Vancouver approves an equity-focused parks strategy for the future

Following a multi-year effort, last week the Vancouver Park Board approved its citywide parks and recreation master plan. Dubbed VanPlay, it will guide investment in parks and recreation for the next 25 years. Vancouver is the only Canadian city—and one of the only in North America—with an elected Park Board that governs the city’s green spaces.

VanPlay was necessitated by a much-changed, much-grown city bumping up against a number of challenges such as equity, population growth, and changing demographics and needs. 

For example, despite the fact that Vancouver has more parks now than it did 25 years ago, the amount of park space per person has declined by one third due to population growth. In short, people have outpaced parks. 

In the Canadian City Parks Report, our survey of Canadian park systems released this summer, Vancouver ranked lowest in average park provision with 2 hectares of parkland per 1000 people (see graph below). While this was low, it was also in line with other major urban centres like Toronto (2.7ha) and Montreal (2.4ha), showing how growth and density is challenging park systems across the country. 

Despite falling lower on parkland provision, Vancouver shone in the Canadian City Parks Report, which compiled data, but also surfaced stories about leading practices. 

Vancouver showed its dedication in striving for a progressive park system through policies such as instituting all gender park washrooms and performing a colonial audit of the city’s park system.

Vancouver brings that progressive focus to VanPlay. This is a report that features quotes from Audre Lorde, an explanation of intersectionality, and a diagram outlining the spectrum of privilege and oppression.

Vancouver’s focus on park equity stems from a recognition that the city’s park development has been historically uneven, creating inequities between neighbourhoods in park access and quality. 

As our cities explode with growth, it’s critical that we reckon with past planning and patterns of growth that have created uneven access to quality parks. We know parks provide multiple environmental, social, health, and economic benefits that everyone in a city should be able to share in equally. But how do we know where to invest limited public dollars?

The breakthrough in VanPlay is the use of geospatial data (a fancy way of saying data that is tied to a certain location, like income in a particular neighbourhood) to identify underserved areas where increased investment in parks should be targeted. 

The Park Board is calling these areas Initiative Zones. 

Initiative Zones were identified by examining three layers of data:

  1. Park access gaps: Areas where people are more than a 10 minute walk to a park and/or areas that are served by less than 0.55 hectares per 1000 people.
  2. Demand for low barrier recreation: The number of residents that have registered for the city’s Leisure Access Program, which provides low-cost recreation access.
  3. Tree canopy gaps: Areas of the city that have less than 5% tree canopy coverage. 

Now that this model has been created, the Park Board can layer other factors over time to reveal more nuance or target specific policy areas. 

These additional layers could include income, survey data on community engagement and satisfaction, locations of past capital investments by the city, and demographic data such as age. 

For example, the Park Board shows how layering on the city’s growth areas can provide further guidance on where to direct funds. Areas of the city experiencing growth pressures can often meet parks investment needs through the development process, whereas areas that are low or no-growth — but may rank as underserved — don’t have that same opportunity. The report concludes that equity strategies should target these lower growth areas for public investment. 

As Park Board Commissioner Camil Dumont told Mash Salehomoum, Park People’s Vancouver Program Coordinator, at the meeting where VanPlay was approved:

For me, this is the ultimate set of goals to inform my decisions. The sweeping and explicit prioritization of equity in such a monumental report really makes me proud of the work that we do at the Park Board.” 

Of course, data only tells part of the story — a fact that the Park Board recognizes. The report’s recommendations include on-going engagement between communities and the Park Board to assist in interpreting the data and understanding the lived experience behind it. The Park Board also has plans to make this data publicly available online through a mapping tool on their website.

It’s not hard to see what a powerful analytical decision-making tool VanPlay could become.

Other VanPlay highlights


Water, resurfaced

Vancouver is a city defined by water. When I lived there, I loved running along the seawall, or watching cargo ships unload at Crab Park, or chasing bunny rabbits at Jericho Beach. Water in Vancouver seems to be everywhere. And yet, as the report notes, 91% of urban streams in the city have been buried throughout its history.

As part of the City’s work on biodiversity as well as creating a city more resilient to the extreme rainfall events made more common through climate change, the VanPlay strategy aims to bring more of these streams back to the surface. This will create more natural habitat, new amenities for people, and also help manage rainwater during storms.

Streets to parks

We don’t think about it often, but streets represent the largest amount of public space we have in our cities—often about a quarter of the entire land area of a city. In Vancouver, streets represent 32% of the city’s land area, while parks sit at 11%. That’s a big public space resource for a city struggling to meet the public space needs of its growing population. 

Vancouver is already a leader in rethinking streets as public space, and VanPlay encourages more of this thinking with a recommendation to work with Planning and Engineering to create parklets, street closures, laneway activations and more.

Connectivity enhancers

Connectivity is another big feature of VanPlay. Vancouver already boasts the longest continuous waterfront trail in the world (the 28km sea wall that wraps around downtown) and a burgeoning system of bike lanes. VanPlay hopes to take this further.

