Parks and the creation of social capital

I had a friend in university who would pass the same person each day. Their schedules just matched up so they walked by each other at the same time in the same spot. It got to the point where they would nod hello or say hi to each other—their only interaction. My friend called this person her “vortex friend” and I’ve since become obsessed with the importance of vortex friends for making us feel like we’re part of a community.

I thought about this anecdote while reading the Toronto Foundation’s ground-breaking research report into Toronto’s social capital, which examines the levels of group trust, civic connection, social networks, and local agency in Toronto. It’s a fascinating look into our city and provides some interesting intersections with research that we’ve done here at Park People into the social impacts of parks.

In our Sparking Change report from 2016, we spoke with park volunteers, non-profit leaders, and city staff from municipalities in the US and Canada who were doing hands-on work in local parks in underserved neighbourhoods to better understand the social impacts of that work.

Our research found that engaging in local parks can help create a sense of shared ownership, increase civic engagement, reduce social isolation, and provide a place for people to meet across difference. All, by the way, important elements of increasing social capital as detailed in the Toronto Foundation report. Parks achieved this, largely, because they provide a way for people to meet their neighbours—to build connections with people, including those different from them in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic status, or race and ethnicity (what the Toronto Foundation report calls “bridging capital”).

The power of just saying hello

One of the interesting things we found when reviewing the academic literature around social connections was the importance of the casual connections in our lives, even if it’s knowing someone just enough to say hello. As we wrote in our Sparking Change report:

The casual interactions between people in parks—a simple hello, nod, or wave of the hand—are small but powerful. The results of these interactions—what some researchers call “weak ties”… can lead to greater feelings of safety, social support, and reduced feelings of social isolation. The creation of these ties contributes to social capital—the social connections, trust, and support that are important not only for strong, healthy communities, but also for developing networks that can link people to opportunities, such as jobs.

While the Toronto Foundation report doesn’t explicitly use the term “weak ties,” it does highlight how critical knowing your neighbours can be.

It turns out knowing your neighbours is super important—and not just for borrowing that cup of sugar—but for fostering a higher sense of trust, engagement, social network, and belonging. For example, over half of those surveyed who said they know their neighbours rated their sense of belonging as strong, while only six percent of those who don’t know their neighbours did the same. That’s a big gap.

Park as social infrastructure

As we always say at Park People, parks are not simply patches of grass, but critical pieces of social infrastructure in our cities that can help fuel communities that are more socially connected.

The park as venue for social connection is particularly critical in a city as rich and dense in high-rise towers as Toronto—both in our downtown and the inner suburbs.

As the Toronto Foundation report points out, people who live in single-detached dwellings (houses) are much more likely to know their neighbours than those of us who live in high-rise apartment buildings. We know at Park People that providing a great, well-maintained park nearby with amenities and programming that draws people out and gives them a reason to stay, can help us meet our neighbours, even if we live 30-storeys up in a box in the sky.

Not all parks are created equal

Of course, the social benefits of parks don’t just happen because you have a park nearby. As with almost all things, there is an equity lens that needs to be applied. Our own literature review found that the quality of a park (how well maintained it is), the amenities provided (how it meets our needs) and the programming in that park (how engaging it is) is critical in encouraging people to not just come out to a park, but interact with others.

That’s why so much of our work focuses on distributing the benefits of high quality, engaging parks beyond the high-profile parks, often downtown, that already achieve a lot of them.

We do this through our Sparking Change program (named after the research we did), where we provide capacity building and micro-grants to those living in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas in Toronto to help them animate their local park. But we also do this through programs like Arts in the Parks, where we work with the Toronto Arts Council to bring arts programming to parks outside the downtown core, and our own TD Park People grants, where we fund small community events in parks in five different Canadian cities.

So the next time you’re out in the park, be sure to nod hello, and know that you’re doing your part to make your community feel a little more socially connected.

Food in parks: why it’s a winning combination

“Food and parks go together like a horse and carriage.”  That’s how my dialogue with Wayne Roberts, Canadian food policy analyst and writer, began. As Roberts, former head of the Toronto Food Policy Council, starts talking about farmers markets, bake ovens, street food, community gardens and family picnics, his eyes light up with tantalizing possibilities.

We’re struck by the possibilities as well. In fact, Park People’s Sparking Change report, a playbook for how to catalyze social change in parks, specifically highlights how well food and parks go together. The report echoes Roberts when it states the belief that: “food is one of the most effective ways to bring people together in public space.”

