusion by exploring their own policies and practices, increasing accessibility, and developing programs for newcomers. For example, the multi-city Welcome to this Place initiative that integrates parks and art within the settlement process for newcomers and refugees.
In its first year, Canadian City Parks Report 2019 establishes baselines to track trends in future years. Indicators include park budget dollars spent per resident, number of volunteers, hectares of parkland per 1,000 people, and more. Our goal is to include more cities in the report each year.
Tracking these metrics annually will help monitor the shared challenges uncovered in this first report and illuminate how cities across the country are tackling them with new practices that impact nature, growth, collaboration, activation, and inclusion in our city parks.
“With the support of The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, Park People is excited to release the first edition of our Canadian City Parks Report, which we know will become a valuable resource for tracking progress and sharing best practices amongst city staff and community leaders. This first year shows that Canadian cities are facing many of the same challenges in city parks, highlighting how important it is to create a culture of shared learning so that we can continue to create the best park systems we can to benefit our communities.” – Dave Harvey, Executive Director, Park People
“With more than 80% of Canadians living in urban areas, city parks play an increasingly important role in the lives of so many of us. We hope the Canadian City Parks Report will help to monitor and guide the future planning of these valuable community green spaces for the well-being of all Canadians.” – Tamara Rebanks, Chair, The W. Garfield Weston Foundation
Bill 108: New Ontario government rules are bad for parks and bad for cities
Last week, the Provincial government introduced Bill 108, which proposed changes to key tools that fund infrastructure and services in Ontario cities, including parks. It will dramatically curtail the ability of cities to provide parks for future generations.
Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro wrote an article detailing these changes and how they impact the ability of cities to pay for new and redeveloped parks.
With so many cities in Ontario rapidly growing and densifying, putting aside land for parks doesn’t just happen–it requires strong regulatory & financial tools. Bill 108 removes or alters many of them.
Park People is alarmed at these changes, the lack of details, the rushed process, and limited ability for municipal and public feedback. We urge the government to slow down and consult with municipalities and the public.
Toronto’s Chief Planner Gregg Lintern provided a good overview of the changes and their impacts to city council. We’ve included some of the images from that presentation in this blog, but you can see the whole thing here.
What happens currently?
Under the current rules in the Planning Act’s Section 42, Ontario cities are allowed to require developers to provide onsite parkland or, if that isn’t feasible or desirable, to provide cities with the cash value of that land. The idea is that cities could then go out and purchase a piece of land somewhere else (nearby, hopefully) to create a park.
The basic premise is that growth pays for growth. New buildings mean new residents mean more demand for parks. Therefore, new buildings should also help provide for that new demand through either land or cash for parks.
This growth pays for growth premise is a critical part of our planning process. It’s also expressed in tools like Section 37 and Development Charges, which can be used for parks. Both tools compel developers to pay for a portion of things like water and sewer infrastructure, transit, daycares, public art, etc. All things that are important for quality places to live.
What’s been proposed?
The bill combines parkland dedication (Section 42) and density bonusing (Section 37) into one tool called a Community Benefit Charge. It severely curtails the ability of cities to require developers to provide parkland onsite. It also removes the ability of cities to use Development Charges, another growth-funding tool, to collect money for parks.
The new rules compel cities to spend the majority of the money they collect each year. This will make it harder for cities to save up for larger park projects and land purchases.
Cities can choose to keep a limited version of the parkland dedication by-law, but one that strips them of the ability to collect land or cash based on number of units built. It would only allow cities to require 5% of the land area of new developments be dedicated to parks. This may seem technical, but it matters. Hugely.
In the high-density developments that we’re seeing in the GTA, basing parkland dedication on land area alone limits the amount of parkland a city can get. Requiring 5% of land area works in lower density subdivisions. But when you have a small site for a high-rise tower, setting aside 5% of the land doesn’t give you much usable park space.
This is why, for decades, the Province has allowed cities to require parkland based on number of units being built–a direct relationship to how many people will be living in a new development.
Under the new provincial rules, even if cities wanted to keep this dramatically limited parkland dedication by-law, it would mean forgoing the ability to institute a Community Benefit Charge. Cities will have to choose.
How will this affect parks?