An interesting element in the report is what the Park Board is calling “network enhancers.” These are elements—like bike repair stations, wayfinding, lighting, and seating—that bolster connectivity by increasing utility, safety, or pleasure between destinations.

Perhaps your walk between school and the park includes a small pollinator garden, a place to fill up your water bottle and a colourful piece of public art. 

We can’t always thread our city together with linear parks, but we can use these “network enhancers” to make the experience more enjoyable.

View the full VanPlay report here. You can find Vancouver’s City Profile in our Canadian City Parks Report here.

‘Percentage of land area’ and ‘network enhancer’ images courtesy of Design Workshop from VanPlay.


An Elaborate Show and Tell: Learning from Marpole’s Seniors Skills Bank

In 2013, Marpole Oakridge Family Place, a Vancouver agency that primarily supports children’s literacy, was asked to step up when the Marpole Place Neighbourhood House, known as the community’s “living room” for local seniors, flooded and was rendered unusable. MOFP rose to the challenge and, with few resources, has created a valuable Seniors Skills Bank.

The Seniors Skills Bank is a way for the community to learn about its seniors and their skills so that those skills can be used to benefit the entire community. In the process, seniors have a chance to contribute and feel recognized for their knowledge and experience. Andrea Krombein, the Seniors Outreach Coordinator at MOFP, roots her community development work in the belief that “information should be available and accessible to everyone.” Andrea has been working with seniors to identify their skills and build a database. She wanted to take the concept to the community and was able to secure a TD Park People Grant to host a Seniors Skills Bank this year at her community’s annual Everything Marpole Festival.

As a way of testing the concept, Andrea invited seniors to host booths which were set up along the event route. The demonstrations were led by artist and teacher, Lynn Onely, who taught watercolour painting; Alice Ng, who taught cupcake decorating; artist and exhibitor Billy Morton, a talented painter and Shichun Li, a retired professor who uses storytelling and folklore to teach people how to master the Rubik’s Cube. All day long, people walked up to the booths and learned a new skill from one of the many talented seniors in the community. It was a busy and exhausting day, but the concept was a winner.

“This is a cost-effective way that residents, some of whom are very low income, can actually connect with each other and also resource the neighbourhood,” Krombein says.

A TD Park People Grant helped Marpole Oakridge Family Place test out the idea of a Seniors Skills Bank, and now, Andrea is more energized than ever to build a database that can provide value to the whole community.

 Cultivating a culture of teaching and learning

  “The whole project is kind of a very elaborate show and tell, ”Krombein says

Krombein is actively building a database which will feature a wide range of identified skills local seniors possess from creative pursuits like watercolour painting through to practical skills like driving and cooking. The Skills Bank also includes seniors with more niche interests like whiskey tastings and mastering the Rubik’s Cube.  By collecting this information, Andrea has a vision of establishing a vast skill-sharing network that will benefit the entire community. The Skills Bank will not only help seniors interact with one another, but will also facilitate seniors demonstrating their experience and knowledge to the community at large.


Shichun Li, a retired professor who uses storytelling and folk-lore to teach people how to master the Rubik’s Cube.

Self-empowerment and confidence


Billy Morton, Showing off his painting skills at the Seniors Skills Bank

 We live in a rapidly growing and changing world and without adequate opportunities for people to connect and engage, it can be very easy for people to feel like they have been left behind. Loneliness and social isolation are issues that need to be addressed for the senior members of our communities who often feel alienated, undervalued and alone. Andrea says that early on some seniors didn’t feel they had any experience worth sharing, but following the example of some of their bolder peers, more and more people gradually came forward.

“Some of the group members were a bit shy to begin with, sort of reticent and nervous, but once they saw that other people were teaching about things that were important to them, they wanted to contribute something as well.”

Creating a virtuous circle


Alice Ng’s decorated cupcakes

Krombein says that she was absolutely delighted to learn that some of the seniors have moved beyond the Seniors Skills Bank to organize outings and programming on their own. “I’m always happy when they start to take it on for themselves,” she says. Shichun Li, has taken his Rubiks Cube lessons to local schools, helping others acquire math skills through play and keeping himself active and meaningfully engaged.

The Seniors Skills Bank pilot project demonstrates the power behind the idea. By stepping forward to showcase their skills, the seniors gain confidence in their abilities and build social connections. In that context, they are more willing to try new things. As their confidence grows, they become more active in their communities and more willing to participate and contribute. “It is evident to me that the magic formula is setting up places where people can learn, share and connect,” Krombein says.

The Seniors Bank highlights what indeed is possible when this virtuous circle is set in motion.






TD Park People Grant Recipients: A Roundup

Today, more Canadians live alone than in any other time in our history. A recent Environics survey conducted by TD Bank Group found that 34% of Canadians don’t feel included in their communities. These figures show that we need to be more deliberate about fostering connections between people. What better place to do that than in our parks and public spaces?

