Reflections on a park journey

This contribution from Dylan Reid is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

Editing this series has taken me on a fascinating virtual journey to remarkable park projects across Canada. It was a particular joy to “travel” in this way at a time when physical travel is fraught and limited. Through the evocative writing of our contributors, I got to experience creative, enterprising initiatives that I am eager to visit in person when travel becomes easier. Even within my own city of Toronto, the projects featured here span the entire length of the city, north, west and east, and provide future destinations for exploration.

These articles also introduced me to the remarkable range of people – citizens, activists, artists, designers, and planners – who have come together to initiate and shape these projects. Not the least, I was honoured to work with a range of committed urbanist writers, some of them favourite authors I was pleased to reconnect with, and others I discovered thanks to this project, each of whom brought their own insight, experience and local knowledge to the story they told.

The projects we’ve explored came in all sizes, from a postage stamp of greenery in Etobicoke on the west side of Toronto to a vast agglomeration across the western edge of Montreal. Many are ribbons, following the path of old infrastructure and rivers; others are irregular patches carved out of unprepossessing spaces by creative imaginations.

Of necessity, this range is just a sampling of the innovative projects taking place in parks across the country, and over the course of the series the choice of projects to be featured evolved. But our writers referenced many comparable park initiatives elsewhere in Canada as they explored these projects in depth, and for highlights of other inspiring projects, readers can refer to Park People’s annual Canadian City Parks Report.

The stories featured in this series have been more than enough, however, to stimulate some reflections on how Canadian parks are evolving and identify some common themes in the stories we’ve featured. Working on this series has revealed to me how Canada’s urban parks are dynamic and ever-changing, activated and shaped by the communities they serve.

 

Past and Future

 

Emilie Jabouin opens her article about Black Creek Community Farm with a Haitian saying that means “the work is continuous and ongoing.” And indeed, these articles have captured the way parks are continuously evolving.

 

Credit: Black Creek Community Farm Entrance

 

A goal of this series marking the tenth anniversary of Park People was to explore the past and future of urban parks in Canada. By taking this approach, our writers have been able to convey the arc of these parks over time, sharing the story of the origins of these parks and programs, where they stand in the current moment, and the future visions that build on those foundations.

Jillian Glover recounts how, as a child, she turned the neglected Arbutus corridor into a space to play. Currently, the City of Vancouver has turned it into a simple public space where people can travel and artists can experiment. And its popularity has provided the basis for future plans to develop a series of unique anchor points to support a range of activities for neighbours and visitors.

All of the parks in this series have been captured by our writers somewhere in this kind of mid-evolution. In the Meadoway, as Shawn Micallef writes, travellers on bike or foot can see the stages of planting that are transforming lawn into native meadow. In Calgary, children and adults are just breaking in new play structures. In Etobicoke, MABELLEarts is creating permanent new programs in response to the pandemic. In Edmonton, a ground blessing has set the stage for construction, while in Montreal and Quebec City, communities, city staff, and designers are putting together a roadmap for the future.

That presence of a transformative future vision, built on the past and present, is what unites all of the projects featured in this series.

MABELLEarts, kihciy askiy, and Black Creek Community Farm plan new buildings as a focus for their communities that will, as Kelly Boutsalis writes, “[put] down seeds for what they hope will be more beautiful community engagement for years to come.”

 

Credit: Painting the road as a tactical intervention, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ali McMillan.

 

Flyover Park envisioned a community resource in a neglected underpass, Vancouver’s fieldhouse program envisions ever more creative uses for old buildings, and the Meadoway envisions a new ecosystem. Montreal and Quebec City aim for connected green networks that will be, in Chris DeWolf’s words, a “generational project” of “staggering scope, complexity and ambition.”

By their very nature as a habitat for plants and animals, parks are not static, but rather always growing and changing. And what this series teaches is that the people who use parks, too, are constantly shaping and transforming them, sometimes instinctively and sometimes intentionally.

 

Learning

 

I have learned so much from this series because parks have a lot to teach us. It’s teaching that goes in many directions. At kihciy askiy, city staff learned about Indigenous values and processes, and non-Indigenous visitors will be able to learn about Indigenous culture.

As Lewis Cardinal told Emily Rendell-Watson, it will be “the place where we can do some teaching for non-Indigenous people, to welcome them to our ceremonies and to give them an introduction to our Indigenous worldviews and our history.”

 

Credit photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall

 

At Black Creek Community Farm, children and newcomers learn about urban agriculture. In the Meadoway, residents learn about rewilding. At Flyover Park, students and local residents learned about planning and landscape design; but planners and designers also learned about tactical urbanism and the vision and enthusiasm of children.

As the City of Calgary’s Jen Mazer told Ximena Gonzalez, “We learned about the power of elevating different voices.”

In every project, professionals and communities absorbed desires and possibilities from each other.

The learning extends beyond individual projects, too. Some of these projects are firsts, such as kihciy askiy and Vancouver’s fieldhouses, and all have innovations to share. Each project, as it develops, becomes a way for other cities to hear about the possibilities parks can offer – a process to which we hope this series can contribute.

 

Reinvention

 

In his introduction to this series, Ken Greenberg highlighted the need for cities to be creative in their use of space as they become more densely populated and open space becomes ever more precious. A theme throughout this series has been how communities have come up with ways to creatively re-invent neglected and underused spaces and infrastructure.

A “dingy field of gravel” under a Calgary flyover and a neglected parklet in Etobicoke become community resources. Long-abandoned farms on Montreal Island become wilderness conservation areas. A corner of ravine land in northern Toronto becomes a farm, while a former farm in Edmonton becomes a destination cultural centre. Rivers in Quebec City that were formerly a place to dump waste become a place for recreation instead.

 

Credit: Le Parc des Grandes-Rivières de Québec Map. Rousseau Lefebvre

 

Vancouver’s prosaic fieldhouses, no longer needed as residences, supply scarce affordable studio and non-profit office space – and in the process, give scope for artists to reinvent the park around them too, as play spaces, concert venues, and more. An abandoned railway in Vancouver becomes a different, much greener kind of transportation route. And remarkably, Toronto’s The Meadoway continues to be a corridor for power but becomes a corridor for humans and wildlife at the same time.
As Antonio Gomez-Palacio says of the Arbutus corridor, what were once back ends – the places we didn’t notice or even avoided looking at – have been reinvented to become a focal point for people and for nature.

 

Community

 

Local communities were the key catalysts of these transformations. These stories made me realize just how apt the concept of “grassroots” is when it comes to parks since they grow from the ground up both literally and metaphorically.

 

Credit: Mobile MABELLE. The photo was taken prior to March 2020. 

 

Sometimes the transformations began informally – people carving their own trails through abandoned farms at the western edge of Montreal and riversides in Quebec City, children and artists re-imagining an abandoned railway in Vancouver as a space to play. But most of the projects explored here were the product, initially, of the intentional hard work of a local community. A nearby neighbourhood in Calgary and in Montreal, the residents of towers in Toronto’s Jane-Finch area, riverside dwellers in Quebec City, a small artistic organization in Etobicoke, Indigenous organizations in Edmonton all initiated transformations of spaces. And even when initiatives come from more established institutions, community involvement has been crucial in giving these initiatives purpose and shaping their outcomes.

Cities may provide the soil, but it’s communities that provide the seeds that make that land flourish.

 

Connections

 

When communities transform spaces, they create connections. First of all, connections within the community itself, as members are brought together through their parks. Mabelle Park is a focal point for the surrounding public housing towers; Black Creek Community Farm for the Black community and new Canadians in its nearby towers. Kihciy askiy will bring together the many different Indigenous nations in and around Edmonton. Vancouver’s fieldhouses have a mandate to connect with the communities around them. The Arbutus corridor and The Meadoway, meanwhile, link multiple neighbourhoods.

 

Credit: Fieldhouse Norquay Park, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

As Ken Greenberg writes, parks connect communities but also geographies. Calgary’s Flyover park and Quebec City’s rivers strategy connect neighbourhoods to nearby rivers from which they were long cut off. The Meadoway connects Toronto’s ravines, not just for people but also for plants and wildlife. Montreal’s Great Park of the West will connect multiple isolated natural areas into an integrated corridor.

Parks create more conceptual connections, too. They can connect people to the natural world, as in The Meadoway’s re-wilding, to the source of their food, at Black Creek Community Farm, and to the soil itself, symbolized by the ground blessing ceremony at kihciy askiy. And kihciy askiy connects its users to the past, through the area’s historical use by Indigenous peoples and the continuation of Indigenous traditions, and to a future of hoped-for reconciliation.

 

Collaboration

 

When communities connect, they collaborate to make things happen. It’s striking how collaboration is at the heart of all of the projects explored in this series.

In many cases, community organizations are the managers of the land, such as for kihciy askiy, Mabelle Park, and Black Creek Community Farm. Sometimes the parks are developed on land managed by independent agencies, such as the Toronto Community Housing Corporation for Mabelle Park or the Toronto Region Conservation Authority for Black Creek and The Meadoway. Other times an independent park agency is involved, as in Vancouver and Calgary. The Meadoway was started off with funding from a foundation, while Montreal’s Great Park of the West incorporates land belonging to a university. Flyover Park too involved partnerships with schools and universities. And all of these disparate groups work with local communities, municipalities, and national and international professional designers to make visions a reality.

 

Credit: the Meadoway. TRCA. 

 

Collaboration also takes the form of balancing different uses – recreation, conservation, agriculture, arts programming, industry, not to mention the plants and wildlife who have their own agenda.

As Micallef writes, a park is a “melding of the human and natural landscape.”

Such collaboration inevitably brings challenges – the time and patience it has taken to shepherd many of these projects is a testament to the work involved in coordinating many moving parts. But the collaboration also brings rewards – the richness of concept and enthusiasm of participants that comes through in these stories is a direct result of the many perspectives that came together to make them happen. And the buy-in that comes from developing these relationships is what ensures the long-term health of each project.

 

Conclusion

 

The parks featured in this series reveal vibrant and creative ways to think about creating green spaces in the city. As Greenberg notes, these are not what might be thought of as the stereotypical parks of the past – a few blocks of space set aside by the city or a philanthropic donor, provided with a few amenities and landscaping by the municipality, and then waiting passively to see who will come and use it.

In the parks in this series, many different people, organizations and institutions have come together to take an unprepossessing space and reclaim and re-imagine it. Together, they have created active spaces, ones that draw people in with farming, arts, teaching, nature and play to bring the park to life.

 

Credit: Fieldhouse Sharing Garden, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

In the most recent issue of the magazine I edit, Spacing, I wrote about “city-growing” as an alternative concept to the well-worn idea of “city-building.” Taking a cue from nature, it’s about nurturing what emerges from the grassroots rather than imposing structures from above. Ecosystems, whether natural or social, are strongest when they develop organically, and the park projects explored in this series encapsulate that principle.

To reiterate what the City of Vancouver’s Marie Lopes told Christopher Cheung about that city’s fieldhouses,

“Stop thinking about your unused spaces as problematic. They’re opportunities. Look for collaborators where everybody wins. The community benefit is just boundless.”

 

 

 

 

About Dylan Reid

Dylan Reid is a senior editor at Spacing Magazine. He has also written articles for NOW magazine and the uTOpia books.

He was co-chair of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee 2007-2010, was one of the founders of the Toronto Coalition (now Centre) for Active Transportation and is a co-founder of Walk Toronto. Dylan is also a Fellow at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto.

 


 

This contribution from Dylan Reid is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

‘Era of reconciliation’: Building kihciy askiy in Edmonton

This contribution from Emily Rendell-Watson is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

How stakeholders collaborated to design the country’s first urban Indigenous cultural site

 

Edmonton, or Amiskwaciy Waskahikan, will soon be home to Canada’s first urban Indigenous ceremonial site.

Kihciy askiy, which means “sacred land” in Cree, is located in the heart of Alberta’s capital city on a 4.5-hectare site in Whitemud Park. The park is situated in Edmonton’s river valley and will be a spot where Indigenous communities can gather for ceremonies and sweat lodges, grow medicinal herbs, as well as facilitate learning for non-Indigenous people about Indigenous culture.

“We’re living in the era of reconciliation and as a part of that reconciliation we have to create positive relationships with settlers, so this is going to go a long way,” explained Lewis Cardinal, the project manager for the site from the Indigenous Knowledge & Wisdom Centre (IKWC).

“We deal with issues today like racism and discrimination, but a lot of that is based on ignorance, or simply not knowing people’s traditions and being led by misinformation. This gives an opportunity to provide that direct and personal interaction with (Indigenous culture).”

Cardinal added that it will be equally as important for the site to act as a hub for local Indigenous communities to come together, especially for those who are seeking healing from addictions, abuse, or other trauma.

“This is how we can help to transform these things into something very positive; strengthen people and strengthen relationships,” he said.

 

Access to cultural activities

 

The project, which is a partnership between the IKWC and the City of Edmonton, was initially proposed by Cardinal and elder William Campbell in 2006 with the aim to establish a place where Indigenous ceremonies could be held within the city.

 

Credit: Rendering of the view from the entrance to the pavilion building from the City of Edmonton

 

The land where kihciy askiy is being built on the west side of Edmonton is on what’s known as the old Fox Farms property, and historically was a place where Indigenous people would camp before entering the city, and pick saskatoons. Oral tradition talks about how across Whitemud Creek to the east of kihciy askiy is a large ochre deposit site, which is significant because ochre was an important part of Indigenous ceremonies in the past — it was mixed with berries and pigments to create colour.

The area was used off and on over the years for ceremonies, including an international Indigenous conference called Healing Our Spirit Worldwide. But each time the Indigenous community wanted to use the land, Cardinal said they had to apply for permission from the city — leading the elders counsel who guided the conference to wonder if it was possible to permanently have access to a plot of land in the urban centre.

