A community-first approach to establishing your park group

The scariest time for community park groups is the beginning. When you’re just one person with a good idea about the potential of your park, there’s no knowing whether other people will ‘show up’ to make it happen. Faced with this possibility, Ana Cuciureanu parked her park dreams in the background, and gave her full attention to connecting with her community. How she did this, and the underpinning convictions behind her approach, are worth sharing.

Prioritize Community

After signing up for her City Councillor’s (Shelley Carroll) newsletter, Ana signed on to every event that came her way. In fact, she went out to ‘about’ 15 events in under three months. Ana found herself in knitting groups, ESL workshops, public events, library meetings, budget sessions and resident gatherings in every corner of her community. This whirlwind of community immersion shaped Ana’s vision of what her park, and park group could be.

“Make time to talk to people,” Ana says. “Not to poach them for your own purposes, but to authentically connect.” This was the first lesson she learned from attending a whirlwind of community gatherings. “I was a nobody and yet everyone invited me to every meeting and they were so transparent,” she says. Seeing this made Ana realize that her priority was connecting to the community. The park group, though still important, was secondary.

Be Open to Learning

In the community meetings she attended, Ana learned about her communities needs. The process wasn’t linear, but she emphasizes “no time is ever wasted time if you’re listening.”

In one meeting, Ana heard that seniors in her neighbourhood were advocating for transit because they couldn’t walk up a steep hill on Sheppard Ave. In another, she learned that the school environmental club needed access to outdoor space. Another showed her that activities like knitting engage newcomers because the activity doesn’t require access to a shared language.

Listening gave Ana clues that helped her form ideas about how she could best serve local seniors, kids, different language groups and a host of others through her park group. These nuances simply would not have been available to her had she not been present and listening wholeheartedly.

New Possibilities through Connectedness

Ana’s approach to partnership is the opposite of a transaction or business deal.  The question: “What do you need. How can I support you?” is the question that she consistently heard around the table at various meetings. She understands that this question helps eliminate hierarchy and helps people find the authentic places where there interests intersect.

Ana gives the example of walking through her park and seeing pockets of people hanging out together, but separated from others they don’t already know.  Ana always has a desire to pull groups together because that’s where magic happens. “If they get connected,” she says,” new possibilities are created that weren’t there before.” That’s her approach to partnership. New possibilities created through connections.

Ask “Who is Not There” and “Why”

When Jay Pitter spoke at Park People’s National Conference, she asked participants to always remind themselves to look around the table and ask: “Who is not there, and why.” This resonated with Ana who sees power in bringing people together in new ways and public space’s potential to offer creative solutions to existing challenges.

Ana gives the example of connecting to Toronto North Local Immigration Partnership (TNLIP), Working Women Community Centre, and Centre for Immigrant and Community Services. Meeting and engaging with these newcomer organizations helped Ana learn that in many cases, isolation keeps newcomers from accessing programs and services that are available to them when they first arrive in the community. Ana started to consider how the park could create a bridge between newcomers to the services they need.

The next group Ana is focused on connecting with is the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, just down the street from the park. She has recently received a grant to lead nature walks and workshops on using native plants found in the park as natural remedies. This will help connect the park and the community to this 40-year-old institution in the neighbourhood.

Authentic Curiosity is the Spark

In the last six months, Ana’s park group has grown to 7 committed core volunteers. A recent Arts in the Parks event brought out 250 community members. There’s no doubt that Ana’s approach brought returns. However, what’s most clear is that returns were not the real-end game in her whirlwind tour of community meetings. After five years living in her neighbourhood, Ana has established reciprocal trust, but also a sense of how the park group can serve the community. It’s a journey fuelled by Ana’s authentic curiosity to know her neighbours. As such, the possibilities are endless.

Roll Credits!