The TD Park People Grants program was established to serve just this purpose. The $2,000 grants, awarded to 55 community groups, will help bring over 160 great events to city parks across Canada. These events range from a collective tea party for seniors at King George Park in Richmond, British Columbia, to a flash mob dance party in Montreal’s Parc Morgan:

Food is on the menu:

Many TD Park People Grants will support events where sharing food is the main course. Events range from picnics and BBQs using community garden harvests to Rocky Ridge Royal Oak Community Association’s Stampede breakfasts, anticipating over 4000 hungry attendees.In total, twenty one community meals are taking place.

Wonderful winter wonderlands:

TD Park People events will continue right into December with several groups hosting winter events including Calgary’s Light Up Montgomery Christmas Lights Festival and a family-fun-filled day of sledding, skating, nature walks, maple-syrup making, s’mores and a bonfire in Montreal’s Centennial Park.

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Let’s Get physical:

Many organizations are finding fun and joyous ways to get people out and active with two dozen dance, sport, and active play events. Three different Montreal groups will host dance flash mobs, a sun set swing dance and participatory hip-hop performances. There are skateboarding events planned in Toronto and Calgary, family game days hosted across the country and pop-up adventure playgrounds hosted by Montreal’s Le Lion et la Souris. Vancouver’s Powell Street Festival Society will host its massive Asahi Tribute baseball tournament honouring the legendary Japanese Canadian baseball team that was dis-banded pre-war because of Japanese internment.

Caring for environment and nature:

Many events are focused on enjoying and encouraging stewardship of our natural environment, with a dozen community clean-ups, some anticipating over two hundred participants. Vancouver’s Seymour Salmonid Society is hosting a family fishing day and estuary clean-up. Groups are hosting nature walks, plant identification, gardening and composting workshops, or planting and exchanging seeds and plants, and two kite festivals are getting people out enjoying the elements in Toronto and Calgary.

Connecting with seniors and older adults:

Seniors are highly engaged in activities from euchre tournaments, nature sketching, and storytelling to Marpole Oakridge’s Seniors’ Skills Bank in Vancouver and the Seniors Round Dance Troupe performance at Winston Heights’ Pre-Stampede BBQ in Calgary.

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A parade of festivals:

Communities will gather together and celebrate with over 3 dozen festivals planned across the country. Five different parades will feature giant puppets, celebrate pollinators, or honour cultural festivities like Ramadan and Dia de los Muertos.

Roll Camera!

Fourteen communities will host movie nights as a great way fill our parks with community well after dark.

Arts happening in parks:

Two dozen arts and culture events are funded through the TD Park People Grants. From concerts and local theatre, opera and Shakespeare in the park, to graffiti art, mosaic projects, art-in-the-park festivals and drawing classes. Cultural festivities will honour Indigenous heritage and celebrate Indigenous culture.


Among the applications to the TD Park People Grants program were beautiful expressions of what parks mean to communities across Canada.

“We are creating opportunities for connections that have the potential to impact community members on a daily basis – neighbours who check in when you are sick, check mail when you are away, and more.” Fraserview Community, Vancouver

More than 400 community park groups across Canada have signed on to the Park People Network. More than 240 groups applied to access TD Park People Grants. These numbers demonstrate that there is a critical mass of people dedicating their energy and passion to leveraging the power of parks to help people connect. It’s heartening to know that while the stats say we’re growing more and more isolated, there’s a strong and powerful counterforce working to keep us together.

Be sure to attend the TD Park People Grant funded events in your city and celebrate and bask in the hard work of passionate park people who make our parks, communities and cities awesome.

Thank you to our wonderful sponsors at TD Bank Group for supporting this incredible initiative. 


Plant an urban fruit orchard, grow a vibrant city

As we’ve talked about before, the positive impact of people sharing food in public space simply can’t be overstated. Many park people across Canada have introduced fruit orchards into public spaces to improve food security, promote food literacy, reach environmental goals and increase community cohesion. This summer I spoke with Anita Georgy, Executive Director of Richmond Food Security Society, and Catherine Falk, Community Greening Coordinator at the City of Edmonton, about their on-the-ground experiences running programs that utilize urban fruit trees for public benefit.

Community food growing contributes to food security and food literacy

Food grown on public lands can play a huge role in building the ‘food security continuum,’ a term Anita uses. The term describes a range of positivie food-related interventions from giving food to people to food system re-design and systems change. Community food growing like fruit orchards can provide numerous roles along the specrtum: from providing food to neighbours in need to greatly advancing food literacy for a whole neighbourhood.  

Anita has an eye-opening way of explaining the different impacts vegetables and perennial fruit crops can have in public space.

“You can think of your vegetables (tomatoes, cucumber, kale) as a cash bank account you can withdraw from regularly. A food forest produces more and more food over time. You can think of it as an RRSP. Planting perennial vines and fruit is a solid long term investment in food security.”

Black Current (1)

Fruit tree recovery responds to food waste and addresses food security

One of the biggest complaints about fruit trees is that if the fruit’s not picked, the fallen fruit creates a mess surrounding the trees. The good news is that there are now many fruit recovery programs in cities across Canada. Organizations, such as the Richmond Food Security Society, Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton, Hidden Harvest Ottawa, Not Far From the Tree and Found Forgotten Food Nova Scotia are helping to glean excess fruit from privately owned trees and share the would-be-wasted fruit with food banks, volunteers and the owners of the tree. This keeps the fruit off the ground and puts it into the hands of people who can really use it. 