Informal intersections between food and parks is what has Roberts most excited. He recalls a visit to Japan where he encountered families, casually picnicking under cherry blossoms. This kind of porous boundary between public and private space is, in Roberts’ opinion, the most impactful way food can play a role in parks.


Roberts sees four key ways the connection between food in parks is most powerful.

Build Social Capital:

If you saw the film Citizen Jane, you understand the difference between a fear-based and hope-based orientation to public space. Jacobs once said:

“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts… Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all.”

Roberts absolutely agrees with Jacobs’ assessment. Growing, making, and sharing food in parks provides opportunities for people to build trust with neighbours. Casual encounters build the social fabric of communities. Having the opportunity to break bread with neighbours in the park can lead to a friendly conversation which can, in turn, lead to borrowing a cup of sugar, a potluck dinner, or someone to call on when your kid is locked out of the house. Sometimes, it’s the start of a local volunteer park group. As the Sparking Change report says, community dinners “are one of the most reliable ways to provide a comfortable, inviting space for people to meet each other.”

 Share Valuable Lessons:

To put it mildly, when I eat at my desk, I’m not thinking about anyone else. I’m simply shoveling food into my mouth. But as Roberts suggests, a convivial orientation to food provides people with invaluable lessons that are hard to access anywhere else. As Roberts says: 

“When we eat together, we learn how share, look after one another, respect public space, be polite be social and engaged.”

These lessons don’t just help us at the dining table. They’re critical social skills that impact every aspect of our work and personal lives. They help us be better humans to one another.

Healthy Eating:

The biophilia hypothesis suggests that people have an innate, biological need to connect with nature. As Roberts puts it, nature simply makes us more relaxed and less stressed. It’s a physiological fact that’s been proven time and again. Today, because we live in dense cities, we often eat in a state of acute stress, a fact that has an impact on our health. In fact, many scientists believe many of our modern physical and mental health ailments are caused by nature deficit disorder.

Parks can, as Roberts says, “offset” many of these issues by providing people with places to be relaxed and experience food in a way that makes them less likely to rush, and more likely to digest and reap the benefits derived from their food.  Today, when 20 percent of all American meals are eaten in the car and 40 percent of Canadians are eating lunch at their desks, a family picnic is not just good for social cohesion, it’s good for your health.

Local Economy:

Parks provide access to economic markets that might not otherwise be available. For example, the Thorncliffe Women’s Committee, a group highlighted in the Sparking Change report, runs a weekly bazaar during the summer, where newcomers, many of whom are women, have an opportunity to sell their cultural foods and make a profit.


As Roberts emphasizes:

“Using food to give people access to local economies not only provides a way for people to build skills and ladder to better quality of life, it also helps money stay within a local community.”

Local economies are simply more resilient economies. Supporting small start-up entrepreneurs is just another way that parks and food go together.


So, how can you take these points and act on them in your own park? Here are a few ideas to get you started:


Lonely? Head to your local park

When I first moved to Toronto, I didn’t know many people. I found myself wandering out of my apartment day after day that first summer and plopping down in various parks around the city. Being in a park relaxed my mind, but placing myself amongst the energy of the people around me also helped me feel more connected to my new home.

Turns out I’m not alone in seeking out parks to make me feel less alone.

A new survey produced by CARP, a national organization that advocates for the health and vibrancy of people as they age, found that living near a park had a huge effect on reducing feelings of loneliness.

As Wanda Morris, VP of CARP, wrote of the survey in the National Post:

“The most intriguing result from the survey was the effectiveness of parks in reducing loneliness and social isolation. Even when we controlled for socioeconomic status, green space mattered. A lot. In statistical terms, the relationship between avoiding loneliness and living near a park was four times greater than the relationship between avoiding loneliness and having children.”

That’s pretty astounding. But it also gels with what we’ve seen at Park People in our own work and research about why people love and get involved in parks.

For example, when we surveyed park friends groups—volunteer-led groups caring and animating local parks—and asked them why they volunteered their time, we found that the second most popular reason (after spending time in nature, of course) was to meet neighbours and build social connections.

And combatting loneliness and social isolation was one of the key impacts we found in our Sparking Change research, which looked specifically at the benefits of park engagement in underserved neighbourhoods. Many of the people we spoke with at the community level told us they first got involved because they wanted to create opportunities for social connection in their community—for the park to become a hub.

Reaping the benefits of a park’s social environment doesn’t just happen though. It takes easy access to a park (a 10-minute walk is good), and the right mix of amenities and structured and unstructured programming to provide a platform for social connections.