In true Ana style, she would like to acknowledge a celebrate many amazing people who have helped make Friends of Parkway Forest such a success. In my back-and-forth for this post, Ana always emphasized the people who have been working with her, every step of the way.  There’s important learning in Ana’s commitment to highlighting the people who have supported Friends of Parkway Forest. In short, make sure you take every opportunity to acknowledge the people who are with you on this journey. Now, let’s roll credits:

Mentor: Minaz Asani Kanji (Park People 🙂 )

Ali Abdelaly
Kiran Asrani
Jack Mar
Arleen Mar
Anne Butt
Radmila Rakas
Vahagn Stepanian
Officer Russ
Lubna Daniyal (Forest Manor School Parent Council Chair)

Alifia Yusuf (Forest Manor School Parent Council Chair)

Jawed Akhter (Forest Manor School – CICS)

Mark McKay (Parkway Forest Community Centre – Community Recreation Programmer)

Derek Vandervecht (Park Supervisor)

Sheeba Calvine (TNLIP)
Elmira Galiyeva (TNLIP)
Lucy Fitzpatrick (Working Women)
Diana Moran de Monges (Working Women)

Here’s Why Small is Beautiful

Two of Park People’s recent reports highlight the importance of starting out small when launching a community park project. In my life, when a theme reoccurs I tend to stand up and take notice. So, I went out in search of projects that demonstrate that “small is beautiful “when it comes to getting park projects rolling. This quest led me to two amazing park champions, each of whom recently received a grant from Park People’s TD Park Builders program.

I spoke to Jennifer Wellman, who is the founder of Friends of Henrietta Park,  and Althea Knight, who is bringing her model of mindfulness nature walks to Toronto’s Redwood Shelter. Both of these groups are recent recipients of Park People’s TD Park Builders grants.

Research Proves it: Small is Powerful

The benefits of starting small are clearly highlighted in our recent Sparking Change report which is essentially a playbook for how to maximise parks’ social impact. The report advises:

“Make small, strategic investments that will have an outsize impact…smaller investments of time and energy can go a long way towards galvanizing renewed interest in the park.”

This insight comes through again and again in the report. Sparking Change recommends: “It’s often simple, low-cost projects—yoga, a community mural, children’s outdoor art classes—that build confidence for something larger.”

Another of our latest reports, entitled Breaking New Ground, provides guidance to prospective park funders on how to make solid and sustainable investments in green spaces. One of the findings from the report and The Weston Family Parks Challenge is to: “use seed funding to build capacity and evidence of larger transformations.” The report echoes Sparking Change, but from a funder’s perspective:

“Sometimes a project idea is fantastic, but it might be too early to award a large, multi-year grant.”

Park People’s TD Park Builder micro-grants are ideal for early stage park initiatives like the ones highlighted below.

Starting Small takes Big Vision

Honouring Tree Wisdom

Althea Knight, Honoring Tree Wisdom, Photo Credit: Robert Huff

Jennifer Wellman started Friends of Henrietta Park during her maternity-leave and, as such, she had modest goals for her local park.

“I just wanted to meet some neighbors and cultivate some community spirit in the park. I saw it could use some love and I knew there was an influx of families that could use the park to connect with eachother.”

Jennifer started animating her park by running a couple of “tried and true” events including a park cleanup and a Pumpkin Parade. Both of these events were low cost and didn’t require her to “reinvent the wheel.” The success of these gatherings laid the groundwork for more further community investment and engagement.

Althea, who heads up Walking, Nature Appreciation, Mindfulness, Peer Support and Leadership (WNAMPSL) has (as her multi-faceted organisational name suggests) a big vision for her walking group concept, which aims to train vulnerable and underserved populations to lead mindfulness walks in their neighbourhoods and parks across the city.

Althea’s vision includes a robust walking and education program that will ultimately train vulnerable populations to lead walks that promote self-care and wellness through mindfulness practices, nature, and walking. That’s the long-term vision goal. However, in the immediate term, Althea secured a TD Park Builders grant to lead nature walks to foster mindfulness among women who are survivors of domestic abuse. It’s a start she’s grateful for.

Small is Foundation for Success:

Althea’s application to Park People’s TD Park Builders program was her very first grant proposal. As someone brimming with passion and a desire to make a difference, the grant proposal helped Althea clearly and concisely articulate what she wants to achieve with her program. Althea says that she was great at “writing 10 pages about my dream,” but that the TD Park Builders application process helped her put her vision “in terms anyone could understand and want to get behind.”

In the short time that it’s been in existence, Friends of Henrietta Park, has demonstrated the power of incremental growth. Soon after forming a Friends of Henrietta Park group, Jennifer and other community members noticed that a light in the alley adjacent to the park that had been out for “the longest time,” was suddenly repaired. This was the first clue that, as Jennifer puts it, “something was happening in Henrietta Park.”