Planting fruit-bearing perennials in parks can help municipalities reach canopy goals

In 2013, the City of Edmonton launched the Root for Trees campaign to establish a 20% canopy cover over 10 years while engaging and educating the community. The program is focused on increasing the canopy with native species only. Fruit-bearing plants like cranberry and serviceberry are regularly planted as part of the program.

Catherine, who coordinates the Root for Trees program explains, planting a food forest helps the city satisfy habitat planting goals while contributing to food security. The Food Forest is located along a busy river valley trail system and because of that, it is available for anyone to utilize the growing bounty of fresh berries. Because the fruit-bearing perennials they plant are native to the region,  the project worked as a restoration project and provide food to passersby.


Photo Credit: Blackberries, Stephanie Overton 

When there’s food involved, community members want to be a part of it

The initial idea for the Edmonton Food Forest planting came when a local school teacher with a strong interest in urban agriculture approached the city with an idea to include only food-bearing native plants in the river valley.  Since the initial food forest planting in 2014, over 4,000 fruit-producing shrubs have been planted and the city has expanded the food forest to 1/4 hectare. The Forest brings people to the space and fosters awareness of watersheds and environmental stewardship while improving food security.

There is a large community interest in the Food Forest planting that has attracted volunteer planters from as far away as Calgary to join in on the project. Neighbourhoods across Edmonton are now requesting their own food forests. If you are interested in volunteering  with Root for Trees to plant at the Food Forest or another event, you can register on our webpage,

If you want to learn more about starting an urban food forest in your community read our blog Planting a Food Forest: 4 tips from an expert.

Improving parks is not always about the money

The benefits of spending time in parks are well-documented. And as anyone who has struggled for a square inch of grass to lay down their picnic blanket at Parc Lafontaine or woven between thousands of cyclists and pedestrians on the Vancouver Seawall knows, big signature parks generally have no problems attracting users.

But for the vast majority of urban-dwellers, trips to large parks are an occasional treat. It is the smaller neighbourhood parks dotted throughout our cities that are the backbone of the park system. These parks are often simply designed, with limited amenities. But since these smaller neighbourhood parks are the green spaces that are most often within walking distance of where we live, are there ways we can maximize their benefits to the community?

What the data tells us about neighbourhood parks

The researchers behind the U.S. National Study of Neighbourhood Parks were intent on finding out. They looked at how neighbourhood parks were actually being used, and by whom, in U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more. Neighbourhood parks were defined as 3- to 20-acre parks used mostly by people in the immediate vicinity and managed by city parks and recreation departments.

park map

Example of ‘park mapping’ used to manage data collection. Photo credit Deborah Cohen, RAND Corporation

Data collectors used the SOPARC methodology to observe park users in different areas. SOPARC is a direct observation tool for assessing park and recreation areas, including park users’ physical activity levels, gender, activity modes/types, and estimated age and ethnicity groupings (Active Living Research). The researchers also interviewed adult park users and surveyed city park staff about their management practices. One of their goals was to figure out what park amenities seemed to increase or decrease park usage among different groups of people.

Their compelling results can help shape how we invest in parks:

Three proven low-cost ways to increase park use:

If you work with a municipality, non-profit or community organization looking to get more people into our parks, here are three ideas for how you could use this data to make the most impact:

  1. Invest in great signage and bulletin boards: The data is clear – welcoming and informative signage is one of the most cost-effective ways to dramatically increase park usage.  Although great signage isn’t free,  it’s a lot less than a new play structure or washroom building and can make a big impact, correlating with a 62% increase in park activity according to the study.
  1. Create programming targeted to people who are not in the park: Park People recently launched a walking program aimed at newcomers, older adults and seniors in Toronto’s suburbs. One participant (full disclosure – my mother-in-law!) made immediate connections with other walkers, including a Spanish-speaking senior who was delighted to have someone to talk to in Spanish, and a woman who lived a few streets over that she had never met. The physical and emotional benefits of spending time in parks are significant, and simple programming, combined with amenities such as walking loops, can make a tremendous difference in addressing the under-use of parks among seniors, girls, and adults, as identified in the study.
  1. Bring existing programming into parks: Who says the offerings of a recreation centre or social agency have to stay within four walls? Municipal park departments and community groups can work with these organizations to bring arts, recreation and health programming into the park, attracting new users while providing the enhanced benefits of green space to existing participants.

Many cities are already taking these findings to heart by investing in new signage, targeting new populations in their programming, and bringing existing programs into the parks.