Research has shown, for example, the importance of amenities like playgrounds and dog parks for social interaction as it gives parents and dog owners reason to chat with each other. But programming, like music events, community picnics, and farmers’ markets, is also important in encouraging people to not only stay in the park for longer periods of time, but actually talk with people.

All of this has huge equity implications. If people have less access to green space in their neighbourhood, they are automatically shut out of the positive wellbeing benefits of living near a park. And if they live near a park, but that park offers little in terms of the amenities or programming that people actual want, then that too can result in a disadvantage.

This last point was highlighted in some of the interviews we did for Sparking Change from residents and agency workers in some of Toronto’s tower communities—neighbourhoods characterized by large towers surrounded by open space mainly outside of the downtown core.

Whether it was Rexdale, Thorncliffe Park, or Flemingdon Park, community members spoke about the vital importance of improving and animating the green spaces in their community in order to bring people together and create a shared space that could act as that “hub.” This meant connecting with residents to brainstorm programming like small festivals, organize programming specifically for older adults and youth, advocate for new amenities (like a tandoor oven), and bring people together over sharing food and tips at a community garden.

Because having a green space nearby is good, but having one nearby that you love is even better. See you in the park.

For more information, read our Sparking Change report and our literature review.



The Benefits of Getting Out of your Park Comfort Zone

Toronto is a big city made up of many distinct neighbourhoods. For most of us, our lives generally revolve around local friends, businesses, and the public spaces that are close to home. Travelling to other neighbourhoods, however, offers new perspectives on what’s working in other places and opens up new possibilities for enhancing the familiar places we frequent on a regular basis.

This is the core principle behind the tours we offer through the TD Park Builders program which encourages community engagement and animation of vital community green space through micro-grants for Toronto’s underserved neighbourhoods.

The tours are opportunities for people working hard to transform their parks to witness park efforts in other neighbourhoods.

Our latest TD Park Builders tour was to downtown Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park. This infamous park has probably received more global media attention than any other Toronto Park. The Project for Public Space called Dufferin Grove “More like a big backyard.”

We knew we had taken some of the TD Park Builders out of their comfort zone when a group from Friends of Chester Le Park inquired whether they were Mississauga. Once we got our bearings straight, the visit opened everyone’s eyes to new possibilities for their parks.

Warming Up to The Bake Oven:

Eighteen Toronto parks have public bake ovens. Dufferin Grove’s bake oven was among the first, built in the summer of 1995. CELOS (stands for Centre For Local Research into Public Space) which collaborated with the City to bring the bake oven to the park, is so entrenched in bake ovens that it runs a website dedicated to sharing information about public bake ovens. Spacing Magazine awarded Jutta Mason, CELOS’ administrator, the 2001 Jane Jacobs prize and called the bake oven: “the hallmark of community revitalization for the Dufferin Grove Park community.”


Naheed, coordinator, Thorncliffe Action Group (TAG) bakes scones with Dale from Montgomery Inn

The TD Park Builders experienced the magical impact of the public bake oven at key points of throughout the day-long tour.

The morning started with fresh scones with jam; lunch was an “all-hands-on-deck” DIY pizza making session prepared by tour members. The experience of enjoying food made in the park cannot be underestimated. It made the park feel like a cozy kitchen with everyone gathered around the table. Also, the collaborative experience of helping to make and then share a collaborative meal creates both personal efficacy and community connection. The people who felt and experienced the bake oven left with a profound understanding of what elements like these bring to parks and communities.

Sitting in The Shade:

Jutta Mason, CELOS’ Administrator doesn’t take the matter of seating lightly. She tells the group when her mother first visited the park she told Jutta, “people need places to sit.” Jutta instinctively understood that what she really meant was older people need places to sit. Dufferin Grove now has a large shaded nook surrounded by gardens and shade where people of all ages can choose from several park benches.


The shady picnic benches were the ideal spot for 20+ TD Park Builders to gather and listen to Jutta share the history of the park and pass along gems of wisdom from her many years dedicated to this work and community. The park benches gave tour members respite from the hot August temperatures and gave us all a comfortable place to gather and socialize.

You could easily imagine any number of community meetings, philosophical discussions or  family celebrations taking place around this cluster of benches.

Simple features like Dufferin Grove Parks’ benches make it clear how important it is to have well-considered seating.

Getting Animated with Art

Dufferin Grove Park has long been a hotbed of creativity. The park has been Clay & Paper Theatre‘s performance space since 1994. Every year, the group hosts Night of Dread which culminates into a neighbourhood parade of that they describe as “our private and collective fears through the darkened streets of Toronto.” For the tour,  Dufferin Grove invited several artists to the park to share their work with TD Park Builders, including Clay & Paper Theatre, Cooking Fire TheatreArt in the Park and Meredith Thompson, an incredible tap dancer who performed on a picnic bench and had all of us grinning ear-to-ear. A question that came up again-and-again was: “How can I do this kind of art in my park?” Of course, it’s not a simple process or journey, but eyes were opened to the possibilities of bringing different kinds of artistic expression to public spaces.