Cardinal, Campbell, and a group of elders created a non-profit organization called the Edmonton Indigenous Cultural Resource Counsel to move the initiative forward and began to have more serious discussions with the city about how to make the project a reality.

Some were in favour of hosting ceremonies within the city, while others were against it, so in 2010 the organization decided to gather 120 Indigenous elders from across Alberta to discuss the opportunity over three days. The group also considered what specific ceremonies should be held in cities, and where they should be located.

“The response to the first question was, yes, we need to have ceremonies available to our families and our youth and our community in the urban centres because we know that in the near future, most of our people will be living in urban centres and they need access to these cultural activities and ceremonies in an environment that is embraced by Mother Earth,” Cardinal explained.

“In other words, you can’t have ceremonies in the parking lot of a Walmart.”

The project was eventually taken on by Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA), which kicked off a process of continuous dialogue, and the establishment of the Counsel of Elders to work with the team during the design and construction of the site, as well as provide spiritual and cultural leadership for the project.

 

Credit photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall

 

NSCA hosted grand council gatherings for Indigenous spiritual leaders in the Edmonton region at the Alfred H. Savage Centre in May 2015 and again in October 2018 to review and approve of the concept design, go over ceremony protocols for the site, and broadly discuss ceremonial and spiritual needs of the Indigenous community in the region.

In 2018, NCSA underwent a structural reorganization and the decision was made to move the project over to IKWC, recalls Cardinal, which is when he was asked to manage it on a full-time basis.

“The elders have always taught me that you bear responsibility for your dreams and visions. So if you’re bringing this dream and vision forward for yourself, or for a group of people, you still have that commitment to it. So it was quite lovely to get back in and start to work with the elders and bring it to this point,” Cardinal said.

One of those elders is Howard Mustus, chair of kihciy askiy’s Counsel of Elders, and traditional knowledge keeper. He said he hopes the project will help to minimize racism, as non-Indigenous people absorb and accept Indigenous traditions and culture.

“We encourage non-Indigenous people to come in and sit with us in our sacred circles and to learn more about indigenous law. That stems from the sanctioning of spirituality, which is very important to our people. That is the ultimate power and authority that dictates how we conduct ourselves and how we function as a society for caring and sharing in a holistic manner,” said Mustus.

 

Credit photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall

 

A ground blessing (instead of a groundbreaking ceremony) was hosted in September 2021 to mark the beginning of construction and honour the relationship between all the stakeholders involved in the creation of kihciy askiy, which has a budget of $4.5 million. It was also an opportunity to “seek blessing from Mother Earth in allowing construction to take place,” which involved tying ribbons to a tree to signify connections and respect to the earth.

Construction on the land, led by Delnor Construction, officially began in mid-November and is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete.

 

Engagement and collaboration

 

The relationships formed through the process have been key to kihciy askiy’s success thus far, including influencing how the site was developed.

Nav Sandhu, program manager with the City of Edmonton, said the social procurement aspect involved considering how potential contractors engage their teams or sub-trades to incorporate Indigenous communities. That meant hiring an Indigenous human resources coordinator and working with Indigenous-owned businesses to tackle the mechanical and landscaping aspects of the project.

“Social procurement is relatively new when you look at the construction industry, and it’s something that I think that we’re moving aggressively towards. It’s great to see the city be a leader in ensuring that the partners and the people that are going to be using it have a voice at the table to say (what’s going to benefit them),” said Sandhu. “Projects like these, where the social impact is so significant, take a lot of collaboration.”

The development process also involved getting consensus from representatives of the more than 50 Indigenous communities who will be able to use the site and adjusting several parkland policies to allow for development in Edmonton’s river valley and access to the area for Indigenous cultural activities.

As the owner of the land, the city will construct two buildings on kihciy askiy, which will house changing rooms, washrooms, a small classroom to host land-based education, a meeting space, and a storage facility. There will also be an outdoor amphitheatre.

Cardinal said the goal is to naturalize the space and “not make a huge footprint on the site.”

There will also be a teepee area, with enough space for 10-12 teepees or Métis trapper tents, to hold storytelling ceremonies.

 

Credit photo: kihciy askiy Tipi and site v2, Teresa Marshall

 

Two fire pit structures will be able to support two sweat lodges simultaneously, with space for up to eight in total. Sweat lodges offer a ceremonial space that’s integral to Indigenous culture, which is important because the Indigenous groups in the Edmonton region have many different traditions surrounding the purification practice.

“Sweat lodge holders have been taught differently from their ancestors, or the ones who’ve transferred that ceremony to them. So we have to make sure that there is accessibility for all of those users,” Cardinal explained.

Once kihciy askiy is complete, Indigenous people in Edmonton won’t have to travel out of the city to Paul Band, or Enoch or Alexander First Nation to participate in a sweat.

The third element will be a medicine garden, building off of the traditional medicines accessible in the river valley, which is one of the reasons the site was chosen. It will be used as a teaching area, as well as a place to harvest things like sage, tobacco, sweetgrass, and more for elders.

Finally, a multi-purpose space will offer an alternative locale for Indigenous ceremonies and other traditional structures that may need to be built for some First Nation traditions.

“It will also be the place where we can do some teaching for non-Indigenous people, to welcome them to our ceremonies and to give them an introduction to our Indigenous worldviews and our history. It’s a great opportunity to create those interfaces to teach people about things,” explained Cardinal, who added that there will also be what they’re calling an “open program” where sweat lodges will be open to the public.

“The whole site is intended to foster good relations, help Indigenous people reconnect to the land and the teachings that come from the land, as well as to their culture, traditions, and history.”

Indigenous organizations and agencies will also be able to use the site to deliver their own cultural programming.

Cardinal said the only other park site he knows of that is remotely similar to kihciy askiy is Jasper National Park’s Cultural Use Area, which is an area developed by the Jasper Indigenous Forum and Parks Canada for Indigenous partners to reconnect with the land, and host cultural learning and ceremonies.

The site, which has been used since June 2013, is not open to the general public.

 

‘A safe haven’

 

Once construction on kihciy askiy is complete, IKWC will run the site. People will be able to access it by various means of transportation, including bus, which was an important factor in solidifying the site location, said Cardinal.

Cardinal, Mustus, and Sandu all envision the site as an important pillar for the Indigenous community in terms of offering a way to uphold traditions within the Edmonton region. The partnerships that were key to developing the site will continue, and new ones will hopefully be formed between the Indigenous communities who use it and non-Indigenous people who are eager to learn.

“Kihciy askiy offers a safe haven for the community. I don’t think it’s going to be the last (project of this kind) — I think you’re gonna see a trend of these in the coming years … to bridge that gap,” Sandhu said.

“I think this is a significant step towards truth and reconciliation that needed to happen.”

 

 

 

 

About Emily Rendell-Watson

Emily RendellWatson is an Edmonton-based multimedia journalist who is currently the Editorial Lead & Community Manager of Taproot Edmonton, a publication that seeks to help its community understand itself better.

She writes about tech innovation, urban issues, climate change, and anything else that comes across her desk. When she’s not chasing a story, you can find her coaching speed skating or adventuring in the backcountry with her rescue dog, Abby. 

 


 

This contribution from Emily Rendell-Watson is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

The Meadoway: Realizing the power of connectivity

This contribution from Shawn Micallef is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

“I think my favourite part is the original Scarborough Centre Butterfly Trail,” says Katie Turnbull, referring to the initial pilot project that launched The Meadoway in Toronto.

“That portion has been established since 2013. There’s wildflowers and grasses, a couple of allotment gardens, as well as shrub nodes, and the grass buffers are all nicely mowed. To me, that’s the spot that I just love to walk with family and friends. But I also love taking them through the sections that we haven’t restored yet and showing the difference between the mown grass and what could be there.”

Turnbull has been working on The Meadoway since the beginning, as a Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) Senior Project Manager. She’s witnessed it grow from that butterfly trail into a plan to turn 16 kilometres of the Gatineau Hydro Corridor into a linear park of continuous greenspace and meadowlands, along with a walking and cycling trail, that cuts across Toronto’s eastern suburb of Scarborough to connect downtown Toronto to the Rouge National Urban Park on the eastern edge of the city.

 

 

Hydro corridors are ubiquitous in cities, and The Meadoway is a new way of thinking about them as sites of recreation, connectivity, wildlife habitat, animal migration and a unique melding of human and natural landscape. “It’s an industrial reuse project,” says Corey Wells, also a Senior Project Manager at TRCA.

“We’ve taken what has been typically viewed as not a place that someone would want to ride their bike or hang out, and flipped it on its side.” Wells points out there are more than 500 kilometres of hydro corridors in Toronto, and the Scarborough project is something that can serve as a blueprint for how they can create new space for parks and wildlife.

 

The geography

 

The Meadoway is big sky country. At some of the higher points, there are vistas many kilometres long piercing all the way to the downtown, unencumbered by trees or buildings. Toronto is known for its ravines, wild fissures that weave their way from north of the city down to the lake, generally running from north to south but not connecting laterally. The hydro corridors that cross Toronto are like human-made ravines, portage routes over the tablelands between one ravine system and another. As Wells says, “It’s the backbone of Scarborough.”

 

 

The Gatineau corridor climbs out of the Don Valley at what will be the Bermondsey Road “Western Gateway” to The Meadoway, connecting from the East Don Trail that will lead right to downtown Toronto. From here the corridor runs east, linking seven rivers, 15 parks, 13 neighbourhoods and what will be more than 200 hectares of cultivated meadows on its way to Rouge National Urban Park. Though not yet completed, much of The Meadoway can now be followed on foot or by bike to experience the various stages of this seven-year project. It takes the traveller along a series of long and gentle grades rising from and lowering to, the watersheds. Cycling the trail is a meditative experience as it meanders through the hydro towers, passing dozens of “no mow” signs along the way that protect what Turnbull calls this “central habitat.” There’s much more to The Meadoway than simply letting the grass grow, though.

 

From lawn to meadow

 

Before The Meadoway, the Gatineau corridor would typically be mowed six times a year.

“It’s pretty in-depth, what needs to be done,” says Turnbull. “We look at it as a three-to-five-year process. In year one we start off doing farming practices and actually use farm equipment to remove the turf.”

After the existing turf is taken care of by mowing and tilling, a cover crop of oats is planted. Its role is to reveal what other seeds are in the soil and might grow in place of the turf. The oats allow invasive species like dog-strangling vine and Canada thistle to grow, but also keep them in check, making them easier to remove. That crop will be mowed, and the process repeated four times throughout the summer until they are satisfied they have suppressed all the non-desired and invasive species.

 

 

Then it will be seeded in the fall to allow natural stratification – a process by which a period of cold and moist weather breaks seed dormancy through freezing and thawing, cracking the seed shell to allow it to absorb moisture – and then subsequent germination in the spring.

“We use a variety of seed mixes depending on the moisture regime in the soils and where we are within the 16 kilometres,” says Turnbull. “All seeds used are from local nurseries that provide native species sourced within Southern Ontario. We try and pick species that will help to increase species diversity, improve ecosystem health, provide a variety of bloom times throughout spring to fall, provide plant host species for pollinators and birds, have long root depths to help stabilize soils, be resilient to drought and provide food sources in the winter for birds.”

There are dozens of different species planted, and the choice depends on the particular landscape, such as butterfly meadow, wet meadow, dry grass mix, upland slopes, and so on. The most seeded species are: big bluestem, New England aster, oxeye, wild bergamot, evening primrose, switchgrass, black-eyed Susan, cup plant, blue vervain, common milkweed – and there are many more.

At this point, TRCA moves to an adaptive management and monitoring phase, watching for more invasive species, monitoring how the meadow is coming up and doing infill seeding where necessary. While this is happening, the City of Toronto mows a three-and-a-quarter metre grass buffer along the trail, as well as a five-metre buffer edge along homes that back onto The Meadoway. Ongoing maintenance is needed because, as Turnbull explains, every meadow will want to turn into a shrub thicket and then a forest.

 

Rewilding – a new habitat with a lot of benefits

 

“A big thing I always find in talking to residents along the path is that they are hearing pollinators,” says Turnbull. “A lot of residents hadn’t seen a lot of these insects or heard birds calling before, and all of a sudden the meadow brings a whole new habitat.”

This effect is part of what Turnbull calls enhanced ecological services: increasing the biodiversity and ecosystem resilience along the corridor. With taller meadow plants, birds, along with butterflies and other pollinators, now find a home there. For those staying through the winter, the meadow can now help them through the cold season; for migratory birds and butterflies, it provides a feeding and resting ground as they pass through. Deer and other larger wildlife can travel between ravine systems.

There’s also the mitigation of pollution, as having a more robust flora cover provides air filtration. The larger root systems of the native meadow plants, some more than two metres long, mean the landscape can now hold more water, which also helps with flood attenuation by slowing down water runoff. Less mowing means reduced maintenance costs and lower emissions. And the addition of more meadows could also have a cooling effect.

“We’re looking to see what the temperature differences between turf and meadow is right now,” says Turnbull. “It’s just preliminary but results are showing almost a nine-degree difference in temperature.”

“For me, its power lies in its connectivity,” says Nina-Marie Lister, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and Director of the Ecological Design Lab, which ran a design workshop for The Meadoway.

 

 

“It’s a space of connection across communities but it’s also a space across landscapes and topography.” Because a meadow has so much open sky, Lister says there’s opportunity to see birds in ways we can’t in the forest, and the open quality allows for sunlight that is good for growing things both for human consumption, through urban agriculture, and for enjoyment. “I would describe it as a very different landscape experience,” she says. “On the one hand it’s physical, about connectivity, but visually it’s about openness. The Meadoway is a kind of counterpoint to the ravines, which are folds in the landscape, whereas this provides a view across the tablelands.”