Since then, the local councilor has become actively involved in the park and there have been clear indications that the park is being more loved. Jennifer notes that there’s

 “less garbage in the playground and more and more people in the neighbourhood have been using the park, ranging from families and their kids playing on the playground and pet-owners walking their dogs through the park.”

In fact, the park was recently approved for funding to upgrade the play structure and substantially improve the park’s lighting based on feedback from the community.

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Proposed park improvements for Henrietta Park

And, to think, it all started with a new lightbulb.

Needless to say, the momentum for the project has far exceeded Jennifer’s modest expectations. However, in retrospect, Jennifer acknowledges the value of starting small. “We didn’t apply for funding until we had some experience and were better able to tell out story.” Clearly, it’s an approach that’s had traction for Friends of Henrietta Park.

Small is Inviting:

When Jennifer started encouraging neighbours to get involved in Friends of Henrietta Park, her ask was manageable. While she wasn’t necessarily trying to be strategic, her approach is consistent with the fact that, particularly in the early stages, most volunteers prefer short-term opportunities to get involved. While most organizations want and need long-term commitment, it’s far better to offer people time-limited opportunities to volunteers who can grow their committment as the group evolves.

“I’m glad we didn’t go big right out of the gate. Keeping it small made it easier to attract new members. If we were too big, the time investment would seem daunting. Instead, we pulled people in based on their skills for particular projects. People are really willing to contribute that way.”

Althea had to learn the value of small, for herself. She laughingly calls herself a “recovering perfectionist” who, in the past, wouldn’t share her idea until it was perfectly polished.

“If I didn’t know how to perfectly articulate my idea, from beginning to end, I would often just keep it to myself. The external pressure to have the ‘right idea’ kept me from sharing and exploring how to include others on my journey.”

Today, Althea constantly musters up the courage to share her vision with others and is increasingly seeing the value in allowing others to “in” to help bring her idea to life. In fact, this willingness to put herself ‘out there’ led Althea to attend one of Park People’s workshops where she shared her idea with another TD Park Builder grant recipient from Friends of Parkway Forest who suggested she connect with Park People about a TD Park Builders micro-grant.

High Park Stroll

Photo Credit: Robert Huff

When Park People’s Manager of Outreach, Minaz, heard Althea’s big idea for mindful walking groups in nature, she knew Althea had a powerful vision:“Althea’s approach is really unique. The fact that she’s connecting the community to nature and working with vulnerable populations is so compelling.” However, Minaz emphasizes the importance of starting small:

“Often, when groups are applying for funding for the first time, they think they have to go big or go home. Althea has a fully formed vision that will serve her well. As a first step, a TD Park Builders grant will help WNAMPSL find its groove.

Althea says: “Doing this at a smaller scale keeps the program more manageable, both for me and for the participants.”

As someone who knows the perils of taking on too much, Althea appreciates having a manageable scope. “I don’t feel like I have to do it all.” In fact, Althea emphasizes that meeting Minaz and receiving this grant was a watershed moment. “For the first time, it became clear to me that I’m no longer alone.. There’s a community of people supporting my vision, work and me. I’m no longer walking alone.”

Cover Photo credit: Gabriel Gonzales 

Making Magic in Thorncliffe Park

I could tell you about the TAG Café, a café and a beacon that uses food and music to bring people and vibrant culture to Thorncliffe’s R.V Burgess park. I could also tell you about a community-build for the café that incorporated hand-woven panels of vibrant red, yellow, and orange fabric, creating a beautiful manifestation of a collaboration between Diasporic Genius, Thorncliffe Action Group (TAG) and ERA Architects, with funding from Park People’s TD Park Builder’s program. But instead, I’m going focus on something much more effusive–magic, and how it found it’s way into RV Burgess Park, and what we can learn to produce more magic in more community parks

Prioritize the Process:

“Artists know how to make something out of nothing,” says David Buchbinder, Artisitc Director of Diaporic Genius. David has applied an artist’s playful and open concept of creativity to the act of city building. When he first connected with Thorncliffe Park residents at a Creativity Centre in the East York Town Centre Mall, he trusted that they could access their own creative processes to reimagine a city that reflected their lived experiences. TAG members told their stories and engaged in mural-making, singing, drumming, dancing and crafts to bring those stories to life. The process of making and doing that was valued as an end in itself. There wasn’t an event in mind. There was just faith that a group of people could work together to create something that was theirs.

Treasure Diversity.