Both the City of Toronto and the City of Edmonton are making major investments in new way-finding signage, while large urban parks like Vancouver’s Hastings Park and Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Forest are developing unique visual identities that are both beautiful and useful.

photo of signs in parks

Signage in Vancouver’s Hastings Park helps visitors access its many amenities.
Photo credit: PUBLIC Design

In Richmond Hill, the Artist in Residence pilot program provided an artist with an opportunity to develop new work to animate and engage residents in six public spaces. This program echoes the successful Arts in the Parks initiative in Toronto, which Park People has helped the Toronto Arts Council bring to 35 parks over the past two years.

We are also seeing the expansion of the SOPARC methodology into Canada. The Vancouver Park Board is using it, with tweaks to suit the local context, to collect park user data as part of their VanPlay strategy, a new 25-year parks and rec master plan.

graphic showing parks per person in vancouver

Vancouver’s VanPlay strategy is tackling the future of parks and recreation in the city. Image credit: Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation

SOPARC is open and free for anyone to use – you can even find training for the data collectors on YouTube. I would love to see how people are adapting it to help them better understand usage in their own parks, and whether a simplified version could help community groups gather data about their parks and build the case for investments.

Meanwhile, Park People will continue to explore ways to make use of park data and to support community and city-led initiatives to improve our neighbourhood parks. If you know of projects happening across Canada that we can showcase and support, please let us know.


Canada’s Signature Urban Parks


“Large parks are priceless, and those cities that do not have an effectively designed one will always be the poorer.” – James Corner

Signature parks are central to a city’s identity. Their size makes a statement that ‘this is a place for people.’ As Julia Czerniak says in her book Large Parks:Whatever their flaws, parks remain among the most reliable places we have for the unscripted interactions that oil the creaky machinery of democratic social life.”  

In short, large cities need large parks. And, while New York’s Central Park has captured the public’s imagination, Canada has its own incredible urban signature parks that help define their cities.

Three cities, three different large parks

Parc Mont-Royal in Montreal, Stanley Park in Vancouver and the National Capital Greenbelt in Ottawa are all large signature parks. The differences in origins, management models and characteristics between these parks highlight the different roles large parks can play in cities.

Montreal’s Parc Mont-Royal is managed by the City of Montreal, while Vancouver’s Stanley Park is managed by Canada’s only municipal Park Board, an independent group of elected Commissioners who oversees the city’s parks system. The National Capital Greenbelt in Ottawa is largely owned and overseen by the National Capital Commission (NCC), a federal Crown Corporation. Despite being in a big city, it’s not run by the municipality, and multiple landowners and tenants farm, do business and conduct research on different sections of the Greenbelt.


By Matias Garabedian from Montreal, Canada

By Matias Garabedian from Montreal, Canada


The Origins of Canada’s Large Parks

Parc Mont-Royal in Montreal was conceived under the leadership of Mayor Aldis Bernard, nicknamed the ‘Mayor of Parks’ for his role in the creation of Mont-Royal, Parc Lafontaine and Île Sainte-Hélène. The city hired Frederick Law Olmsted, one half of the design team behind New York City’s Central Park, to create a design that would democratize access to the mountain. Its natural features and man-made amenities  were intended to provide relief for workers and people from all walks of life, regardless of social class. Olmsted also wished to preserve the natural charm of the mountain. He designed a winding path down the mountain to allow people to discover the beauty of this natural space.

Vancouver’s Stanley Park was envisaged as a park that would protect coastal forest while also providing much-needed park space for the growing city.  The very first order of business for Vancouver’s first City Council was to request that the federal government lease the land to the City, which they did for the very reasonable sum of one dollar per year, allowing the City to move forward with creating the park.

Ottawa’s National Capital Greenbelt was proposed by Jacques Gréber, the man behind the Gréber plan, the official plan that set out the vision for modern Ottawa.  Although the Gréber plan is now widely criticized for championing expressways and removing rail from the downtown core, Gréber saw a central role for parks and green space, with the Greenbelt circling the whole city to control urban growth.  The federal government acquired the land for the Greenbelt as part of its larger postwar effort to make Ottawa a capital city worthy of the “future greatness of Canada.”

By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (Stanley Park, Vancouver) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (Stanley Park, Vancouver)


Management and Planning of Large Parks

The management and future visions of these parks reflect their origins. Parc Mont-Royal is managed by the City of Montreal in partnership with les amis de la montagne, a non-profit corporation founded in 1986 and dedicated to the conservation and enhancement of Mount Royal. Management of Parc Mont-Royal is guided by the Mount Royal Protection and Enhancement Plan

The Vancouver Park Board works with many partners, including the Stanley Park Ecology Society, to manage and plan for future of Stanley Park. As a top tourist destination as well as an essential green space for Vancouverites, Stanley Park’s managers and stewards are challenged to maintain its ecological integrity while ensuring that the park is vital and accessible for citizens and visitors. This challenge is mirrored at Mont-Royal, where large-scale public events and daily use draw over five million visitors every year. When a fragile urban forest is also the backyard for many urban dwellers, how you sustain both the park and the people?