 

Active industrial corridor and partnerships

 

“A lot of the classic industrial reuse projects globally are ones where there was a historical industrial usage which has now stopped and it’s been converted into a public space, like the High Line in New York,” says Wells. “The Meadoway is unique in that it’s still functioning for its primary purpose.”

Wells points to Hydro One’s “Provincial Secondary Land Use Program,” which provides opportunities for other uses in the corridors as long as the primary one – transmitting electricity – can still function. These could include, for example, an adjacent developer building a parking lot, or the city maintaining playing fields under the wires. A spokesperson for Hydro One says that while the primary use of corridors is to deliver safe and reliable power, they welcome the opportunity to work with local municipalities and organizations as a community partner to create additional safe uses of hydro corridors.

“I think Hydro One is learning a lot, just as much as we are, about becoming a little bit more comfortable about what has typically been seen as a place where no people really spend any time,” says Wells.

Apart from not planting trees that could interfere with the wires, Wells says the locations of plantings and trails are designed to be in harmony with maintenance needs, and that a meadow is a perfect in-between landscape that is compatible with all these uses.

 

 

That learning curve has been shared by a number of agencies and groups including TRCA, Hydro One and the City of Toronto’s various departments, as each group, with their own mandates and core interests, have found a way to work together on this common project.

The Meadoway is also an example of a public-private partnership – a concept more common in US parks than in Canada. This public-private partnership was first created through the Weston Family Parks Challenge, a city parks initiative that funded the Scarborough Centre Butterfly Trail pilot. The success of that first revitalization led to a pledge of up to $25 million from the Foundation to revitalize the entire 200 hectares.

“As soon as we saw the enthusiastic community response to the Scarborough Centre Butterfly Trail, we knew this pilot project had the potential to expand,” says Emma Adamo, Chair, Weston Family Foundation. “The Meadoway really has it all – from environmental benefits, to research and education, to promoting active transportation. It has the potential to have a significant impact on the mental and physical well-being of the surrounding community members.”

The project is even more complex when considering how much ongoing public consultation goes into it.

 

Community outreach

 

“We developed something called the community liaison committee, reaching out to a number of local organizations, residents, NGOs, groups like WalkTO and BikeTO, and Scarborough bike repair groups,” says Wells. “Like-minded individuals with different perspectives on how they might be able to utilize the space. We used them sort of as an initial sounding board.”

This kind of feedback was critical to how trails and connections were planned, as locals know the space and know-how they use it, and plans were adapted in response before introducing them to the broader public in open houses and public information centres. TRCA developed a “visualization toolkit” with lively and engaging renderings, virtual-reality experiences and even a twenty-four-foot-long scale map of the entire corridor, which was brought out to public meetings so people could put stickers and notes on it. TRCA also reached out specifically to new Canadians among Scarborough’s diverse population to engage them with The Meadoway initiative, and students at local schools were given seeds so they could learn about what was being planted. All of this outreach produced buy-in and a sense of ownership from residents.

 

 

After The Meadoway’s designers digested the input they had received, details were sorted out: benches, bike lock-ups, litter bins, and the design of trail intersections, where The Meadoway crosses north-south trails, to include ample seating, play areas and more manicured garden sections. A wayfinding system is still in the planning stages. It will include educational signage telling people where they are and where they can go, but also informing them of the natural and Indigenous heritage of the area, as well as the geomorphology of the waterways The Meadoway traverses.  


Design challenges

 

There are some big obstacles in the way of creating a seamless natural corridor through a crowded city. Lister notes there are more than 30 road crossings along The Meadoway that pose challenges, not just for humans but for wildlife. “If we prioritize pedestrians, and we prioritize the creatures who are most vulnerable to traffic, it’s done by slowing the traffic,” says Lister.

“If The Meadoway is a priority, we need to think really big about what it means to have a healthy, accessible green space for the safe movement of people and wildlife and that it’s worthy of capital investment, as important as sewers and railways.”

While tunnels under roads are not a preferred solution, bridges are expensive. A smaller but useful example of the traffic slowing Lister mentions can be seen where The Meadoway crosses Crockford Boulevard in the Golden Mile neighbourhood. Rather than a signalized crossing, the road is “pinched,” or narrowed, and the usual asphalt replaced with bricks, all of which push drivers to slow down.

 

 

Highway 401, with its expanse of express and collector lanes, is perhaps the biggest barrier to a continuous Meadoway. It crosses the hydro corridor just north of the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, as the corridor nears its terminus at Rouge National Urban Park. TRCA may route active transportation users through the campus, in harmony with the that are part of the school’s masterplan, including the completed switchback path that leads from the ravine floor up to the campus, and onto Conlins Road, where protected bike lanes were recently installed to provide a route over the highway.

 

Taking on a life of its own

 

TRCA has been contacted by a number of municipalities and organizations who are looking at their inventory of these kinds of corridors in their jurisdiction and thinking about what other purposes and uses could be envisioned.

However, TRCA is also hoping The Meadoway takes on a life of its own and becomes a catalyst for other changes along its path. “In 10 or 15 years, I’d like to see a fully connected and seamless trail system from east to west,” says Wells. “When new developments are being planned and parks are being enhanced, I hope they’re all thinking of ways to connect to The Meadoway. I’m really hoping it becomes the veins of a leaf right across Scarborough.”

Lister calls it the “ultimate teaching garden,” one that will influence not just other cities, but individuals and their private property. “If the City and TRCA can do this, we can all do it.” She sees it as a literal, and metaphorical, seedbed for natural gardens. As for Turnbull, she hopes it will inspire people. “I’m hopeful it will be a place where the community and the public can come and enjoy nature and biodiversity,” she says. “I hope it will help them visualize that a different type of habitat in cities is possible. 

 

 

 

 

About Shawn Micallef

Shawn Micallef is the author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto and Full Frontal TO (nominated for the 2013 Toronto Book Award), a weekly columnist at the Toronto Star, and a senior editor and co-owner of the independent, Jane Jacobs Prize-winning magazine Spacing.

Shawn teaches at the University of Toronto and was a 2011-2012 Canadian Journalism Fellow at University of Toronto’s Massey College. In 2002, while a resident at the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab, he co-founded [murmur], the location-based mobile phone documentary project that spread to over two dozen cities globally. Shawn’s latest book is Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness.

 


 

This contribution from Shawn Micallef is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

Reconnecting with rivers in Quebec City

This contribution from Christopher Dewolf is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

Quebec City owes its existence to the St. Lawrence River, and it’s easy to see why. From atop the ramparts of the old citadel, you can see for dozens of kilometres in each direction. This is where the waterway widens into something more than a river, where the tides start having an effect, where the water starts becoming progressively saltier as it flows towards the Atlantic. The current carries your eye past the lush farmland of Île d’Orléans, past the mountains of Charlevoix and into the distant horizon.

 

Credit: Le Parc des Grandes-Rivières de Québec Map. Rousseau Lefebvre

 

Shift your gaze, though, and something else comes into focus: another river, much smaller, flowing past factories, grain silos and container yards. This is the Saint-Charles River, one of four unheralded waterways that are no less important to Quebec City than the St. Lawrence. And the city now has a plan to underline the importance of these rivers by creating 30 square kilometres of parkland, 100 kilometres of trails giving the public access to the water, and a host of new facilities along their shores. It’s an ambitious 20-year plan that is the fruit of collaboration between citizens and their government.

“We’re going back to the source,” says Marysela Rubiano, an environmental advisor with the city government, who has been working on the project since its launch in 2016. “We don’t want these rivers to be places that people pass by. We want them to stay.”

 

Reconnection with the rivers

 

Known officially as the Plan de mise en valeur des rivières – literally the River Development Plan, but perhaps better translated as “adding value to the rivers” – the project centres around the creation of the vast new parc des Grandes-Rivières-de-Québec. But framing it as a new park makes it easy to overlook its massive scope – and its potential impact.

The plan touches on nearly every corner of the city, from the well-to-do suburbs around the Cap-Rouge River, to the spectacular waterfall of the Montmorency River, to the neighbourhoods along the Beauport River through which one of the oldest roads in Canada runs. The Saint-Charles River meanders for 25 kilometres from its source in Lake Saint-Charles, through the northern suburbs and finally to the heart of the city and the St. Lawrence. Along the way, it passes passes through the historic Huron-Wendat community of Wendake as well as ecologically important wetlands and the historically working-class but fast-gentrifying neighbourhoods of Saint-Sauveur, Saint-Roch and Limoilou.

Beyond the four main rivers, eight more minor watercourses will be incorporated into the project. By the time it has been completed, it will include new conservation zones, eleven visitor centres and nine activity hubs where the public can have direct access to the water for activities like swimming and kayaking.

 

Credit: Saint-Charles, Parc des Saules. Rousseau Lefebvre.

 

None of this could have happened without the participation of Quebec City residents, many of whom have a close relationship with the rivers, despite limited access and a lack of public infrastructure.

“We started to get citizens involved even before the project started,” says Rubiano. “People have really gotten on board and embraced it. There’s a sense of belonging to each of the rivers.”

What’s happening in Quebec City can serve as an important lesson for other cities across Canada. Many are looking for ways to embrace their own undervalued waterways in order to improve biodiversity, deal with climate change challenges like increased flooding, and give citizens better access to the natural environment.

“When you look at each of these issues separately, they’re very important. But when you combine them you gain so much value,” says urban designer Ken Greenberg, who has consulted for Quebec City and other municipalities on their waterway projects. “In each city the particularities are a little different, the topography is different, the opportunities are different. But the principle of making these watercourses key parts of the life of the city is always the same. It’s an opportunity to do more in terms of the public realm.”

 

A river at the heart of Canada

 

The story of Quebec City – and by extension, the whole of Canada – is inextricably tied to that of its rivers. When French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in 1535, he encountered an Iroquoian village called Stadaconé that was nestled on the banks of the Saint-Charles River, which he named rivière Sainte-Croix in honour of the day of his arrival, the Feast of the Cross. The village was home to around 500 people living in longhouses, and it was described by its inhabitants as kanata, meaning “village.” Cartier took it to refer to the entire region around Stadaconé, and through his correspondence, a variation on the word – Canada – became shorthand for the entire St. Lawrence river valley.

Cartier and his men suffered through a harsh winter in their camp near Stadaconé. Deprived of fresh food and unfamiliar with their new surroundings, many of them died of scurvy. The rest were saved only when the inhabitants of Stadaconé taught them how to use fir needles to make aneda, a vitamin-rich tea. Cartier repaid the gesture by abducting several of the village’s inhabitants, including the chief, Donnaconna, and taking them back to France the following spring. All but one of the group died, and when Cartier returned to Quebec in 1541 and attempted to start a colony near the mouth of the Cap-Rouge River, the newly hostile Iroquoians forced him and his crew to leave.

By the time French settlers arrived for good in 1608, under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain, Stadaconé had disappeared. In the preceding decades, Iroquoian society had been decimated by a mix of European diseases, increasingly cold winters caused by the Little Ice Age, and conflict with other Indigenous nations. Members of Algonquin and Innu nations visited the Saint-Charles river to fish for eels and trout. The Innu call it Cabirecoubat – “a thousand meanders” – because of its many curves. The Huron-Wendat call it Akiawenrahk, “river of the trout.” They settled on its shores in 1697 after war, famine and disease forced them to leave their homeland on the shores of Lake Huron.

As for the French settlers, they renamed the river Saint-Charles in honour of vicar Charles de Boves. They developed its banks over the course of the seventeenth century, building a brewery, a potash refinery and a shipyard between 1668 and 1675. That foreshadowed its industrial development in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Saint-Charles gradually became one of the most polluted waterways in Quebec. Raw sewage flowed directly into the water.

In 1974, the lower portion of the river was dammed and encased in concrete. It was part of a post-industrial revitalization plan that also included marinas, housing and parks along the river – the better to match the expressways, shopping malls and high-rises that had become the modern face of Quebec City.

“Once it was concreted over, the river was more presentable,” notes writer François Gosselin Couillard in his neighbourhood history of St-Roch. “The rats had fled – along with all other forms of life. Concrete asphyxiates all fauna, marine and terrestrial.”

The concrete did nothing to alleviate the pollution. As the river festered, nearby residents took matters into their own hands. In 1979, a non-profit organisation called Pêche en ville began reintroducing trout into the upper portion of the river. Two decades later, in 2000, a group of citizens began meeting in Victoria Park – a historic green space on the banks of the Saint-Charles – to discuss how to encourage people to reconnect with the river while also improving its natural environment. That led to a plan for a new linear park along the waterway, including the renaturalization of its banks. The concrete was ripped out in time for Quebec City’s 400th anniversary in 2008.

 

Global ideas for a global vision

 

There was a growing sense that the new park was only a beginning. Something more was possible, indeed necessary. “What was missing was a global vision,” says Amélie Germain, a landscape architect with the City of Quebec. A global vision needs global inspiration, so in 2016, the city launched an international competition for ideas on how to reconnect Quebec with not only the Saint-Charles river but all of its waterways.

“The competition was extremely important in terms of raising the level of ambition, aspiration and vision around what the rivers could be,” says Greenberg, who served as a judge. “What was fascinating was that it was an anonymous competition. We didn’t know who the participants were until we opened the envelopes with their names. They were from really highly qualified people around the world who had done a lot of research on Quebec City. This process raised public expectations.”

The competition attracted 21 concepts from designers in 10 different countries. Each was asked to offer a vision on three different scales: for the rivers as a whole, for each river specifically, and for an overall design sensibility or ambiance. The goal was to harvest ideas. “The traditional approach would be to put out a call for tenders,” says Rubiano. “But we wanted to get as many ideas as possible to inspire ourselves.”

 

Credit: Cap-Rouge, Centre Nautique. Rousseau Lefebvre.