Meredith Thompson performs a tap routine on a picnic bench

We encourage you to get outside your park comfort zone. One of the easiest ways to do this is to pick a park event and in a new part of the city. Visit to find one that suits you. If you’d like to know more about Dufferin Grove,be sure to check out  Dufferin Grove Park as a neighbourhood commons, 1993 to 2015.

Many, many Thanks to Dufferin Grove and to Jutta Mason for hosting the event. As always, thank you to TD Bank Group for providing TD Park Builder Grants micro-grants that support our Sparking Change initiative.



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


When Parks Become Living Rooms

This article was written by Adriana Stark. Adriana was a summer student at Park People and continues to work as an intern as part of her work at University of Toronto’s Urban Design program.

This summer I had the pleasure of attending several Moonlight Movies, a series of free film screenings hosted by Park People in parks outside of the downtown core. This program, part of our Sparking Change initiative, highlighted one of parks’ unique qualities: they are places where we can build a sense of home.

When we talk about healthy neighbourhoods, we know that it’s crucial for people to know their neighbours; terms like ‘social capital’ and ‘social cohesion’ have become sort of buzzwords. What gets less attention are the connections people form with their neighbourhoods themselves, what’s known as place attachment.

Certainly, social attachments and place attachments are interconnected. Person-to-place bonds are often formed concurrently with neighbour-to-neighbour relationships, as socializing with others helps us to forge the memories and meanings we associate with particular places. When we’ve accumulated experiences and feelings in a particular place, we, in turn feel more ‘at home’ there. At Moonlight Movies, I saw this in action: people building memories with each other and in turn building relationships with their parks.

When we’ve accumulated experiences and feelings in a particular place, we in turn feel more ‘at home’ there. At Moonlight Movies, I saw this in action: people building memories with each other and in turn building relationships with their parks.

Moonlight Movies quickly became a familiar rhythm. Families would start to trickle in, each claiming a patch of grass for their picnic blankets and camping chairs. From there, parents, grandparents and older siblings could enjoy Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation hosted preshow activities like live music, or tai chi lessons, while the littler ones would run off to join in soccer tournaments, trivia contests, or face-painting.

Chatting with the preshow crowd often felt like mingling at a giant family reunion. At Cedarbrook Park, a gentleman offered me a handful of his caramel corn, but I was quickly pulled away by a young girl eager to introduce me to each member of her prized beanie baby collection. At Centennial Park, a grandmother gushed about how excited she was that her daughter and grandkids had traveled in from Brampton to see the Lego Movie.


Centennial Park 

However, if these were truly to be family reunions, they would be the most diverse families I’ve seen. At each Moonlight Movie, I met people from all over the world, many of them newcomers. In fact, at our Parkway Forest Park event, Park People’s National Network Manager, Natalie, met a family who had only been in the country for 2 weeks! Building a sense of home takes on entirely new meaning the context of recently arrived Torontonians, as parks become footholds where families can begin to put down roots in their new city.


Parkway Forest Park

When the sun was almost down, all the kids would return to their families, exhausted, and finally the movie would begin.

As families turned their eyes to the big screen, I watched parks become living rooms. It was an intimate sight: heavy-lidded kids curled up next to their brothers and sisters, parents’ clasped hands hanging between their camping chairs, and all of these families huddled together with their picnic blankets practically overlapping. As an on-looker I felt almost bashful, as if I was peering into the windows of a dozen family homes all at once. And at the same time, I felt inspired: I was watching people connect with their neighbourhood in new ways, and it was nothing short of magical.

Special Thanks to our partner: City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation for hosting the Moonlight Movie pre-shows and helping us make the movie nights such a success.

Also, thanks goes out to our Media Sponsor The Little Paper and our Supporter Ontario Trillium Foundation.


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


Exploring the Social Impacts of Parks in Underserved Neighbourhoods

Parks are often touted for their environmental benefits, whether helping clean our air, mitigate the effects of climate change, or support the rich biodiversity necessary for a healthy ecosystem. They’re heavily promoted as tools for improved mental and physical health, providing places for people to recharge and exercise. And they’re also cited as economic drivers, boosting property values around their edges, for better or worse.