What TAG members know, their various lived experiences from their cultures of origin, are seen as rich and powerful sources of wisdom for reimagining Toronto’s public spaces. Cultural differences can be a source of conflict in creating park events. Diaporic Genius and TAG create connections across boundaries. This interculturality was made manifest in “cross-cultural” food featured at the TAG Café, but it started by valuing difference, right from the start. As Buchbinder says:

Toronto has the greatest population of diasporic peoples of any city; it is a microcosm of the world’s culture and wisdom. Now is the time to make the most of this unique gift, as we help reshape Toronto into a more liveable, engaged and connected city.

It’s the idea at the core of Diasporic Genius’ 21st Century Village Square framework which imagines new public spaces that embody and value the unique needs of different communities.

Listen More (and then more still)

What Diaporic Genius’ rootedness in storytelling really highlights is what it means to listen, and to feel heard. TAG members’ stories about conflict, celebrations, food ultimately led to the creation of the TAG Café and a Harvest Festival that welcomed 250 Thorncliffe Park residents to the park.  But before all of that, it started with listening to the community.  We know that parks best serve communities when community voices are built into for every stage of park and public space planning, design and programming.  Diasporatic Genius’ collaboration with TAG demonstrates that really listening creates not just impactful, but magical results.

The Power of Small: The TD Park Builders’ Community Gardens Tour

Conversations about parks often gravitate toward large-scale projects that transform big swaths of land. While big parks are indeed important, this summer I learned a valuable lesson about the power of small.

On a sweltering day, 30 recipients of the TD Park Builders grant program boarded a big yellow school bus with an ambitious goal of visiting five community gardens–from Scarborough to Rexdale.

Led by our Outreach Manager, Minaz, we visited The Access Alliance Rooftop Garden, Panorama Community Garden, Prairie Drive Community Garden, 1021 Birchmount Road TCHC Community Garden and Black Farmers and Growers Collective.

These visits  made it clear to me that community gardens deliver some of the highest returns per square foot than almost any park project you could name.

Here’s why:

1. Community Gardening Culture is a Learning Culture.

The TD Park Builders met for breakfast at Access Alliance, and, like many meetings, the day started with a round of introductions.

Without fail the grantees, each of whom run highly successful community gardens, said they were on the tour to learn from other members of the group and from the gardens on the tour.

One introduction involved a participant passing around a large basket of ripened tomatoes that would make any gardener gush with pride. Like the other grantees, this experienced gardener expressed her desire to learn more to make her garden better.

The open-minded and open-hearted curiosity I witnessed among the group reminded me why community gardens produce such a hearty bounty of social capital like building strong social ties and neighborhood cohesion. Community gardeners are linked by a limitless curiosity that far exceeds the square footage you’d find in even the biggest city park.

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2.  Community Gardening is an All-Ages Party:

One of the challenges Friends of Park groups face is serving many groups in a single space. The default is often to put up a play structure that serves children, but often not other age groups.

It’s hard to create parks that are meaningful for older people, and almost unheard of to create a space that is welcoming to both younger and older folks.

The TD Park Builders community garden tour demonstrated that community gardens are unique in their appeal to multiple demographics. We had in our midst a rare sight: teens talking to people their parents’ age, seniors mixing with kids their grandchildren’s age and every iteration in between.


While people generally agree on the value of bridging the age gap, it is extremely difficult to create intergenerational programming that delivers on that promise. As demonstrated on the tour, community gardens bring people of different ages together around a common interest that supersedes age limits.

3. Cultural Differences Meet Common Cause:

Many people have talked about the vital role community gardens play in supporting people who have experienced the traumas of displacement, such as new immigrants and refugees. However, few people have pointed out community gardens’ role in promoting interculturality.

The tour included several grantees whose first language is Mandarin. At one point in the tour, one of the hosts forgot to pause to allow for translation.

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Without hesitation, the English speaking members of the group stopped the presenter and asked: “Do you mind slowing down so this can be translated?”

For me, this was a glorious and telling moment when it was clear that members of the group valued inclusion above all. It’s was a small gesture that spoke volumes about their sensitivity to cultural diversity and their deep commitment to making knowledge accessible.

Let’s not forget, in a community garden, Chinese long beans grow alongside Jamaican callaloo.


Special thanks goes out to our tour guides and participants for an outstanding day. An extra special thank you to Hanbo Jie for translating throughout the tour.

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.


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