The bill will hinder the ability of cities across Ontario to provide parkland for the future, full stop. This is something we’re already struggling with as land becomes more scarce and expensive. It also throws years of recent planning into disarray.
Many GTA cities, including Toronto, have done a lot of parks planning in the last five years to get a handle on growth. These plans were developed with the ability to fund them through Section 42 in mind.
For example, the billions of dollars needed to fund Toronto’s new recreation facilities master plan, or to build out Richmond Hill’s 2013 Parks Plan. At the very least, scrapping this tool will require revisiting these plans and their financial underpinnings.
In fact, Richmond Hill just went through a prolonged court battle against developers to uphold their Section 42-provided parkland dedication rights to pay for the new parks the city needs for the future. Now that too is thrown into disarray.
Toronto city staff came up with some stark examples of how allowing cities only to require 5% of the site area be dedicated to parks (as opposed to basing it on number of units) would affect recent developments. Spoiler: there would be less park space.
Why should you care?
If you’re reading this, you probably already do care. We don’t have to tell you about the power of parks to promote positive mental health, contribute to biodiversity, create more connected communities, and reduce social isolation. We could keep going, too.
Ultimately this comes down to a sense of responsibility, of a duty to create a livable city for future generations. This is especially urgent because parks are a key piece of infrastructure to help cities adapt to more extreme weather caused by climate change. Canada is warming at twice the rate of other places in the world. Parks aren’t optional. They’re fundamental.
Just think: when you visit a park now, you are the beneficiary of planning that often happened many decades ago.
When we require land from developers to create a new park, we’re not only doing so for current residents, or even the new residents moving in—we’re creating a legacy that will be enjoyed for years to come. This proactive city building is our responsibility.
Has this got you worked up? Go outside to your local park and take a deep breath. Feel more relaxed? Good. That’s one of the many benefits of parks. Now go back inside and write your MPP a strongly worded email.
In fact, here’s a template for you:
I am writing to express concern over Bill 108 and specifically the changes to how cities provide and fund parks through development. This bill removes and alters important tools available to cities that fund critical infrastructure, like parks.
Currently, Bill 108 requires cities to choose between parkland dedication and instituting a community benefit charge. Both are necessary to create livable communities.
Allowing cities to require onsite parkland dedication is a key tool for growing cities, especially as land prices rise. This makes acquiring land through purchase much more difficult.
Parks are not simply places to relax and play, but critical pieces of infrastructure that help clean air, water, regular temperature, and mitigate the effects of extreme weather.
Please put the brakes on this bill and provide more time to consult with cities and their residents on a responsible way to provide the parks our growing cities need.
Seniors walk together to enhance health and build connection to nature, and each other
There is nothing more beautiful than walking outdoors on a sunny spring day. It feels like the snow is melting off your soul.
The kick-off walk launching Park People’s Walk in a Park program was perfect in every way. The sun was shining, the snowdrops were popping out of the soil, and Toronto’s Music Garden looked like it was getting ready to burst into full bloom. Against this backdrop,12 enthusiastic seniors in light spring jackets gathered outside of Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre, and stretched in preparation for their first walk together. This first walk on took us through the Music Garden, a gorgeous Toronto park designed by internationally renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy.
It’s all part of Park People’s Walk in the Park program, a program providing training and support for 10 seniors groups across Toronto. Each of the 10 selected groups will host 8 walks from April to October. Volunteer senior walk leaders access a full day of training and a walking kit featuring all the equipment they need to walk safely. They also receive a bit of funds for things like promotional materials, equipment and healthy snacks. This great program is generously supported by our partners at Manulife.
Walking for Health
“My doctor told me to walk six blocks a day” said Lorna, a self-proclaimed “water baby” who loves any activity that connects her to the lake. I take a moment to reflect on whether I walk six blocks a day and make a mental note to walk instead of taking the streetcar for the last part of my commute to work. Lorna is clearly outpacing and inspiring me.
Cita, one of the walk leaders, experiences significant weakness on one side of her body and her doctor insisted that walking is essential if she is to avoid further pain and paralysis. And so, Cita walks and leads other seniors in staying mobile, social and accessing all of the benefits of nature. Although the waterfront is ideal for walking, Cita notes that not all seniors in her community take advantage of the benefits afforded by living in close proximity to the boardwalk and the Music Garden.