But the social and community benefits of parks are less talked about—perhaps because it’s more difficult to tease out benefits that are usually very personal and hard to measure—even though we may intuitively understand that parks are important tools for community development.

This is especially true in underserved communities that include newcomers and people living on lower incomes where immediate local spaces tend to take on more importance. Much ink has been spilled on the High Lines and Millennium Parks out there, but much less has been written about the local parks that are so important in communities outside of glitzy downtown neighbourhoods.

Through our new research report, Sparking Change, we hope to do that. The report, which links to our grassroots work in parks in underserved neighbourhoods, will explore the social and community impacts that emerge when residents in underserved communities are engaged in park revitalization projects.

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TD Park Builders Community Gardens Tour

At Park People, we’ve seen firsthand the incredible changes that can result from people becoming more deeply involved in park revitalization and animation projects, transforming their neighbourhood parks into outdoor community hubs. In particular, we’ve worked closely with many of Toronto’s underserved communities, mostly in the inner suburban areas, providing tools, resources, and support to resident-led groups made up of dedicated volunteers doing amazing things in their local parks.

While we’ve observed many positive benefits from these projects, we wanted to better understand the social and community impacts of this work and explore the strategies needed to support them.

While there is some research already that looks at the social and community benefits of parks for people in lower income and newcomer communities, this research mainly focusses on the benefits residents get when parks are physically improved. For example, if a park has more trees does it also see more social activity?

What’s lacking is an understanding of the importance of residents becoming more deeply engaged in an ongoing way—through a Park Friends group, for example—and continually working in the park to make change.

There’s also been less of a focus on the importance of programming—the events and activities that bring people together—in favour of capital improvements like new playgrounds and benches.


McGregor Park Community Festival

So far we’ve spoken with two dozen community organizers and neighbourhood volunteers who’ve been involved working on park revitalization and animation projects in their neighbourhoods in Toronto, but also other cities like Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, New York, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.

In Toronto, we focused on parks that we had been involved in what were in one of the City’s designated Neighbourhood Improvement Areas—or one of the former Priority Areas. These are communities that the City has identified for additional services and community support to address challenges such as poorer mental and physical health and lower incomes.

It’s been inspirational to listen firsthand to stories from people who’ve become involved in their local park and are doing amazing things for their communities. But these conversations have also highlighted key challenges, such as barriers to access from confusing and costly permits, that seem to be shared across cities.


We hope the report helps illuminate the importance of parks as tools for community development, especially in underserved communities, and what policies and supports can help further this goal. Stay tuned for more.

The Sparking Change Report is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and TD Bank Group.

Jake Tobin Garrett is Park People’s Manager of Policy & Research.


TIFF In Your Park in 2015

This summer Park People and TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) piloted TIFF in Your Park, an event series celebrating TIFF’s 40th anniversary, in collaboration with ten community groups across the GTA to bring movie nights to parks via Community Games Festivals. Each Festival consisted of a variety activities promoting healthy and active living as well as showcasing current park programming initiatives within each community. The summer long event series totalled over 3000 attendees and concluded on September 4th at Prairie Drive Park.

David Carey, Director of Government & Foundation Relations and Philanthropy at TIFF, noted the importance of teaming up with local partners for this project: “like Park People, we think that when communities get involved, parks get better. There’s something very special about watching a film outdoors; sharing a communal cinematic experience with your neighbours. In addition to acting as meeting places and recreation hubs, Toronto’s parks and green spaces make for pretty great cinemas too”.

To complete the Community Games Festivals experience, attendees were also given a staple movie snack – popcorn! For Joseph Villegas, owner of the Toronto Popcorn Company, it was important to be involved: “Toronto Popcorn Company is a business that was inspired by our dear city’s diversity. Being an immigrant myself, I am very fortunate to have been able to be given the opportunity to jump start a small business It’s our own little way of reciprocating the warmth and acceptance that this wonderful city has offered us”.

Overall, the program has received positive response throughout. In addition to providing local residents the experience of a new type of park programming, it also allowed them the opportunity to build a sense of community. Anthony Rampersad, a Community Leader of Scarborough Village, said: “Apart from looking at concrete walls and sitting at home all day we were able to experience engaging with the community, being outside enjoying nature and experience what the community has to offer. Having this event makes you understand who you are living next to. It gives you a connection. I feel being in a community of apartments it limits you because you cannot go and meet people and build relationships. This event does that.”

Finally, we would like to thank the Toronto Popcorn Company, Kernels Popcorn Limited, Toronto Foundation, Friends of the Games, and the Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF in Your Park returns in 2016. Stay tuned for details on how you can get your community involved by joining our mailing list.

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