 

The judges selected three laureates. Headwater Lot, by Brooklyn design firm Cadaster, takes inspiration from the historic French seigneurial system of land development in order to conceive of a more perpendicular relationship to the rivers, rather than a linear approach that follows the shoreline. The National Urban Park of Quebec, by Gothenburg-based studio White Arkitekter, envisions free public access to all of Quebec City’s riverbanks, taking inspiration from the “right to roam” that is guaranteed in a number of European countries like the United Kingdom. The Loop, by Los Angeles-based architect Joo Hyung Oh, proposed a network of interconnected pathways that linked up all four rivers.

“They allowed us to see the richness we have,” says Germain. “For them, the richness was obvious.” But familiarity breeds contempt, she notes – and many Quebec City locals had never considered just how precious a resource their rivers were. “We gave citizens a bit of a chance to dream,” says Rubiano.

The competition was followed by public workshops, surveys, information sessions, in-situ consultations on the banks of each river, and a mobile museum called Le Rivièroscope. While some citizens were oblivious to rivers that were just a short walk away from their homes, others had a deep knowledge of their landscapes, fauna and flora. “It got quite particular and specific around the local topography, demography, community interests,” says Greenberg. “The solutions were quite bespoke. They were quite tailored to the opportunities.”

What the consultations revealed was that people were looking for year-round access to the rivers for recreational activities, but they wanted this to occur in harmony with conserving the natural environment. In other words, no return to the lifelessness of the Saint-Charles when its banks were concreted over.

 

Ending the “false dichotomy”

 

This multi-year process informed a master plan that was unveiled in the fall of 2020.

“What the Quebec City plan demonstrates beautifully is that it is possible to have very sensitive interventions in these natural areas which are not damaging to habitats, to nature, but actually enable people to be in the river valleys, to have access to nature, to enjoy nature without disturbing it,” says Greenberg

This is a key point, he adds, because conservation authorities have often created what he describes as a “false dichotomy” between protecting natural habitats and allowing public access to the water.

 

Credit: MontMorency, Base plein-air. Rousseau Lefebvre.

 

Quebec City isn’t the only city embarking on a more balanced approach. In Calgary, where much of the glacier-fed Bow River is lined by berms and dikes, the RiverWalk combines flood protection with a convivial and intimate experience of the water. In Edmonton, the Touch the Water Promenade is being developed to improve public access to the North Saskatchewan River. In Montreal, swimming was once common in the St. Lawrence until pollution levels soared. Now, with pollution under control, a half-dozen new projects are restoring public access. Among these are the Promenade de Bellerive, which will provide new swimming facilities by the summer of 2022, alongside a pavilion that hosts a farmers’ market, cultural events and a biergarten. In the historic neighbourhood of Lachine, a marina will be replaced by a new park that will restore wetlands while encouraging non-motorized water sports.

Germain says the lack of recreational infrastructure around Quebec City’s rivers has led nearby residents to improvise by creating their own trails.

“In one of our big parks, we are missing trails, docks, rest areas, and there are 18 kilometres of informal trails,” she notes. But it’s possible that city planners could formalize those grassroots interventions. “People often find the best shortcuts – they’ve made a path because there’s a nice natural landscape to see, or a natural beach,” says Germain. “On the other hand, we have the challenge of making sure they’re not going through wetlands and that there’s no environmental degradation.”

The next step forward will be to lay the groundwork for everything envisioned in the master plan. Some of that involves “transitional spaces” like seating areas on the Dorchester Bridge, floating cabins on the Montmorency River, and the Espace collectif Marina Saint-Roch, where non-profit placemaking organization La Pépinière runs a summertime pavilion dedicated to cultural and community events like concerts, yoga classes and tango lessons. “They allow us to test the design of spaces before we do something permanent,” says Germain. Other steps include the ongoing revamp of two parks along the Saint-Charles, which has already led to the construction of a new footbridge across the river at Pointe-aux-Lièvres Park.

There are still another two decades to go before the plan is fully realized. And that’s what makes it so remarkable: it’s a generational project.

“Our children and grandchildren will inherit this,” says Rubiano. “It’s a project that brings everyone together, whether it’s citizens or organizations dedicated to the rivers,” adds Germain.

“It’s essential to have a sense of belonging to this project, especially if we want to bring it to term. [Public participation] requires an enormous amount of effort and it slows down the process, that’s for sure. But it makes for a project that is much richer – and will go much further.”

 

 

 

 

About Christopher Dewolf

 

Christopher DeWolf is a Montreal-based journalist who focuses on cities and culture. Previously based in Hong Kong, he is the managing editor of Zolima CityMag and a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post, Eater and other publications. His book “Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong” examines the tension between grassroots and top-down views of urban life.

 


 

This contribution from Christopher Dewolf part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

Community Urban Farms: Spaces of Pride, Togetherness, “Struggle” and Joy

This contribution from Emilie Jabouin is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

“Byen Pre Pa La Kay” in Haitian Creole means the work is continuous and ongoing. The saying encapsulates the work of farming, which is a constant struggle requiring ongoing adaptation and transition. It’s an experience that resonates particularly for Black people, who have always lived to re-create and re-invent ourselves. So, for Black communities in the Toronto area, community farms are places of pride, togetherness, love and care that are worth fighting for.

 

Accessing community and support through farming

 

The Black Creek Community Farm (BCCF), established in 2012 on eight acres of land rented from the Toronto and Region Conservation Agency (TRCA), is a model for sustainable food security and urban farming. The community-driven BCCF is open to its members to grow food and access its food forest and trails, and to the public to buy produce that is surplus after sales to its membership. The farm includes a medicine wheel garden; an outdoor school for children to develop motor skills and to animate school trips; a fire pit for story-telling and community-building; an area for seniors where planting beds are adapted for mobility; and, most importantly, crops of culturally specific foods and native plants.

The culturally adapted services and general environment of the BCCF is model community members argue is needed throughout the city. As Ama Deawuo, until recently the Executive Director of the BCCF, says, fresh and plentiful food is available in well-off neighbourhoods such as Rosedale, but in comparison, communities largely populated by Black people do not have the access to the same level of variety and freshness of food.

 

Photo credit: Ama Deawuo, former Executive Director of the Black Creek Community Farm

 

The dense Jane and Finch area where the BCCF is located is an example of this situation, with little access to green spaces that serve the agricultural and recreational needs of its community. Sam Tecle, a steering committee member of the BCCF who grew up in the area, says the farm is a unique space in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and the world.

It “symbolizes community, love, interdependence. It shows that we can show up for each other, that we can support and provide.”

Tecle describes Jane and Finch as “a global community” made up of recent newcomers to Canada, as well as earlier generations of residents from Ghana, Jamaica, Ecuador and Italy, among other places, but one that has suffered from neglect and disinvestment. The neighbourhood is a vibrantly talented community of care, one where residents support each other and reinvest in the community with the skills each can bring to the table, but it tends to be sensationalized by the media in ways that disregard these qualities and define the area as violent and criminal.

Yet for residents, it is home, and the youth speak out against these narratives.

As Femi Lawson says in “Vice visits Jane & Finch”: “[e]verybody has somebody who kind of influences them in some kind of positive […] way. And when you have a community of those people, it builds you.”

The multicultural and multiethnic Jane and Finch area has been hit the hardest in Toronto by the pandemic and has a long history of marginalization by provincial and municipal governments alike. But as community grower, Rastafari agriculturist, lover of nature, community advocate and long-standing community member, Peachtree Boucaud, who previously worked for the BCCF as their Farms Market Manager, reminds us, “We are the bees to our work. We are the connectors, the pollinators.” The City of Toronto and other official entities, such as the TRCA, facilitate green spaces for use by lower-income racialized communities. However, when paying attention to the history of peoples’ relationships to the land in the city, the reality of who maintains these crucial green spaces is more complex and starts with the people who cultivate these spaces and their commitment to supporting each other’s endeavours.

 

Farming at its roots

 

The reality is that Black and racialized farmers, and Indigenous land stewarding and healing initiatives, have preceded city-led projects. As a result, today, the urban farming landscape of Toronto includes well-established structures in the community such as the BCCF, community gardens, and grassroots projects that include open plots where people collectively farm. They all have different funding structures and visibility.

Boucaud boasts proudly that “a lot of those community gardens are really led by a lot of Black women.”

The question of food security and environmental justice is closely connected to a history of advocacy. “We are living in the spaces where this environmental injustice is happening!” says Boucaud, “but we’re not elevated in the conversation.” She rejoices at describing one of her favourite gardens, located at Jane and Weston road – “Ms. Charlyn Ellis is at Emmett [Avenue Community] Gardens, that garden is one of my favourite gardens, […] there’s bees there, there’s so much you can learn, you know? And the work of the people there at Emmett’s Garden goes unnoticed.”

 

 

The community holds the knowledge. Boucaud explains that in many cases Black farmers come to Canada with all of their skills, but are overlooked because no one ever asked them about their expertise. And younger generations like myself have learned to garden and farm from our foremothers and fathers. I learned to grow from my mother and by listening to my grandmothers’ stories of farming in Haiti.

Boucaud’s experience was the same, she tells me, “My grandfather was a grower, my dad grew all over his lawn, the City of Toronto sent him an award, but I never thought of myself as that because it was like, a natural thing you know, it’s not something you go and do, it’s already a part of what you do already. So I got to the farm, I started doing the work, I ran the Farmer’s Market, and that was a huge eye-opener.”

Farming is an important part of passing on generational knowledge and empowering disenfranchised communities to develop food autonomy.

Maintaining such a vibrant and community-oriented space is a result of ongoing efforts. Tecle says that “for the farm to be what it is, it is Ama, it’s the staff team, it’s the community that has had to push. […] So there’s a long history there of a fight between the city and community members too – […] that relationship had to be forged in order to keep the farm in many ways community-based.” Deawuo also shares her dreams of seeing the farm expand to having its own café entirely supplied by food harvested from the farm by farmer members and prepared by chef members.

Community green space as Black living

Farming is not just farming, but a “labour of love,” says Hannah Conover-Arthurs, Program Coordinator at Ubuntu Community Collective, an organization that prioritizes food security and services and empowers single Black mothers around farming, including through an urban farm at Downsview Park, south-east of Jane and Finch. As a chef by vocation, she focuses on healing and food security, growing plant medicine, feeding mothers, supporting mental health – the whole spectrum of physical well-being, spirituality and connecting to the land.

 

Photo credit: Indigenous medicine wheel at Black Creek Community Farm

 

Conover-Arthurs also cites the educational value of farming – it builds skill, confidence and teaches you another perspective on life.

Her nieces and nephews “get to be part of the process” on their trips to plant and harvest with her because “it is also an education you can’t get anywhere else.”

Fatin Chowdhury, the Development and Communications manager for the BCCF, describes the community education around healthy food options and sustainability as a major accomplishment of the farm: “We have our urban harvest program, which looks at how to look at our food waste, how to preserve food, […] knowing more about our local food options. We have our farm education team – they do a lot of workshops that teach kids, youth, families about local ecologies, urban agriculture, urban farming, gardening. These are all topics that we really want our community to learn about and to apply in their own backyards.”

Many people in the Jane and Finch area, for instance, live in high towers with limited access to green space where they can grow food, be active and connect with people. In Boucaud’s words, “I live in an apartment […] I try to grow whatever I can [on my balcony], and spend the rest of my time in the community garden.” In community gardens, “people really find community and a space to grow,” she adds, “in addition to food in their household, and saving some money and some change into their pockets for them to possibly do other things with their family.”

The pandemic and lockdown started in March 2020, during the growing season, and initially included restrictions on tending community gardens, which threatened people’s physical and mental well-being. Many local residents are “relegated to small living spaces,” stresses Boucaud. But the community successfully and safely advocated and got the gardens re-opened. These spaces are much more than programs, says Boucaud, “they are a staple in our community.”

 

Community advocacy, solidarity, justice and education

 

Community grassroots urban farms and gardens are spaces that bring people together and offer what Tecle calls “political education” and advocacy that contributes to a broader vision of justice for Black, Indigenous, racialized and marginalized communities.

 

Photo credit: Black Creek Community Farm outdoor school

 

A place like the BCCF is “multidimensional,” says Tecle, “it’s much more than a farm.” He describes it as “a meeting space, an event space, an educational space, it’s a symbol, it’s a place of pride.” Speaking from experience and from past steering committee actions, Tecle describes how the farm has taken positions against the racist and ableist policies: “the farm itself has not been shy in taking up community issues, be it, when, you know, the local grocery store was […] putting the formula behind locked doors – or [saying] you can’t come in with the baby carriage or an assisted mobility device. The farm took a position early – these owners addressed it and policy was quickly taken down.”

 

Quicker response and the question of land ownership

 

Community urban farming initiatives that are supported by the City seem to be part of a dance.

“The city needs to focus on sustainability,” says Conovers-Arthurs. “We are constantly dealing with one-year leases and then renewed for two years. We are left wondering whether we can farm next year?”

The issue of land ownership and leasing presents a major barrier to Black farmers since they are more often reliant on public land rather than privately-owned property. What is discouraging, says Boucaud, is that the “land is not attached to the community,” so long-term planning, cultural spiritual practices on the land and growing, in general, pose challenges.

If Black people make an investment and work the land, “we are not investing just for 3 years! That’s our livelihood,” states Conovers-Arthurs.

These farms are substantial assets connected to peoples’ identities that provide essential services enabling the community to live balanced and healthy lives. “What we provide as a space, as a service, as an idea to the community is worth much more beyond what our funding is, but we have to constantly plead and beg and ask through grants,” as Tecle puts it. “We have no luxury of thinking about what we might build on the space, let’s say on the ground of the farm, in 5 years.” The call to action is for the City to shift the land management model, to think long-term. Assuring access to water, accessible bathrooms, planting beds with seats and other agricultural and accessibility initiatives are other important considerations that require long-term planning and investment in order to serve the broader community, notes Boucaud. And why not imagine that Black communities can be fully responsible for the land they steward, without oversight from the City?