Ottawa’s Greenbelt is the largest publicly-owned Greenbelt in the world. Its decisions are guided by the Greenbelt Master Plan. The first Master Plan established land-use strategies supporting recreational landscapes, agriculture, and natural spaces for the purpose of safeguarding these from urban sprawl. The most recent version of the Master Plan called for more leadership to create a stronger and well-loved Greenbelt.

The Greenbelt also features in the NCC’s Plan for Canada’s Capital 2017 – 2067, which aims to connect NCC-owned green spaces into the broader ecological network. Federal ownership of these lands will help in achieving much of these objectives, but much will depend on the partnerships that the NCC develops with other levels of government, the private sector and the general public.  


No One Formula

There is no single formula for creating or maintaining successful large urban parks. They come in all shapes and sizes, management approaches and visions.  But what is common among them could be what Anita Berrizbeitia writes in her essay in the book ‘Large Parks’  

“Successful large parks are the product of deliberate decisions that leave them flexible in terms of management, program, and use, and that they result from ‘equally conscious decisions that isolate, distill, and capture for the long term that which makes them unique.’”

This Sunday, the last in our series of Toronto Signature Park walks will take place at Earl Bales Park. We hope to see you there to learn more about what makes this North York park so unique.

To Dig Deeper, Visit:


Cover image credit: Sheldon Carvalho, Stanley Park – Sea Wall


More Canadians are living alone, making parks more critical than ever

The latest release of Canadian census data shows that for the first time in our country’s history, one-person households have become the most common type of living situation. In fact, 28.2 per cent of all households last year were people who are living solo.

What does this mean for our parks, in particular, how can our parks better serve the people who are most likely to live alone?

More older adults face social isolation:

The data in the census points to the fact that seniors now outnumber children for the first time in the survey’s history. This fact needs to be seen in the context of Canadians living alone. As the Globe and Mail states:  “older, empty nester, single-person households.” are increasingly the new norm.

This demographic shift has very important implications for our parks.

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Photo credit: Arslan 

In a recent survey of its members, CARP (Canadian Association for Retired Persons) found that

“In statistical terms, the relationship between avoiding loneliness and living near a park was four times greater than the relationship between avoiding loneliness and having children.”

In other words, you’re better off having a park nearby than having visits from your kids. That’s pretty impressive impact.

Park People’s Sparking Change report corroborates this finding by highlighting that animated parks, with meaningful and engaging events and activities, have a hugely positive effect on reducing social isolation. This obviously holds true for seniors, who are more likely than most to feel lonely and isolated.

Often, we focus on the infrastructure elements that are important in attracting seniors to parks. Features like park benches, bathrooms, easy to use paths and walkways are, of course, important to seniors. However, what’s often overlooked is that parks need programming that is developed with older adults in mind. A UCLA report on the subject states that:

“the social aspects of open spaces and parks may be more important to some elders than physical amenities.”

How can seniors be better served by our parks? First, we need to account for seniors in our park programming choices. For example, your local park might choose Ghostbusters for a movie in the park, but in certain neighbourhoods a movie like Singing in the Rain might attract a population that could really benefit from getting out with others.  What if parks offered lower impact Tai Chi in addition to soccer? What about a book club? A walking group?

Too often, we don’t consider how the programming choices we make exclude older adults. Consider how you can make a point of including older adults in park consultations or community parks groups so they can have a meaningful influence on what happens in their park.

More young adults are living solo


Photo Credit: Sangudo

Another important sector of the population living alone are younger adults who have the financial means to live without roomates or parents. In urban centres, like Toronto, many 20-somethings live in apartments and condominiums where space is at a premium. Erik Klinenberg, writing for the Globe and Mail found that:

For young professionals, who are delaying marriage into their late 20s or 30s and taking even longer to have children, it’s a way to achieve adulthood. They see getting a place of their own as a mark of distinction, separating them from peers who live with roommates or family.

However, he goes on to say that this change has important social implications:

Instead of trying to persuade people to live together, we’d all be better off accepting that going solo is a new norm and doing whatever we can to make it a safer, healthier and more social experience.

Think about it: youth under 20 have skate parks and rock climbing, but if you’re 25 and single, what can you do in the park that reduces isolation and builds community in tower communities?

There’s an opportunity to reduce social isolation in dense buildings by using parks as a way for people to meet one another. For example, food is a great way to bring 20-something folks together in parks. Why not hold a small farmers market in a parkette for the foodie set? Host a picnic and invite everyone from the building to eat on blankets in the outdoors. You can host a dance class or reading series in the park. In short, cafés, restaurants, and gyms aren’t the only “third-spaces” where 20-something adults can meet eachother, parks can also play this very important role, and they are far more cost effective.

Women living alone in increased numbers


Photo credit: Andrey

It’s important to note that women are increasingly living alone. Women are increasingly economically independent, the divorce rate is higher, and women often outlive men. How could our parks better reflect this reality? The United Nations’ Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence Against Women and Girls explains,

“A ‘gendered perspective’ occurs when planners, designers, decision-makers and community actors look at problems with the needs of both women and men in mind. In the planning process, this means that all policies and design interventions should be reviewed by women and by officials in order to determine whether or not they will make women’s lives safer and more convenient.”

