Why City Parks Matter
In Canada, 86 percent of the population lives in cities. City parks were once thought of as places to escape urban life. Today, they help define it, and are inextricably linked to our quality of life.
Parks have the potential to provide invaluable mental, physical and social health benefits to people who call cities home. They can also be places are in sync with the natural world, rather than hostile to it.
The powerful potential of Canada’s city parks is only beginning to be understood. What we do know shows that parks play a key role in making cities thrive.
Green spaces are important counter-forces against processes of environmental degradation and climate change that are often experienced most acutely in cities. Parks and their greenery help to clean the air, keep cities cool in warmer months, preserve essential natural ecosystems, and absorb stormwater runoff that could otherwise overwhelm city infrastructure. In addition to these direct environmental benefits, green spaces—especially when they form well-connected green corridors—encourage ecofriendly transportation choices by providing safe and pleasant alternative pathways for pedestrians and cyclists to get from place to place.
Making the Case:
- A review of international research on the environmental benefits of urban parks concludes that there is “strong evidence” that parks are “biodiversity hotspots” in cities worldwide.
- As part of a city’s natural system, parks perform important “ecological services” that some studies have translated into economic benefits. For example, a study of Toronto’s urban forest found that its total value was $7.1 billion dollars and included annual services like reducing energy costs for heating and cooling homes by $10.2 million annually.
- Park People’s Green City report argues that the public realm should be viewed as the deepest layer of urban infrastructure—green infrastructure—which should be established before roads, land subdivision, and building plans
Public Health Value
Parks make cities healthier and happier. Studies show that simply having access to green space is associated with higher levels of physical activity. Better yet, parks with varied amenities—like playgrounds, adult exercise equipment, and walking trails—and mixed programming—from organized sports to tai chi—invite everyone, from toddlers to seniors, to lead a more active lifestyle. Regular physical activity decreases risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. On top of the physical benefits, studies have shown that exposure to green space contributes to psychological restoration, improved mood, reduced stress and anxiety, enhanced cognitive abilities and attention, and stronger self-control. These benefits are especially important in cities, as urban living is associated with higher levels of stress and distraction, which can lead to mental fatigue.
Making the Case:
- One study found that green space can level health inequalities. Mortality rates in lower-income neighbourhoods with abundant residential greenery were found to be similar to those in higher income neighbourhoods. However, this was not true in less-green lower-income neighbourhoods, which were found to have considerably higher mortality rates than their more affluent counterparts.
- The physical health benefits of parks are especially crucial given that physical inactivity costs Canadian taxpayers an estimated $6.8 billion per year in healthcare expenses.
- Research indicates that proximity to natural environments is the best predictor of people’s physical activity, more so than proximity to community centres or indoor gyms.
Parks make neighbourhoods desirable places to live, work, and visit: they draw in residents, businesses, investors and tourists alike, giving an economic boost to the community. Cities with great parks have a competitive advantage in attracting high-skilled knowledge workers from across the world, as green spaces are increasingly appreciated as vital amenities for quality of life.
Some economic benefits are more directly experienced by community members. Parks can create jobs in construction, maintenance, programming, and community organizing, which can be especially critical in underserved, low-income neighbourhoods if local residents are hired. Creative community groups have initiated markets in the park that allow residents to earn a modest income by selling their homemade food and crafts. Even simple activities like volunteering with a local “Friends of” group or meeting new neighbours at a park event can introduce community members to new skills and networks that may enhance their access to job opportunities.
Parks are also associated with an impressive range of public savings:
- Parks make safer communities, reducing demand for fire and police services
- Parks boost public health, preventing diseases that are costly to the healthcare system
- Parks help the environment, reducing infrastructure and building maintenance costs that result from air pollution and stormwater management challenges
Making the Case:
- Parks boost adjacent property values by 5-20%, which can spark concerns about gentrification and displacement. This is the case in Portland, Oregon, where an old landfill is being converted to a 25-acre park, called Cully Park, in lower-income neighbourhood. To combat these concerns, the groups spearheading the initiative have partnered with local housing organizations working to build and maintain affordable housing to ensure the neighbourhood’s current residents will be able to remain there long after the park is complete.
- The Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee—a community group working in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood—organize a market in local R. V. Burgess Park where neighbourhood women, many of whom are immigrants or newcomers, sell their handmade goods. Read more parks’ role in building local economy in our Sparking Change report.
Parks are social spaces where we can get to know our neighbours, build a sense of belonging, and learn to understand each other better. Since they are free, open, and accessible, parks offer potential as community hubs where people of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities can come together. The social benefits of parks are especially valuable in underserved neighbourhoods—like Toronto’s inner suburban tower communities—where residents often lack adequate community spaces and live with higher levels of social isolation. Thoughtful programming can bring out a diversity of groups—from newcomers to youth to older adults—and facilitate meaningful intergenerational exchanges across socioeconomic divides. When parks become vibrant social spaces, the local community enjoys a ripple effect of positive externalities, including reduced crime, and a stronger sense of community, pride, hope, ownership, and agency amongst neighbours. When these benefits are realized, parks create communities that are more connected to each other, and to their neighbourhood. For more, read Park People’s Sparking Change report.
Making the Case:
- 62% of respondents in one UK study agreed that a context of “strong networks of relationships and support between people in a community” facilitates community well-being. The top strategies respondents recommended to achieve these networks related to “reclaiming the public realm,” which could include organizing events or rallying for improvements in a local park.
- Park features can be designed to reflect and celebrate a city’s culture and history, including those that have systematically been erased. For example, some parks in Canada incorporate gardens where traditional Indigenous plants and medicinal herbs are grown, such as Hillcrest Park in Toronto.
- Food-based park programming and amenities—like community gardens or bake ovens—can go a long way in bringing together diverse community members since food is universally enjoyed and facilitates conversation. Sharing traditional foods with people of different cultural backgrounds can also be a fun and rewarding way for people to learn about each other’s cultures. Read about how food supports community development in Park People’s Sparking Change report
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