“I always tell them, stop complaining about aches and pains and walk!”
As a walk leader, Cita is inspiring because she reminds people that if she can do it, they can too.
“I use my walker. I’m like push yourself. I wish more people would do that.”
Cita and Josephine both insist that while it can be difficult to get started walking, once you start moving, any discomfort tends to fade into the background. “I walk through my aches and pains,” Cita says.
Walking for Social Connection
Everyone I speak to on the walk shares that they’re walking because Josephine told them to come. Josephine, another of the group’s walk leaders, regularly participates in classes and activities at the Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre. She is consistently referred to by others as a community influencer; the special kind of person who able to gently convince people to participate because she authentically cares about their well-being.
“If someone doesn’t show up to one of the classes at the Centre,” a walk participant Lisa tells me, “Josephine calls them and makes sure they’re okay. She makes sure they know that they were missed, and that they should come back as soon as they can.”
The Walk in the Park program was a unique opportunity for Josepine to step into the leadership role she was seemingly born to inhabit. “Josephine was the perfect person to co-lead the group,” says Karen Warner, a Director at the Centre. “When we were putting together our Walk in the Park application, we knew she would be incredible at getting other seniors to join in the fun. In fact Cita and Josephine are really the perfect combination to get people inspired and motivated to walk together.”
Many of the Walk participants acknowledge that seniors who live alone are very at risk of feeling lonely and isolated. Walking with this group, however, it’s clear that they’re as keen to socialize as they are to walk. In fact, group pictures punctuated every part of the walk. In fact, this group seemed to take more selfies than a group of high schoolers.
At the day-long Walk in the Park training session, Brianna, Park People’s Project Manager, deliberately advised group leaders to let the group walk at their own pace, and provide lots of opportunities for participants to stop and chat:
“Some of the walk groups stop and tell jokes, some groups sing together, some talk about the nature they see around them. Others, just chat. The key is to build-in time for the participants to get to know each other and to build bonds that will encourage people them to continue participating in the 8-week walk series and stay connected to one another.”
Walking to Connect to Nature:
Special walking guests included a mink, several loons, and a huge variety of birds, including a spectacular red winged blackbird. The Music Garden, where we walked, features an incredible assortment of natural features including a Birch forest, Dawn Redwood trees, a lush field of grasses and a huge assortment of brightly-coloured perennials.
Science has proven that spending time in green spaces — and in “blue spaces,” such as rivers, oceans or ponds — is very important for the health and well-being of older adults. Researchers have found that accessing nature supports physical exercise, increases energy, fights depression, boosts memory and extends the life of seniors.
One participant, Lorna, stops and points out the swans undulating among the waves, and names varieties of flowers she spots along the route Even though many of the participants live very close to the Music Garden, many had never stopped to really experience its beauty. One participant shared that she plans to come back with her family, while another said she didn’t even know that the boardwalk existed but that she planned to use it again in the future.
“Now that we’ve had our first walk” Josephine says, “everyone’s going to tell their friends not to be intimidated by the idea of walking outside.” Because many of the participants live in high-rise communities, it’s easy to imagine word spreading fast.
“we’re not the spandex-set and this isn’t Soul Cycle. We just want to get out, get fit and enjoy the company of others. I think as people get to know us more seniors will want to join in.”
Personally, I’d chose Walk in the Park over Soul Cycle any day.
TD Park People Grants provide 225 ways for you to connect to your city parks
On Earth Day, we announced the 75 park groups and 225 park events that have received TD Park People Grant program funding to host awesome community events in parks. Now in its second year, the TD Park People Grant program has been expanded to include community park groups in 7 cities across the country. There are so many ways to get out into city parks between now and New Year’s Eve. Be sure to check out all of the grant recipients and mark your calendar for stellar community events you can attend in your city parks.
Here’s just a sampling of what’s planned in cities across Canada:
Last year’s East vs West water fight in Calgary’s Crescent Heights brought a divided neighbourhood together in the park, all the while giving adults and kids alike a chance to have fun and cool down in the summer heat! This year, Crescent Heights Community Association is putting an eco-spin on their events by hosting an environmental puppet-making workshop into the park, a tree walk with a local arborist and, of course, the awesome water fight which we’re proud to say has become an annual tradition!