The issue of food security predates Covid-19 with “4.4 million people including 1.2 million children under 18” who did not have access to sufficient food in Canada according to University of Toronto-based research “Feeding the City: Pandemic & Beyond.” The report confirms local community farming initiatives are the most accessible ways for more marginalized and vulnerable communities to obtain fresh, accessible foods, and raises the question of whether food security and sustainability for everyone, including for more marginalized communities, is a priority for governments. The demand is certainly there – as Boucaud points out, the waiting list to get into community gardens is very long.

 

Farming as a means of collective pride

 

A sense of personal and collective pride oozes from the words of the community members. Conovers-Arthurs describes the “inspiration, love and passion” that create a positive ripple effect in people’s lives while reflecting on the impact in her own life.

Tecle speaks of the overwhelming support from the community that translates into “an increased interest in farming, agriculture, [and] the education.” Chowdhury marks “the shift in who we are” in terms of the food delivery services the BCCF was able to provide to the community and the way in which the community further developed trust in the farm as part of their social safety network. And of course, Boucaud proclaims, “the joy we have in these spaces!” The BCCF has broken down barriers and silos for people often marginalized and boxed into their interactions with governments and has made the simple pleasures of life accessible to people and youth who have been confined in dense neighbourhoods – finally gaining a chance to experience what Chowdhury deems “critical green space in the city.”

Tecle likes to see that pride in the BCCF members when, during the annual dinner, “folks in community who are proud that people from outside are pulling up to the farm and getting this like very nice swanky experience and, you know, maybe they leave thinking ‘Jane and Finch is just not what they tell me it is’.”

 

Joy and community upheaval

 

Ultimately, community farming programming serves as a stepping stone – “it is an incubator” says Conovers-Arthurs. Boucaud adds, “you learn about the cultures of other people, how they grow, how they pollinate!” And Conovers-Arthurs explains how community programming offers people tools to progressively get their own land, start their projects and then their own businesses. She considers the ability to care for her own family members and instill the importance of the community as a “family unit” as a sacred thing. Becoming part of the Ubuntu Community Collective is a means for her to care for her mother, to support people healing from trauma and to create a place where “people see you for who you are.” It is a place where you can receive “support for your well-being, your freedom, your creativity, your healthcare, your transformation, your inspiration.”

 

Photo credit: Black Creek Community Farm Entrance

 

In the spirit of the idea that community builds you, Conovers-Arthurs says, “there are a lot of heartbreaks in farming, but when you have people around you and you see what people do, it supports you.” She feels her life was transformed by engaging in growing food, first through Fresh City Farms, and now hopes to one day be able to sustain herself through her farming.

Truth be told, farming is hard, but “there’s also a lot of joy” that comes out of community gardens, says Boucaud. The people are the backbone of farming in Toronto. Food security, well-being, and creating sustainable food pathways and connecting spiritual, mentally and physically healthy communities is a fight. Demanding sustainable strategies for wellness is part of the constant work for autonomy, identity, heritage, self-knowledge, sacredness, reconnection to the land and healing from historical, current and ongoing traumas, as well as for breaking from future harmful patterns.

As repeated by community voices, conversations about farming are multifaceted and intersectional. As Conovers-Arthurs says, “[t]he way we eat is a reflection of how we show up in the world.”

The pride, commitment to community and struggle of farming has always been worth it. So, as proud people would chant in Haitian Creole, “Nou pap kite peyi-a pou yo” – “We will not give up who we are.”

 

 

 

 

About Emilie Jabouin

Emilie Jabouin is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication & Culture, working on her doctoral dissertation at Ryerson/York universities on Black women organizers and journalists in early 20th-century Canada. Emilie is also a storyteller and dance artist who explores the social and cultural histories and expressions of the African diasporas. Find her on Twitter at @emilie_jabouin.

 


 

This contribution from Emilie Jabouin is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

Little house in the park: Vancouver’s fieldhouses bring all kinds of activities to their community

This contribution from Christopher Cheung is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

If you strolled past Elm Park during “League,” you might have scratched your head. Are those people really fencing with pool noodles? Playing bocce with a can of Campbell’s soup? Attacking a couch with bean bags?

Everyone who lives in Kerrisdale on Vancouver’s west side knows Elm Park as a home for baseball, soccer and tennis. But where did these strange new sports come from?

Artist Germaine Koh is the games master who moved into the park to generate these new ways to play. The park’s humble fieldhouse, once home to a caretaker, became her studio.

In 2011, the city’s park board came up with a new way to use these old buildings to benefit the communities they’re in, inviting artists to pitch residencies in exchange for use of the space rent-free. Koh’s proposal: work with the public to create brand-new sports and games.

Koh, who had played competitive badminton, volleyball and roller derby, wanted to explore the similarities between art and sport. Her artsy friends would always say they’re not jocks, and her sporty friends would always say that they’re not creative. She disagreed about this divide.

“In sports, you practice certain techniques over and over again. In that way, you gain mastery, but you also gain an ability to improvise, strategize and negotiate,” says Koh. “All of those are totally abilities and skills central to the creative process.”

The park board approved her residency for 2012 to 2014. Elm Park was a “tough nut to crack,” says Koh, “because people were used to organized recreation.” But the wacky ways that balls, discs, ropes, planks and trees were used caught the curiosity of passersby, with turnouts of a few dozen on the most crowded days.

 

Credit photo: Fieldhouse Sonic Pick-Up Sticks, courtesy of Germaine Koh

 

The fieldhouses themselves are humble places. They’re single-storey, beige or grey and often attached to the park’s public washrooms. But for artists like Koh, they’re precious spaces in an expensive city.

“The interior décor was taupe coloured, not my choice,” says Koh with a laugh. “But I felt so privileged to be able to sit in a park and work.”

 

“Eyes and ears”

 

Vancouver’s fieldhouses have a long history, but Koh and others are moving in during a new life stage for the buildings.

The city started building fieldhouses in the 1920s. About 70 of the city’s 230 parks have one. They were the living quarters for the park caretakers, Hagrids and Groundskeeper Willies who tidied up and kept a round-the-clock watch. Living rent-free in the park was a special perk of the job, something no other major Canadian city offered. Caretakers settled in for long tenures, typically two to four decades.

David and Normande Waine were caretakers in the most prized fieldhouse residence of all – the one in the city’s massive Stanley Park, steps from the ocean. To get it took 14 years on a waiting list “as thick as the Bible.”

“We never looked back,” David Waine once told the National Post. “It’s a privilege to be here.”

But 2005 would bring the beginning of the end of what the Waines called “eyes and ears” in public parks. The city decided that it would no longer install new caretakers to live in fieldhouses when the previous ones retired. Services were being consolidated, and the city was considering new uses for these buildings — though it took some time to determine what that would be.

When caretakers moved out, many of the fieldhouses were left empty or used for an unimaginative purpose: storage for sports equipment. One experiment turned the Grandview Park fieldhouse on the city’s east side into a community policing centre, but locals were displeased with the increased surveillance, and the police eventually left.

In Vancouver, a park board of seven elected commissioners oversees and determines the policy direction of the city’s parks. In 2011, the commissioners directed staff to come up with an idea for the future of park fieldhouses.

 

 

Credit photo: Fieldhouse Bean Race, courtesy of Germaine Koh

 

Staff returned with a solution that also addressed a growing Vancouver problem. Fieldhouses were valuable real estate in public hands; meanwhile, creative people were struggling with the cost of studio space in the expensive city. Why not invite them in?

 

Creative caretakers

 

Artists like Koh were invited to pitch residencies to the park board. Those who were approved got to use the fieldhouses as studio spaces rent-free for three years, with an option to reapply (though, unlike the park caretakers, the artists did not actually live in the fieldhouses). The park board welcomed an initial cohort of eight residencies.

But there was a key condition. Artists were required to do 350 hours of public programming as part of their residency.

“We would not do a closed art studio, where you’re a jeweller just working on your jewelry practice,” says Marie Lopes, who coordinates arts, culture and engagement at the city. “You have to have some interest in working with the community.”

Composer Mark Haney seized the opportunity to do neighbourhood storytelling through music. He held a residency at Falaise Park, in the middle of the Renfrew Heights Veterans Housing Project, built to house soldiers who had returned from the Second World War. Haney and a partner researched the lives of 11 veterans who had a connection to the area, interviewing relatives and digging through archives. On Remembrance Day 2014, he debuted a piece inspired by the veterans called “11”, with musical cues that nodded to their lives. It was performed by eleven musicians on the hillside park, each playing a brass instrument chosen to fit a veteran’s personality.

The park board has since expanded the program to welcome a variety of disciplines: athletes, ecologists, chefs, cultural groups and more. It is currently in place in 23 parks, and now provides office space for non-profit groups, as well as studios.

One residency at Adanac Park teaches locals how to fight the “alien invasion” taking over public parks and private gardens: the fieldhouse is home to the Invasive Species Council of Metro Vancouver, battling everything from knotweed to the European fire ant.

Mr. Fire-Man at Maclean Park teaches locals how to harvest wood and make their own musical instruments. Night Hoops, which helps out at-risk youth, runs a free basketball program and connects young people with mentors on and off the court. The Iris Film Collective at Burrard View Park shares the love of celluloid; if you prefer a different visual medium, there’s the Cloudscape Comics Collective at Memorial Park.

With each round of residencies, the park board publishes which fieldhouses are available and a recommended focus for each. A fieldhouse in a park near a diverse ecosystem, for example, could be targeted for environmental stewardship. Applicants can indicate which park fieldhouse they prefer, but, ultimately, the park board makes the decision. For example, the Strathcona Park fieldhouse hosts a residency by the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty. It’s a significant match, as the park is near where many Indigenous residents live and is a rare green space in that part of the inner city.

The park board provides each residency with a staff liaison to connect them with people and programs at the nearby community centre. That way, residencies get a sense of who locals are and what they might be interested in.

Some fieldhouses were ready to go, some needed renovations, but for the most part, “they just needed a coat of paint,” says Lopes. “With a little spit and polish, we were able to turn them into active spaces again.”

 

A league of its own

 

Not every artist is interested in spending 350 hours with the public, even if rent is covered. But it was perfect for Koh because League, as she named her residency, was not an art project she could have done on her own. She needed players to try out, refine, even invent the games with her and was able to emerge from the residency with a batch of tested and crowdsourced games.

Koh was pleased to see people of different athletic abilities get in on the action, whether as players or as “Bossypants” who direct play.

“It’s an interesting thing: some games are more cerebral, others are more physical,” she says.

In “Scrumble,” players wear t-shirts with a letter on the front and back and attempt to spell words by rearranging themselves. In “Petri,” players score by throwing balls into different-sized “Petri dishes” – circles drawn on the field. The balls each have different bacterial qualities and can multiply points, so the exponential growth might suddenly rocket someone into first place. (Perhaps a good post-COVID game? Koh now wonders.)

 

Credit photo: Fieldhouse Petri, courtesy of Germaine Koh

 

Players also improvised with the park itself, not just the field. The fieldhouse had a yard, and teams competed to build the best structure for growing beans. It was a summer-long race to see whose beans would grow the tallest, a game of patience and engineering. Koh describes it as a “slow race to new heights.”

An old couch lent to the fieldhouse wouldn’t fit through the door, and so it was placed outside for games of “Couchie,” which was introduced to the League crowd by two friends who had invented it during their university days as roommates. Players throw beanbags to try and lodge them into the couch’s cracks for points.

Some games took players outside of the park’s boundaries. The Arbutus Corridor was nearby, a disused Canadian Pacific rail track that ran north from the Fraser River, through the park’s neighbourhood of Kerrisdale, and up to False Creek. It would eventually be purchased by the city in 2016 and converted into the 8.5-kilometre Arbutus Greenway for recreational use.

Even back when it was a disused track, Koh saw its potential. Similar to fieldhouses, the track was an underused urban space waiting for reinvention. She encouraged players to walk the length of the track and turn the experience into some kind of game. One player found a bunch of lost pages from a book and read them during the walk. Koh herself scooped a glass of water from the river and carried it all the way to the creek, where she deposited it.

Koh muses a lot about the theoretical question of what play is, but her simple hope for League’s participants was that they would learn to adopt a playful attitude in their lives.

“One of the intentions was to expand the notion of where play begins and where the play ends, and stop thinking that play is just a thing for kids or something that just happens on a sports field,” she says. “Play is a way of developing useful problem-solving skills, an attitude of everyday creativity.”

 

A new lease on the land

 

Before Fresh Roots moved into its fieldhouse, the urban farming non-profit was already getting creative with underused urban land. The organization was founded in 2009, and partners with schools to turn their yards into edible gardens and to educate young people on how to grow fresh food.

When the opportunity came up for a fieldhouse, Fresh Roots applied and settled into the one at Norquay Park. It has just been approved for a second term.

Norquay Park is right on the city’s busy thoroughfare of Kingsway, and the fieldhouse is beside the playground and spray park. It’s a high-traffic spot in a high-traffic park, and Fresh Roots has grown a sharing garden that passersby can’t miss, tended by staff and volunteers.

 

Photo credit: Fieldhouse Sharing Garden, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

“It takes a lot of labour, and the weeds are taking over!” sighs Caroline Manuel, the communications and engagement manager, who works out of the fieldhouse office. The pandemic’s dip in volunteers has made maintaining the sharing garden a challenge. Still, the crop is plentiful this year. There are green beans, beet greens, rhubarb, raspberry canes, red-flowering currant, sage, thyme and more — and the public is welcome to take from any of them.

Planted in this part of the east side, Fresh Roots partners with other groups nearby, such as summer camps and seniors groups

“We tested the waters and there’s lots and lots of interest to have hands in the dirt, direct access to a space to tend to,” says Manuel.

Fresh Roots also runs “Art in the Park” events. The art that they did with summer camps — crafts like seed bombs — proved to be so popular that they offered them to the public.