What would a gendered perspective on parks look like? It would mean that women of all ages and cultures were part of the planning process and their voices would be included in community park groups. Of course, issues like lighting to create a sense of safety for should be considered, but that’s just the beginning.

A  blog post from Misadventures Magazine suggests that we could take on gender discrimination in parks by naming parks after women and by creating women-only activities that give women a leg up in sports that are typically dominated by men.

In short, as more an more Canadians are living alone, our parks can play a more important role than ever in bringing people together to create happier, healthier lives. We need to be very deliberate about planning our spaces with the specific needs of park users in mind.

Cover image photo credit: Bart Souverijns


How to Organize a Shoreline Cleanup: A Quick Start Guide for Your Park

Since 1994, there have been 19,400 cleanups that have collected more than 1.2 million kg of trash across Canada’s shorelines.

Organizing a shoreline cleanup is an easy first event for a park group, and many long-term groups do cleanups every year.  Your shoreline cleanup won’t just reduce pollution that reaches our lakes and oceans – it will also help you build relationships and foster community pride. Also, you’ll help raise awareness of the major sources of litter in your community by keeping a record of what you collect. By leading cleanups, you can be part of the solution.

Last year more than 35,000 tiny plastic pieces and 38,000 plastic bags were collected across Canada, which shows our connection to the global issue of plastic pollution.

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup is a nationwide conservation initiative supported by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and WWF-Canada. They offer support to anyone who would like to coordinate a shoreline cleanup, including free promotional templates, guides, checklists, profile and national litter data tracking.

What if my park is not on a lake or a river?

If your park connects with water in any way (including creeks, streams, marshes and even storm drains!) then you’ve got a shoreline and you can take part in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.

Here are some tips from the Shoreline Cleanup to get you started:

Before the Cleanup:

During the Cleanup:

After the Cleanup:


For more details on how to lead a cleanup in your community park as Site Coordinator, and for other great resources visit Sign up for their e-newsletter here.

People of Parks: Anita Georgy of Richmond Food Security Society

In this special series, Park People explores the people who activate the power of parks across Canada. This issue features Anita Georgy, Executive Director of Richmond Food Security Society, an organization that uses education, advocacy, and community building initiatives to build a robust food system in B.C’s fourth largest city. The organization manages all of the City of Richmond’s community gardens, has a seed library, a community kitchen, fruit recovery program and youth leadership initiative.


How did your involvement with parks begin?

My very first job was in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. I was just out of university and led a youth camping trips with Stanley Park Ecology Society. In Richmond, the issue of food security is in the Parks Department. So, when I joined Richmond Food Security Society, our offices were in a park called Terra Nova Farm Park, and we run all of the City’s community gardens.

The relationship between food security and parks runs deep for me, and for the organization.

What makes parks better?

Food makes parks better. Outside cities, there’s a fine balance between people and the nature that must be kept to preserve wild places. But, urban parks are for people. Whether it’s a public BBQ, picnic benches or community gardens, food brings people into parks and brings them together. Cities need parks to be places of engagement, and food creates that.

Brian Grover

Photo credit: Brian Grover

What’s your dream for Richmond’s parks?

Our parks have to be places where all different kinds of people can come together and connect with the natural world and each other. If we lose that connection, it’ll be disastrous for us as a society.

My dream is for people to use parks to be connected to the planet-even if that means lying on the grass and looking up at the stars.

As we are increasingly urban, food is something that draws us closer to the natural world that we’re all a part of.


What’s your biggest triumph?

My biggest triumph hasn’t happened yet, but it’s in the process of becoming reality. We’re working on becoming a partner in Garden City Lands, a 136-acre park in the middle of the city. Being connected to the community gardens and programming around food will help us serve our food security mission on a whole new scale.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened?

 It’s not that crazy, but what comes to mind was when I was leading a girls’ private school group through ponds, looking for aquatic invertebrates and one of the girls tumbled right into the pond. That was an up close encounter with the natural world.

What advice would you give?

Share your ideas. There will always be people interested in good ideas. There’s opportunity for anyone to do something that makes a difference. It takes people like you, with passion and enthusiasm to make things happen. Go for it!   Cover image credit: Don Enright  

What goes in the park? You decide: Kitchener pilots participatory budgeting in parks

Have you ever passed by a park and thought ‘I wish there were more benches to sit on’ or ‘why doesn’t this park have more shade trees?’

You may be nodding your head right now, or even thinking of a specific park you wish could be improved. But engaging in the city budgeting processes that influence what happens in your park can be frustrating. Sometimes it can feel like your voice is not being heard when it comes to the spending decisions that shape your city.

That’s why the City of Kitchener is working with the University of Waterloo and local communities to try something different. If you live near Kitchener’s Sandhills Park or Elmsdale Park, this year you will get to help decide what goes into your park, using a process called participatory budgeting (PB).

So what is PB exactly?