Our friends to the east, in Halifax, were ecstatic to be included in this year’s TD Park People Grant program. Bloomfield Neighbourhood Residents Association demonstrated great creativity by proposing three different themed potlucks, the final one being a Welcome Home Community Potluck where, together with Immigrant Services Association of NS, they will invite newcomers in the community to share food and experiences. There will be no shortage of excitement with Dramatic Changes Artists Society’s Anti-Oppression improv show and their sunset dance party. Their events will be powered by solar panels and intentionally setting their events in a stewardship framework.
The creativity of Montreal’s community park groups makes their events unique and well worth checking out! Toddlers and families of Dorval-Lachine will be reading, playing and picnicking in Park Lasalle, brought together by Table de concertation de petite enfance de Dorval Lachine, while the Groupe de citoyens 1e et 2eme ave will be cleaning up at Parc Frederic-Back, an iconic Montreal park in the midst of a huge transformation.
This summer in Vancouver, Gordon Neighbourhood Houseis taking their model for community action to the park! Broughton Street Mini-Park will be the backdrop for a great community barbeque, a community-wide chilli night featuring games, live music and food and a free gardening workshop for local neighbours to build their connection to urban agriculture.
We can’t wait to see you at these TD Park People Grant supported events. Be sure to check the website regularly for the latest event postings.
The TD Park People Grant program is generously supported by TD Bank Group, through its corporate citizenship platform, The Ready Commitment. Through this platform, TD is helping to open doors for a more inclusive and sustainable tomorrow so that people feel more confident – not just about their finances, but also in their ability to achieve their personal goals in a changing world. As part of this, TD is committed to helping elevate the quality of the environment so that people and economies can thrive, by growing and enhancing green spaces and supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Dupras is unique in that his dedicated commitment to preserving and protecting nature lives at the intersection of art, science, and activism.
Art and science share the stage
Jerome Dupras is not only a talented scientist and Geographer, but he’s also a bassist in a super-famous Quebec rock band.
Here’s how he makes sense of his dual-careers as a musician and scientist:
“Like music, science is a form of art. In science, like in music, you need to learn the basics and to practice a lot.To be innovative in art and in science, you need to be creative to make an impact. Breaking the boundaries between art and science is where the innovation ‘sweet spot’ lies for me.”.
In his career with Les Cowboys Fringants, Dupras uses the powerful platform afforded him to promote his message about the important and often overlooked value of preserving and enhancing nature. As a scientist, he’s used his artistic mind to develop creative research approaches that build people’s appreciation for and understanding of the ‘pay off’ that comes from investing in nature.
Making the economic argument for nature
Dupras and his team have developed a proprietary formula for measuring the economic value of natural infrastructure such as trees, rivers and flowers.
By finding ways to measure this value, Dupras has given nature a leg up in discussions that pit nature against industry. More trees means less development, right? Sound familiar? Well, Dupras’ formula proves otherwise. As a result of his team’s open-source formula for quantifying nature’s economic value, municipalities have implemented tax credits for forest conservation and have justified planting more trees because of the pollination and natural water filtration services they provide.
Dupras and his team are committed to supporting grassroots, community-based groups by providing them with technical help to implement the formula.
“I am really proud to see that our research is being applied, allowing more people to preserve and cultivate natural infrastructure. It’s a model we want to see spread. The more people that use it, the better.”
Using music to cultivate the next generation of activists
In 2016, Dupras’ band Les Cowboys Fringants created a Foundation to support activities to help spread their message about the importance of nature. With support from fans, La Fondation Cowboys Fringants planted 375 000 trees to celebrate the 375 anniversary of Montreal. The crowdfunding effort was tied to album sales and funded the entire effort including a stewardship strategy.
“A tree planted now will be mature in 20 to 25 years,” said Dupras.“This is a gift to the children, both today and for the future”.
The Foundation also supported a program to teach songwriting to high-schoolers to help them use art as a platform for activism. Over 18 months, students from high schools across Québec wrote songs to promote environmental activism, all culminating in the release of 2 albums featuring students songs performed by well known Quebec artists:
“It is an empowering process for budding student who sees they started with a blank page and now their song and message is being performed by a famous artist”.