The fieldhouse has helped give the non-profit a physical presence in the community with which to make wider connections. That contact is especially helpful because 40 percent of the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood exclusively speaks a language other than English at home.

“Not everyone’s on social media,” says Manuel. “We’re putting signs in as many languages as we can, chatting with people chatting with people as they come by, basically just trying to be here so people do start to feel comfortable to ask questions.”

 

Credit photo: Fieldhouse Norquay Park, courtesy of Fresh Roots

 

Lopes is pleased the park board can help by situating artists and cultural groups in the middle of the communities they serve.

“In a city where rents are what they are, [the program] relieves that pressure for an artist studio or a non-profit office,” she says.

 

Your friendly neighbourhood fieldhouse

 

Marie Lopes can’t stress enough that it’s the “open door” that’s key to the program’s success.

By bringing art and engagement into everyday parks, the fieldhouse program removes some of the barriers that stand in the way of accessing art and other activities through museums or formal programs. And that engagement can be as casual or as collaborative as locals like. They might stop by a nearby park to enjoy music put on by the residency for half an hour. Or they might work closely with the fieldhouse residency for the full three years as a collaborator.

She says the park board occasionally gets calls from other cities curious about the fieldhouses, as they’ve become a “flagship” program.

Nearby, North Vancouver runs residencies out of the Blue Cabin, a remodelled 1927 float home. Richmond runs residencies out of the heritage Branscombe House, one of the first settler homes in what was the village of Steveston.

Lopes has this advice for cities looking to start similar programs, whether it’s out of fieldhouses or other unused buildings.

“Look at your assets really carefully,” she says. “Stop thinking about your unused spaces as problematic. They’re opportunities. Look for collaborators where everybody wins. The community benefit is just boundless.”

 

 

 

 

About Christopher Cheung

Christopher Cheung is a Vancouver journalist. He is interested in the power and politics behind urban change, and how Vancouver’s many diasporas strive to make a home in a city with colonial legacies. He is a staff reporter at The Tyee.

 


 

This contribution from Christopher Cheung is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

Transforming a neglected park to bring a community together

This contribution from Kelly Boutsalis is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

Tasmeen Syed was five years old, walking down Mabelle Avenue with her cousins when she came across people painting in the park that sits between seven large residential towers in central Etobicoke.

Previously just a neglected space with broken fences, an out-of-order water fountain and eroded slopes that people cut across to get to the Islington subway station, Mabelle Park is now a vibrant park whose lush art gardens, log seating, ice hut, wooden shed and colourful camper trailer bring together the residents within the surrounding Toronto Community Housing buildings, many of them newcomers to Canada, low-income families, and seniors.

“I wanted to paint on rocks and spray paint canvases and wear a funny giant shirt that makes me look like a tiny mad scientist covered in paint, and I’m doing all these fun things and they said, ‘come back tomorrow, we’re gonna do something even crazier’,” recalls Syed of that first encounter with MABELLEArts, an initiative that aims to bring together the Mabelle Avenue community through the creative arts.

She spent that entire summer with the MABELLEarts team and has spent every year since with them. She’s currently wrapping up a role with them as a community mobilizer before she heads off to university.

Her experience seems indicative of the way many of the residents of Mabelle Avenue, the 4,000 people who live in the towers belonging to Toronto Community Housing, have come to encounter MABELLEArts: an initial sense of curiosity that leads to committing many days and nights enjoying activities with the dedicated MABELLEarts team.

Credit: MABELLEarts, Iftar Nights. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.

Creating a sense of place

 

Nicolette Felix, the director of community mobilization at MABELLEarts, says that the area is an underserved pocket that nobody really knew existed. It’s a drop of density in the largely low-rise suburban west end of Toronto, and although tucked between fairly busy streets it only has walkable access to a small number of amenities, including a dollar store, a middle school, and a smattering of restaurants.

“It’s surprisingly small considering how much happens,” says MABELLEarts Artistic Director Leah Houston.

“It’s quite hard to find, if you’re driving by you may not even see it,” adds Felix. But, she adds, MABELLEarts “really put Mabelle on the map.”

That attention, in turn, generated funding opportunities, which help to sustain the programming. The additional funding “allows us to serve more people in our community, and we’ve been able to create employment, because, as our programs expand, we need more hands-on-deck,” says Felix. “There are no better people to hire than folks who live on the block, who understand the needs.”

The park itself is owned by Toronto Community Housing, and its support enabled the opportunity to work directly with the residents of Mabelle Avenue. “We’ve been able to co-imagine and make real the kind of park we want to have in a way that could be more challenging if it was a City of Toronto park,” says Houston.

Houston founded the organization in 2007, born out of working with Jumblies Theatre, which brings theatre into urban neighbourhoods. Houston brought the spirit of Jumblies to Mabelle Avenue, with a focus on bringing art into places where it normally doesn’t exist and bringing people together in public spaces.

 

Credit: MABELLEarts, Iftar Nigths. The photo was taken prior to March 2020.

 

Children and their families who are involved with the Arab Community Center of Toronto (ACCT), a non-profit that helps in the settlement of newcomers to Canada, are among those who have benefited greatly from participating in MABELLEarts events.

“When it comes to newcomer families that we serve – and ours is not an area that is paid attention to for many reasons – where they come from, art is a luxury type of thing,” says Dima Amad, the executive director of ACCT. “Children, youth and families don’t get to really participate in art-based activities that will contribute to their mental health and well-being, that will bring them together in a space where they are learning new things, but also to know other people.”

Credit: Tamara Romanchuk. The photo was taken prior to March 2020. 

Despite the pandemic pause on many of the activities in the MABELLEarts calendar, you’ll still find their stamp everywhere on the grounds, with colourful flags, engraved art, and gardens and planters filled with brightly coloured flowers and native species. Comfortable spots with benches and hand-carved wooden stools invite passers-by to sit. A signature fire pit with a MABELLEarts cover on it is dormant, waiting for the time when it can be fired up for cooking once again.

Setting up a presence in that space was integral to building trust among MABELLEarts’ community.

“[Trust] comes from being in the same place for so long and publicly visible because we’re out in a park,” says Houston. “Even people who don’t participate know us, and they see a kind of tangible outcome of our presence.”

A number of temporary outbuildings include a trailer that serves as a mobile café, a woodshed, and a former ice fishing hut, all of which have been “Mabelle-ized,” meaning artfully decorated with brightly coloured paints. The organization plans to open a permanent space in Mabelle Park through the Mabelle Arts Project (MAP), a community centre that will be a clubhouse for MABELLEarts programming and serve food via its community kitchen.

“My interest as an artist was really in land-based work, public space, working outdoors, fusing food and gardening and outdoor activity with art,” says Houston. “More of ceremony, ritual, and events rather than a classic theatre piece with a script and actors.”

That philosophy has resulted in years of activating a space that would have otherwise been unused and encouraging the community of Mabelle Avenue residents to come together through performances, workshops, events, and activities like smashing watermelons to mark the end of the school year. For that event, the youngest or newest child in the community smashes the first watermelon on the ground, while a marauding chorus of trolls yells and shakes their fists in the direction of the local school.

 

Credit: Mobile MABELLE. The photo was taken prior to March 2020. 

 

The focus on every age being engaged is a core part of what MABELLEarts does, including a range of youth and elder events. “Working intergenerationally was really important because it was an opportunity for whole families to do something together, which is often missing in our society,” says Houston. “You sign up for a program for your son or your grandma,” she adds, pointing out that not many full-family activities exist in the city.

 

Adjusting to the pandemic

 

Just as many other organizations had to rethink how they could operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, MABELLEarts had to pivot as well, temporarily putting aside much of its in-person arts programming, which required gathering in large groups.

“Being there every day was something powerful about us as an organization,” says Houston. “We’re not there every day anymore, but in some ways, we’re even more connected to people with wellness calls, and that initiative continues to this day.”

The pandemic also brought out the launch of the MABELLEpantry, after the discovery that Mabelle Avenue was in a food desert. The program is dedicated to getting food to those who need it. It takes place every Wednesday in the park, which is set up to look and feel like a farmer’s market, with bales of hay stacked near tables full of fresh produce.

 

Credit: MABELLEarts, the MABELLEpantry

 

Houston began driving to the grocery store and buying food for 10 households, “hoping that people didn’t think I was a hoarder.” Now the pantry assists 550 households, with volunteers bringing food to building lobbies for those who can’t travel to the park.

There are no plans to close up the pantry once the pandemic is over. “No matter what phase we were in, or what reopening, we realized that this was something that needed to continue,” says Felix.

A core mission of MABELLEarts is infusing all activities with art, theatre and design, and Houston admits that finding a way to incorporate that into food security was hard. They decided to have two therapeutic clowns play with people in line at the pantry, while at the same time ensuring everyone stayed safe and six feet apart.

“On the one hand, it encourages and actually enforces people to social distance, but it’s also like bringing a kind of black humour into what is a very serious situation,” says Houston. “I’ve loved watching them play with people in the pantry, and defuse anger and conflict with their silliness.”

 

Credit: the MABELLEpantry by Jake Tobin Garrett.

 

Houston participates as well, as the emcee, in an eye-catching outfit. “I try to be really funny, silly, and warm with people,” she says. “The premise is that we’re playing with the pantry as if it’s a party or rock and roll. But what it is, is a food bank.”

“Most people in the food bank business care a lot about human dignity and privacy, and they want people to leave feeling good, but not a lot of food banks are concerned with humour and beauty. And we really are,” she adds.

Focusing on food security during the pandemic has also brought in more participants than usual, in particularly isolated seniors.

“People who might not have necessarily been comfortable coming out to sit and listen to some music if they didn’t know people, or just that it was too much work with their walker, those people are all coming down now,” says Claudine Crangle, MABELLEarts fundraising lead. “There’s a broader group of people who, I’m positive, will be even more involved in the arts and culture pieces as they’re starting to really ramp back up.”

 

Making connections

 

“What people tell us over and over again is, you are my family. I’m here from another place, I don’t know a lot of people and I see you as my family,” says Houston, recalling a common refrain she hears at the pantry. “Between us as a staff, I would say we know everyone unless someone is new …. We can greet them almost all by name between us.”

For senior Bernadette Shulman, participating in MABELLEarts has eased her loneliness and introduced her to new things, like drawing, sewing, beadwork, and even some dances.

“It makes life more enjoyable,” she says. “When I walk down Mabelle Avenue, people are calling my name and sometimes I don’t even know them. But I smile because they have to know me from MABELLEarts because it’s only MABELLEarts in this community where everyone actually knows each other.”

 

Looking to the future

 

The future of Mabelle Park is all about doubling down and creating permanent infrastructure that will enable the organization to invest even more time with the residents.

“We’ve been in the neighbourhood for so long, and because our work was so deeply collaborative, we built a profound amount of trust and eagerness to do things,” says Houston. “Imagine 100 households who are just really keen to do stuff with us, and we realized that that was a really unusual opportunity, so we started to think about what we might be able to do with that level of trust and willingness to collaborate.”

 

Credit: MABELLEarts, the MABELLEpantry

 

That brought them to create MAP, the multi-year strategy to really solidify MABELLEarts’ position in the community with a permanent clubhouse, a more official role as an intermediary between TCH and the tenants, and a plan to work together for more community improvements.

MAP is moving forward, and Houston says they’re busy working on the final design for the permanent community centre and securing funding.

Felix says that having a permanent space dedicated to MABELLEarts will allow for the expansion of arts programming, provide a community kitchen, and enable the seeding of micro-businesses that would be run by community members.

The social enterprise projects are in the planning phase, and Felix says there are many untapped potential business ideas waiting for an opportunity.

“There are a lot of folks who live on Mabelle that have prior experience in the food industry and we’re seeing people coming into the pantry and telling us about things that they’ve done in the past, and all their hidden talents, and we’re hoping that we can harness that and develop some programming that trains people how to run their own business and then cycle it through the MABELLEpantry and sell back to the community while keeping many of our other initiatives going,” she says.

For the moment, the team of youth summer staff is working on beautifying the park, with a lot of gardening and planting, for the community that’s slowly emerging from their towers. The MABELLEarts team is putting down seeds for what they hope will be more beautiful community engagement for years to come.

 

The people behind this community arts organization are passionate about the work they do, and it’s that commitment that truly unifies the Mabelle Avenue residents in unexpected ways, from smashing watermelons together to intercultural Iftar nights, with food, ceremony and arts that activate the park during the month-long Ramadan observance. It’s a bright, joyful spot in a pocket of Etobicoke that could have remained dark and unused.

“I’ve never even heard of anything else like this,” says Syed. “It surprises me that other people don’t have a weird organization in their park.”

 

 

 

About Kelly Boutsalis

Kelly Boutsalis is a writer and journalist, based in Toronto. She is Mohawk, and from the Six Nations reserve. Her words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Spacing, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus.

 


 

This contribution from Kelly Boutsalis is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 

How grassroots activism and grand vision are coming together in Montreal’s Grand parc de l’Ouest

This contribution from Christopher Dewolf is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

The plot of former agricultural land next to the Parc nature de l’Anse-à-l’Orme, on the western edge of Montreal, is fascinating in many ways. For one thing, it’s home to 270 species of flora and fauna that thrive within a mix of wetlands, woods and meadows. It occupies 365 hectares of land, making it one of the largest undeveloped—and until recently unprotected—swathes of natural territory on this island that more than two million people call home. But perhaps the most surprising thing about it is how few people seem to know it exists.

“At so many of the doors we knocked on, people didn’t even know that right beside them was this massive former agricultural land that was regenerating,” says Sue Stacho, Co-founder of Sauvons L’Anse-à -L’Orme. In 2015, when a huge new residential project called Cap Nature was announced for this parcel of land, she helped start a group to protect it from development.