“Participatory budgeting (PB) is a different way to manage public money, and to engage people in government. It is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.” – The Participatory Budgeting Project

The basic process is pretty simple – citizens brainstorm ideas, then work with City staff or other experts to turn them into project proposals. Finally, all citizens get to vote on which projects get funded. As the Participatory Budgeting Project puts it, it’s “real power over real money.”

Park People spoke recently with Ryan Hagey, Director of Financial Planning with the City of Kitchener and Sean Geobey, Director of academic programs for the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience and Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo (UW), about the pilot, what they hope to see, and what has surprised them along the way.

Where did this idea come from?

Ryan Hagey: It came from Kitchener City Council. Early in their term Council brainstormed over 100 different ideas for Kitchener and ranked them all. PB ended up being ranked 16th out of 103 priorities. So Council made it a priority for City staff. It was our job to figure out how to explore this concept.

Why did you choose parks as the focus of the pilot?

Ryan: Parks are neighbourhood assets that people care about, have a vested interest in, and that will be around for a long time. We were already planning to do a review of our parks engagement process. We have a general process that we follow for getting feedback on park developments. We get some high level ideas from people, Parks staff develop two or three conceptual designs, and then they bring them back to people for additional comments before finalizing the design. That’s been our standard process, and there have been some comments that that might not be the best process, so we thought, why don’t we try PB in this setting?

Sean: We came in fairly open as to what we would be working on. There are certainly a lot of advantages to parks – a constrained physical space with capital improvements that are tangible and easy to visualize. Even other things that seem like they might be similar, like community festivals, are more abstract because they are events or services. I think that focusing this pilot on parks will allow us to really enhance peoples’ capacity to make decisions. And then later on when the parks are in use, the results of citizen participation will be tangible, making everyone’s contributions feel more real.

What do you hope to see happen?

Ryan: We hope there is more engagement because people will have direct decision-making power, instead of the power sitting with Parks Planners. At the start we will be asking people to brainstorm what they want to see in their park, similar to what we do now. The real kicker will be later in the process when people get to vote directly for what they want in the park.

We hope to see an outcome that extends beyond the specific park project and leads to more civic engagement. UW’s research shows that PB can lead to more civic engagement generally, including more people voting in elections. Our ultimate goal is to build civic champions within neighbourhoods.

Tell us about the partnership between the University of Waterloo and the City of Kitchener for the PB pilot

Ryan: Early on, the role of the UW team was literature review and research. They looked at where PB has been used and what has been successful. They’ve found through their research that there’s not a lot of documentation about how to do PB in different areas, and in Ontario specifically.

Now they are helping to design the pilot projects at Sandhills and Elmsdale parks.  The City of Kitchener will implement the projects, while the UW team observes and documents. We are excited to see knowledge transfer happen, from the university to the City, about how to do PB.

Sean: My role is to lead the research team [at UW]. This project is really interesting for a number of reasons, one of them is that we have this very creative, engaged partnership with the City of Kitchener. They’re delivering the pilot, but we’re helping them with design and evaluation to see what works. What we’ve seen from our analysis of over 200 PB processes throughout North America is that a lot of the design has been very similar and we feel there is a much broader range of designs and processes that could be used.

What we’re doing is to help the city design two participatory budgeting processes and each of those will run in a slightly different way so we can see what works well, what doesn’t, and why. We’re hoping long-term to try more variations to really explore the process and the variety of ways it can be used.

Why is it important for academics to get directly involved in policy innovation?

Sean: There’s a lot of other ways we could have engaged in this type of experiment. We could have pulled together a few rooms full of undergrads and had them vote on pizza.

But the real constraints that face a municipal government and citizens who are engaging in the process are going to tell us so much more than we could learn in a clinical and experimental setting, both in terms of the variety of participants and what’s doable for a municipality in practice. The messiness of real life will tell us much more about how these processes work.

What’s surprised you about this project so far? 

Sean: The two things that have surprised me most are that 1) that it has captured media attention already and we haven’t even launched the process yet, and 2) how supportive and engaged the City of Kitchener has been on this. We know that not all municipalities that have tried PB have been quite as enthusiastic as the City of Kitchener has. They are a creative, engaged, open-minded partner who is a pleasure to work with.

Ryan: I was surprised to find out that it’s not much of a North American thing. It’s really prevalent in some parts of South America, but in North America, and especially in Ontario, it’s very small. I used to work in Guelph, where they do a limited version of PB in neighbourhood groups. In some ways it’s a bit of a nuisance that there’s no one model to apply, but it’s exciting because we can design it ourselves. There’s no ‘best’ practice that we have to be tied to.

What’s next?

Ryan: Over the summer we are designing the processes for the pilots. Then we’re starting engagement in the fall, and voting before the end of the year. Construction will take place in 2018.

What advice do you have for other cities and communities looking to try PB?

Ryan: We’re new to this so we’re starting small. Our advice would be to start small, stay focused, and learn what you can along the way. We’re not presuming what the outcome is going to be. We’re looking forward to applying what we learn.

We believe that with the City of Kitchener staff and the UW team together, we’ll be able to pull off something that’s good for the community, the city, and the university.

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