“We worked really hard – blood, sweat and tears,” she says. “We had to do so much to communicate why spaces like that are so important.” They knocked on doors, and hosted events like a Mother’s Day walk through the woods and evening stroll to appreciate the frog population: “any type of exposure to the area that we could bring to it.”

 

 

 

It worked. In 2019, Montreal mayor Valérie Plante announced the creation of the Grand parc de l’Ouest, which will protect the area around l’Anse-à-l’Orme from development. But it goes much further than that: the new green space will be the largest municipal park in Canada, with a 30-square-kilometre expanse that includes active farmland, McGill University’s Morgan Arboretum, existing nature parks and previously unprotected natural areas that were vulnerable to development.

It’s a lesson in how grassroots activism can achieve tangible results. And it’s an opportunity to boost the amount of green space in Montreal, which has only 24 square metres per person, one of the lowest rates among Canada’s cities. But the Grand parc de l’Ouest is also a project of staggering scope, complexity and ambition. Not only does it span an area that is 15 times larger than Mount Royal Park, Montreal’s largest and most recognizable urban green space, it is a hodgepodge of different spaces crisscrossed by roads, railways and watercourses. It spans two Montreal boroughs and three independent towns, encompassing five existing nature parks and lands owned by McGill University.

 

A huge scale – and huge potential

 

The Grand parc de l’Ouest brings to mind other large, edge-of-city parks, such as the Rouge National Urban Park near Toronto, Fish Creek Provincial Park in Calgary and the Blue Mountain Wilderness Connector in Halifax. Like these, the Grand parc de l’Ouest has the dual mission of protecting biodiversity while giving urban dwellers access to nature. Those goals are not always easy to reconcile. In 2019, Parks Canada developed a detailed management plan for Rouge Park with the goal of balancing the needs of agriculture, recreation and conservation. The Nova Scotia Nature Trust, a charity that manages land across the province, is taking a similar approach in its stewardship of Blue Mountain.

For the Grand parc de l’Ouest, the challenge becomes particularly obvious when you look at its location on a map. Autoroute 40, one of Canada’s busiest highways, runs straight through the park, and in 2023 the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) metro system will open with a station at l’Anse à l’Orme, with trains arriving from downtown Montreal every 10 minutes. That will make the park very easy to access but could pose a problem when it comes to managing human impact on sensitive natural areas. On top of everything, the Grand parc de l’Ouest will be run not by Parks Canada or a provincial authority, but by the City of Montreal, which has more limited experience in managing natural areas.

All of that adds up to something with extraordinary potential – and no shortage of pitfalls.

“It’s been a long time in Montreal since we’ve seen the willingness to make these big gestures,” says Jonathan Cha, a landscape architect, urbanist and heritage consultant. “The challenge will be grouping all of these different natural spaces together. It’s a project that will require a lot of time, a lot of money – a very long-term project. But it’s a grand vision. There’s almost no space leftover on Montreal Island and this secures it for the benefit and well-being of the population.”

 

The fruit of community activism

 

That this natural space came to be left undeveloped in one of Canada’s largest and most densely populated cities is the result of a half-century of effort by environmentalists and community activists. As with other parts of Montreal, the western third of the island – a dangling apostrophe of land buffeted by Lake St. Louis, the Lake of Two Mountains and the Rivière des Prairies – was once a lush broadleaf woodland frequented by people of the Haudenosaunee nations that lived in the region. After the arrival of French colonists in the middle of the 17th century, the colonial administration gave control of the land to the priests of the Sulpician Order, who divided it into strips of property to be farmed by colonists.

Aside from a handful of villages and early railroad suburbs, the West Island remained largely rural until after the Second World War.

“Even the tree-lined seigneurial property boundaries were still in place,” recalls historian George Vassiadis, who moved to the West Island as a child in 1968. Things changed quickly with Montreal’s postwar suburban expansion. “For the first few years after we moved into our new duplex on Spring Garden Road, the view across the street was of fields which had only recently ceased to be cultivated,” Vassiadis wrote in the arts journal Montréal Serai. “By the mid-1970s the fields had been replaced with houses.”

As bungalows and strip malls quickly ate away at farmland, developers turned their attention to some of the area’s last pockets of woodland. In 1977, plans were drawn up to raze the Bois-de-Saraguay, a biodiverse pocket of forest next to an old village, and replace it with apartment blocks, single-family houses, two shopping centres and a marina. Nearby residents successfully fought the plans, leading to the creation of Montreal’s first nature park. In 1979, Quebec’s government gave the regional council, the Montreal Urban Community, the power to develop a whole network of nature parks, including several that will now be part of the Grand parc de l’Ouest: Rapides-du-Cheval-Blanc, Bois-de-l’Île-Bizard, Cap-Saint-Jacques and l’Anse-à-l’Orme.

Conservation is the focus in each of these parks, but they are also popular recreational spots for people from across Greater Montreal. The largest of the parks is Cap-Saint-Jacques, which every weekend attracts thousands of people, most of them arriving by car, although that could change when the REM offers rapid transit access. In the winter, they rent fat bikes or snowshoes and head off into the woods. In the spring, they drizzle maple syrup onto oreilles de crisse – crispy pork rinds – at the park’s sugar shack. And in the summer, a broad, sandy beach beckons with views across the Lake of the Two Mountains.

Although these nature parks already cover a significant amount of land, they were broken up by private property that was long coveted by developers. For decades, much of that land had been protected by special agricultural zoning, but when the zoning was lifted in 1991, a resulting tax increase forced many farmers out of business. Over the years, the now-abandoned lands steadily returned to a more natural state. “There’s a whole range of wildlife that had been returning to these lands that had now been left fallow waiting for a development project to come along,” says David Fletcher, who co-founded the Green Coalition, a West Island environmental watchdog, in 1988. “All these animals that are iconic in eastern Canada, like the fisher [a member of the weasel family] and the white-tailed deer, were finding their way back to Montreal.”

Sue Stacho, who has been involved with the Green Coalition since the early 2000s, came across the abandoned farmland next to l’Anse-à-l’Orme one day while riding her bike.

“It’s this amazing place. Natural,” she says. “It wasn’t managed with trails and park benches everywhere. There are thermal pools in the spring. There are wetlands. Every time I went, if I went in a new way, I would find something new to learn about. If you know your way around, you can be out there all day.”

In 2015, a proposal to develop the land was announced. Known as Cap Nature and billed by its developer as “an environmentally responsible neighbourhood,” it would have preserved 180 hectares of the old farmland, but the remaining 185 hectares would be replaced by 5,500 housing units. Stacho and other members of the Green Coalition decided to fight it. Banding together to form a pressure group called Sauvons l’Anse-à-l’Orme, they succeeded in recruiting a host of other environmental organizations – including the Suzuki Foundation, CPAWS Quebec and the Sierra Club – to join their cause.

 

 

 

 

Citizen support was particularly crucial to their effort, which drew the attention of Projet Montréal, a municipal political party with a focus on sustainable development. “Once they learned about the space and realized there was real momentum growing for the protection of it, they were always around,” says Stacho. When Projet Montréal won a surprise victory in the 2017 Montreal elections, the wheels for the Grand parc de l’Ouest were set in motion.

 

A new park – but now what?

 

The announcement of the park in September 2019 was greeted by the threat of lawsuits from landowners, including the developers of Cap Nature. By the end of that year, however, the city had managed to negotiate the purchase of most of the privately-held land in question. “There’s still about 40 to 45 hectares in private hands, but there’s no way a viable project could work,” says Fletcher. He considers the park a victory. “It’s been a very long haul. Quite a tumultuous three decades. We’ve been on guard with those lands for all that time.”

Fletcher gives special credit to Stacho, whose ability to raise public awareness of the old farmland is what opened the door to the new park.

“She’s a very energetic woman and her team did a remarkable job in bringing that to a conclusion,” he says. Now the conclusion of one chapter is leading to the beginning of another: the process of actually developing the Grand parc de l’Ouest.

Public consultations began last year, with most activities taking place online due to the pandemic. The challenge now will be to balance different visions of what the park should be. Stacho wants to see an emphasis on conservation, but some West Island residents are eager for more recreational opportunities, with some even raising the possibility of motocross trails in a recent online roundtable discussion. The green space is also used for hunting deer and trapping beavers, which the province recently declined to ban despite pressure from Montreal. “I’ve gone out and seen signs of activity there like shotgun shells and rifle cartridges left on the ground,” says Fletcher. “The kind of trapping taking place there is wire snare – it’s brutal. Absolutely horrific.”

Jonathan Cha points out that, beyond its natural spaces, the Grand parc de l’Ouest includes plenty of built heritage, including stone walls and houses from the French colonial era. “You need a very fine-grained knowledge of the territory to come up with a plan for it,” he says. There’s also the question of active agricultural lands, which make up a significant proportion of the new park. “Who will manage those lands?” asks Cha. “Farmer-proprietors? Co-ops? The city will need to create a new model to manage a park like this. There will need to be an additional layer of expertise on top of what they’re already used to.”

 

 

It will be a generational process, he says. “You need to have people around the table who are going to be there for a long time. There has to be a continuity in the process. The challenges are so big and numerous and the area is so vast and complicated there isn’t anyone person who can grasp everything that is going to be happening.”

What it comes down to is something Sue Stacho realized in her fight to save l’Anse-à-l’Orme: parks need people. It was the local community that rallied to protect this land from development, and it was through the collective action of many different people that the Grand parc de l’Ouest was created. Now those same people—and many others—will be needed to shape, sustain and nurture the park for decades to come.

 

 

 

About Christopher Dewolf

 

Christopher DeWolf is a Montreal-based journalist who focuses on cities and culture. Previously based in Hong Kong, he is the managing editor of Zolima CityMag and a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post, Eater and other publications. His book “Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong” examines the tension between grassroots and top-down views of urban life.

 


 

This contribution from Christopher Dewolf part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks.  The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.

Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

Flyover Park: Empowering the next generation of city builders in Calgary

This contribution from Ximena González is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

 


 

On an early spring day in Calgary, Flyover Park buzzes with activity and playful laughter. Surrounded by friends, a couple of teens sway off a face-to-face swing, while tweens leap through a bamboo jungle (a three-dimensional climbing course not for the faint of heart).

Sheltered by the shade of a flyover above, a family competes in a fierce ping-pong game while, behind them, a mother helps her youngest go up the hillside playground. An assortment of languages fills the air: English, French, Spanish.

In this context, it can be hard to believe that just three years ago this space was a dingy field of gravel. “It was full of litter, graffiti, needles, people’s clothes—it was just not safe,” says Ali McMillan, planning director at the Bridgeland-Riverside Community Association (BRCA).

Built in 2020 with funds sourced by Calgary’s Parks Foundation, a non-profit whose mandate is to support the creation of new parks for the enjoyment of all Calgarians, Flyover Park materializes the vision of a group of engaged residents who dared to think outside the box and reclaim an underutilized space full of potential.

“We didn’t really have an idea where it was going to go,” McMillan says about the group’s initial vision. “We wanted to do some tactical urbanism to basically get people’s minds thinking differently about the area,” she explains.

Launched by residents as a small intervention, the project would morph into a lasting change for the community—and the first project of its kind in Alberta.

 

“Bamboo” climbing poles. Photo by Ximena Gonzalez.

 

Residents reclaim a ‘left-over’ space

Located at the south end of Bridgeland, between the neighbourhood and the Bow River, Flyover Park sits under an overpass known as the 4th Avenue flyover. It’s part of a complicated interchange of roads and bridges that connects Calgary’s northeast across the river to the city’s downtown and East Village.

The site where Flyover Park is today sat empty for nearly two decades. “A lot of us didn’t know that the flyover was even there,” says Miles Bazay, a student who used to go to Langevin School, a K-9 school located just 300 metres north of the site.

Year after year, thousands of Bridgeland-Riverside residents would drive, walk, or cycle by this derelict space.

“This is the first thing a lot of people see when they come from downtown into our community, and the impression was not good because it was just basically a dirt patch,” McMillan says. This unsightly welcome didn’t reflect the unique character of the neighbourhood.

Filled with homes that predate the 1960s, modern multi-family buildings, and an assortment of locally-owned shops and restaurants, Bridgeland-Riverside is one of Calgary’s most vibrant inner-city communities. These characteristics have attracted a young and diverse population to the neighbourhood.

Improving the condition of the empty space under the flyover would connect the neighbourhood’s parks, community gardens, sports fields, and bike lanes to Calgary’s Bow River Pathway system, a 48-km long network of multi-use trails. Nearly a quarter of the community’s residents walk or cycle to work, many of whom use this network.

Despite this connectivity potential, the City of Calgary had no plans to activate the space. But in 2016, inspired by the work of Jason Roberts’s Better Block Foundation, McMillan decided to spearhead her own tactical urbanism intervention.

“[Tactical urbanism] opens your eyes to how you see your community and that your voice matters,” she says.

 

The power of small interventions

 

Tactical urbanism is a citizen-led movement that gained force in the 2010s. The movement encourages residents to test ideas that reclaim and transform forgotten public places into vibrant community hubs—one temporary intervention at a time.

Installing pop-up parks in neglected spaces is a common tactic used by residents to test their ideas, and many of these projects lead to permanent upgrades. Flyover Park would become Calgary’s first tactical intervention to become permanent.

Under McMillan’s direction, the BRCA created a task force to put together a plan to enhance the space.

The goal of this plan was “to design an enjoyable public environment” and “to create a gateway into the community of Bridgeland-Riverside.” This thorough document outlined the design considerations and aesthetics that would guide the project through completion.

To improve the public realm, the task force drew ideas from projects in cities around the world such as Superkilen Park in Copenhagen and Drapers Field in London.

But despite the successful precedents, getting the project off the ground was no easy feat.

“It’s a really unique site there—we have not done an urban park in the ‘left-over’ transportation infrastructure anywhere in Alberta,” McMillan says, emphasizing the initial skepticism from a number of stakeholders, including the neighbours themselves. “A lot of people couldn’t see past what the area actually was… It was a lot of fighting perception and trying to show people it could be different.”

In 2017, McMillan and the task force carried out the first tactical intervention in the space.

“The first thing we did was a windmill garden. We put like 20 windmills—just stuck them in the ground in the middle of winter,” McMillan recalls. It helped catch the attention of future partners.

Over the course of a year, these kinds of small interventions led the BRCA to partnerships with the City of Calgary, Bridgeland’s Langevin School Grade 6 students, and the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. The inclusion of the Grade 6 students in the project would prove to be integral to the development of the project—and an educational opportunity not just for the children, but for everyone involved.

 

Early conceptual image based on student ideas. Courtesy of the City of Calgary.

 

An all-around learning experience

 

In 2017, the transportation department at the City of Calgary had just completed the city’s pedestrian strategy, but while the council hadn’t yet allocated any funding to it, the department was keen to support a low-budget grassroots initiative.

When Jen Malzer, a transportation engineer at the City of Calgary, learned about the BRCA’s efforts to transform the space under the 4th Avenue flyover and connect Bridgeland to the river pathway, she and her team seized the opportunity.

“We didn’t have funding to hire consultants, which is normally how we might approach a project,” Malzer says. Having the Langevin School Grade 6 students and the University of Calgary landscape architecture master’s degree students on board, Malzer’s team took a different approach. “We could just enable students to dream about the parts of the project and give expertise where we could,” she says—an unusual role for city staff.

Accustomed to the back-and-forth of stakeholder engagement sessions, for Malzer’s team this project was an opportunity to “give up some of the control.”

Furthermore, as part of the pedestrian strategy, the city was developing a tactical urbanism program; participating in the flyover project helped city staff gain an in-depth understanding of the process.

“This really gave us a good insight into what the city’s role should be when we’re working with communities,” Malzer says. “We learned about the power of elevating different voices.”

And in this case, it was the voices of the Grade 6 students. While children are always welcome to join engagement activities led by the city, Malzer says, they rarely actually do so. The Grade 6 students would become front and centre for the project. “It was a really cool experience. I never thought that we could get to do something like that,” says Bazay, who was part of the class.

Sixty Langevin School Grade 6 students were able to take part in this project thanks to the foresight of their teachers. “[Ali McMillan] was looking for some students to be involved in working with the city and just talking about areas of Bridgeland that are a little bit neglected,” recalls Kate Logan, one of the teachers. She and Elaine Hordo, her partner teacher, jumped at the opportunity. “We were looking for something to get these kids involved in some kind of action project, something to make a difference in the community,” Logan adds.

Excited about the potential of the space and the learning opportunities for the students, Malzer helped coordinate educational sessions with an assortment of city departments, giving students a solid background that would inform their vision for the space. “I was able to bring in a lot of different experts: urban foresters, designers, water engineers, to give students a little bit of context about what are some of the things to think about,” Malzer says.

This experience enabled the children to think about the possibilities for the space.

“We spent a lot of time at the flyover site, just looking around,” Logan says. They also visited other parts of the city and observed the different uses a vacant space could be given to revitalize it and build community.“Our class decided to do something with that space,” Bazay says. “It was a really good space, it just wasn’t being used in the right way.”

When the University of Calgary graduate students led a design charrette in the spring of 2017, the children were more than ready to provide their input. During the initial design session, Ben Hettinga, then one of the University of Calgary students, recalls being impressed by the ideas of the Grade 6 students. “There were normal kid things like playgrounds and fun pieces, but their focus also seemed to be on making the space welcoming and safe for everyone.” This sentiment is echoed by Malzer, “the students were really clear that the project should make play fun for everyone, not just kids.”

Integrating all of the students’ knowledge and ideas, the design produced by the landscape architecture students went on to earn an honourable mention at Calgary’s Mayor Urban Design Awards and win a National Urban Design Award. “We were just having fun with it—ideas that we thought would just brighten up the space,” Bazay says humbly. “We never really thought that it would get built but then we got funding and it was really exciting for our class.”

 

Through this experience, the Grade 6 students learned valuable lessons on city building, an opportunity few Calgarians get to experience at such a young age. According to Logan, this project taught her students about the importance of civic engagement, “knowing that as a citizen you have a responsibility for yourself and others and that the decisions you make impact others.”

The involvement of the Langevin School was also key to gaining momentum, McMillan says, as the participation of the Grade 6 students led to project seed funding from the Calgary Foundation. “With this funding, we painted the road and bought chairs and picnic tables; we built planters and that sort of thing,” she says.

And this action was key, as it was an opportunity to test their ideas and to prove the community’s interest in such a space. The success of the temporary improvements in the summer of 2017 solidified the partnership with the Parks Foundation and led to further improvements such as the painting of a mural and the installation of a ping-pong table.

 

Painting the road as a tactical intervention, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ali McMillan.

 

Materializing the community’s dreams

 

In the spring of 2019, Calgary’s Parks Foundation announced the construction of a permanent urban park was moving forward thanks to a donation from the Alberta government.

“I never thought that we could have such a big impact in the community,” Bazay says.

Although the design of the space went through several subsequent iterations, and a number of features were scrapped at the construction stage, Flyover Park does capture the essence of the youth who helped propel the project.

“It’s not your typical playground. We tried to design something for everyone in some of those groups that didn’t have a place to be,” McMillan says.

Besides playground equipment for all ages, the design layout includes an esplanade to accommodate food trucks and outdoor events, providing recreation opportunities for adults and kids alike and reflecting the spirit of inclusiveness shown by the Langevin School students.

The tactical nature of the project also helped it move forward swiftly. By contrast, the Bow to Bluff corridor in Sunnyside, a similar project in Calgary’s inner-city also spearheaded by community residents but taking a more conventional approach, has taken nearly a decade to materialize.

These tactical interventions have also helped inform other city-led improvements for the community’s main streets, such as the 1st Avenue NE Streetscape Master Plan, which aims to improve the pedestrian and cycling experience and connect Bridgeland’s amenities, including Flyover Park, with the Bow River Pathway.

But ultimately, the BRCA did more than transform an empty space into a vibrant community hub—the efforts of the community also helped empower a young generation of city-builders.

“I think we definitely learned a lot about what we can actually do to change our communities,” Bazay says. “And if more students could get involved with projects like this, I think that would be really great for the community.”

 

 

About Ximena González

Ximena González is a freelance writer and editor based in Calgary. Her work has appeared in The Sprawl, The Tyee and The Globe and Mail.

 


 

This contribution from Ximena González is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

Park People Ten Years Out: A Reflection and a Look Forward

This contribution from Ken Greenberg is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.


Parks have a remarkable capacity to enhance the city, connect communities, improve the quality of life for citizens of all ages, overcome social isolation and loneliness and provide access to the healing properties of nature. When people come together around their parks they increase social capital and develop deep roots in their communities, strengthening networks and overcoming polarization by directing attention and resources to underserved areas and populations. One critical question has been, how to meet an ever-expanding demand for park space as urban populations grow and intensify. The key demand of city residents across Canada, expressed over and over in community meetings about intensifying development, is the call for more and improved parks and open space as part of an expanded public realm. This is the dilemma. How can Canadian cities get ahead of the intense development curve to shape a dynamic and growing city around a forward-looking program for expanding their network of parks? Another critical question revolves around how to ensure that all areas of the city and in particular disadvantaged neighbourhoods that lack meaningful park space are well served and treated equitably. In some cases, while there are open spaces that may appear as green on a map, they lack amenities and are hard to access for much of the population, poorly related to people’s daily lives. When Covid-19 burst on the scene in 2020, if anything it functioned as a ‘particle accelerator’ highlighting deficiencies and vulnerabilities and in many cases pushing us to do things we were already trying to do more rapidly and nimbly. Among other things, it has put an intense spotlight on our need for parks as a vital release from our forced confinement. What follows are some thoughts on where the lessons of this moment might take us in the next decade. In dozens of cities around the world, we are seeing an irrepressible demand for safe and accessible outdoor space and people have been taking to their parks like never before. The park has become Canada’s version of the Italian piazza, our essential shared commons. I see it in my neighbourhood in Toronto, where every available park space has become an intensely used outdoor living room for all ages late into the evening hours and even in winter. This intensified use of our parks is a reflection of the desire to be outdoors while respecting physical distancing, but it is also revealing an entirely new way of seeing and using the city and being with each other and as we experience this change in our lives, the momentum is unlikely to be reversed post-Covid. The ‘improvised’ shift is dramatically accelerating a movement that was already underway. On the one hand, an increasing desire for urban living was already leading to a greater need for shared public space. Meeting this need in traditional ways was thwarted by high land costs for acquiring traditional parks. The need for more space was accompanied by a change in how we use that public space and the kinds of experiences we seek, more fluid and interconnected, leading to new forms like linear “greenways” reflecting the shift from auto-dependent lifestyles to active movement — cycling and walking.     Covid 19 raised the ante. It begs the question of what our next public spaces will be as we continue to evolve into great and densely populated cities. The current moment offers some clues. It is not only about the quantity of public open space — in conventional planning terms we were focused on the square metres of parkland per inhabitant within a given radius — and while this is important, it is actually more important to focus on the quality and usefulness of that space and how it enhances our lives. We are now seeing dramatically how public space is not a frill or a non-essential “nice to have.” A generously endowed and welcoming network of public space offers significant benefits to public health, both physically and mentally. We were already in the midst of a public health crisis, exacerbated by sedentary lifestyles where an overreliance on the automobile and a tendency to spend long hours in front of screens has produced an epidemic of obesity as well as increases in diabetes and heart disease — especially alarming among children. This health crisis puts a premium on public spaces where people of all ages can get out and participate in active pastimes, from simply walking and cycling to a whole range of year-round sports and athletic activities close to where they live and work, making these health-promoting activities part of their daily life routines. Betsy Barlow Rogers the founder of the Central Park Conservancy, presciently commented that “as the city becomes more park-like, the park becomes more city-like”. In other words, a fusion as the hard boundaries are breached. The entire city can become greener and more park-like and connected for people on foot and on bicycle. Fostering residents’ ability to move around relatively freely and experience more of the city this way will help to break down the perceived barriers between neighbourhoods and districts as flows become more continuous. The elements of the public realm that serve as green links between areas will play a vital role in helping to make the city feel like a seamless whole. In this spirit, London has declared itself an entire National Park City. With time, it can be anticipated that the examples of connection that we are creating ‘on the fly’ today will become the rule. With the shift to a more expansive sense of a park-like public realm, a new liberating “reading” of the city will emerge, no longer orienting itself only or primarily by highways and major arterials but increasingly by connected networks of common space serving as guideways throughout the city. When we look at the city through fresh eyes, this reopens the question of what constitutes a park. Putting together all the pieces of the public realm — laneways, street redesign, ravines, hydro corridors, rail lines, stormwater management systems, flood-proofing plans, and transportation initiatives, a vastly expanded public realm can emerge, one that addresses many of the city’s current deficiencies. This new realm will be different, both in scale and kind. Rather than discretely bounded public spaces carved out of a grid of street blocks — parks and squares — this new kind of public space has the potential to become the fully continuous, connective tissue of the urban fabric itself. This more expansive idea of the entire cityscape as a landscape, where flows become more organic and seamless in some ways gets us back to an indigenous pre-colonial sense of the land we inhabit as a generous shared “commons,” no longer hard-edged and hemmed into defined boundaries. Capitalizing on this expanded perspective of what a park is and can be will be the emerging agenda for the next decade, and Park People will play a vital role in shaping that agenda. For the past decade, Park People has been advocating for enabling parks to reach their full potential, by opening up to more community-initiated life and activity, making more use of volunteers, running local cafes, food stands, and community gardens, bringing more sources of funding and sweat equity and engaging underserved communities.       When Park People was founded in 2011, I was privileged to serve on its Board, and later my wife, Eti served on the Board as well. Park People, with its highly talented and passionate staff, quickly became a meeting place for those who cared about parks, linking park groups from across Toronto who were unaware of each other’s existence. Its role was part lobbying, part networking, part sharing experience, and overall gaining strength in numbers in dealing with city hall. Soon city staff and politicians also began to see Park People as an essential ally and a conduit to local communities. That was how it started, but who could have imagined how far Park People would come in the following years. The first five years were dedicated to connecting and supporting Toronto’s robust network of community park groups, park professionals, non-profit groups and funders. But as Park People continued to grow, other cities across Canada were paying attention and expressed their own needs for an organization and network to support their work in parks. So in 2017 Park People launched its National Network at its first National Conference in Calgary. Now, in 2021, as Park People celebrates its tenth anniversary, the Park People Network is made up of 850 park groups in 46 Canadian cities, in every Canadian province. There are 30 staff across Canada with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The board is national and includes many dedicated park champions, city builders and leaders. Park People’s Canadian City Parks Report, now in its third year, is Canada’s only report on the trends and challenges facing city parks. A range of innovative programs supports programming in underserved communities, creative park projects and events, and community engagement across Canada. Several park initiatives manifest what Park People calls “the power of parks” and will be profiled in this series marking the organization’s ten-year anniversary.

As these examples attest, the prospects for innovation in park development and stewardship in Canada are very promising. A strong foundation has been laid in the past ten years by Park People, identifying needs as well as opportunities, mobilizing community resources and stimulating Canadian cities to act. In the process, new horizons have been opened up. It will be inspiring to experience these remarkable new park spaces and see what comes next.

 

 

About Ken Greenberg

 

Ken Greenberg is an urban designer, teacher, writer, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto and Principal of Greenberg Consultants. He is a recipient of the Order of Canada and served on Park People’s Board of Directors for eight years and played an integral role in establishing the organization.

 


 

This contribution from Ken Greenberg is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.

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