How parks can help address social exclusion
Feeling alone, without support, is a rising trend even in the most densely populated urban centres. How can our parks and public spaces play a role in reducing social exclusion among our most marginalized? We take a close look at Montreal’s Parole d’excluEs to find some answers.
Social exclusion can happen to anyone. A sense of being alone, without support, is a rising trend even in the most dense urban centres. But it’s more prevalent in less affluent neighbourhoods where limited access to education, poverty and mental health issues take a toll on people’s wellbeing. People lose self-confidence and become discouraged from taking initiative – the mental barriers that present the biggest obstacle to getting people involved.
In developing programming that meets community needs, Parole d’excluEs has reimagined and revitalized the interconnected courtyards of 16 midrise buildings in Montreal North with four more to go. Here are some of the things that they do—and lessons that they have to pass on vis-à-vis reducing social isolation among marginalized people.
Getting people on board starts with meeting needs
It’s particularly challenging to get people who experience poverty, mental illness or cultural barriers to engage in outdoor programming because oftentimes their basic needs are not yet met. Parole d’excluEs begins assessing residents’ needs at community drop-in spots in each neighbourhood where they work: a social housing apartment rented from SHAPEM (Société d'Habitation Populaire de l'Est de Montréal). There they provide activities, a place to meet and speak out, where people can come for coffee, cook together, or just drop in and say hi. They help point people to social services agencies that can assist them in specific ways and more importantly, they build projects to improve their living conditions. The friendly, undemanding atmosphere of community spots builds trust and confidence and the people who attend help spread the word. When Parole d’excluEs has an outdoor event, people that drop in on a regular basis are more eager to join in and enthusiastically share the event with friends and neighbours.
Let participants shape programming
In 10 years of transforming litter-strewn, paved spaces into verdant courtyards, Parole d’excluEs staff have learned the importance of involving community members in programming. People create a life around the space, so it must suit their sensibilities and needs. In working with North Africans, for example, they have learned to create programming during Ramadan that involves gardening but not eating, since many participants are fasting.
What are the needs of your community? Parole d’excluEs is into empowerment: if people want an orchard or a bee colony, they help build it. If they want a daycare, they help create it. The same thing goes for community gardens. When asked what they wanted in their courtyard, children invariably clamour for a soccer pitch. But since space is limited, Parole d’excluEs achieved a happy compromise with a running path that twined through the garden, complete with obstacles—a bit of a parcour track.
When people have a say in what they create, they get more engaged.
When something that Parole d’excluEs organizers and participants have planned and prepared for comes to fruition, it’s a cause for celebration. Planting trees, for example, is most often concluded with a barbeque or a picnic and festivities. For many of those involved, it’s a big deal! Not only in the transformation of the community, but also for themselves. It’s an accomplishment for themselves and a positive transformation of their neighbourhood. That's cause to celebrate!
Delegate, delegate, delegate
Taking care of 16 buildings is obviously a huge responsibility. Parole d’excluEs pays several local residents for 10 hours of courtyard upkeep per week. It helps lighten the load, provides economic benefit and helps build people's skills. One-off tasks are typically accomplished on a volunteer basis. But whether money changes hands or not, delegating responsibility to community members gives them a increased sense of ownership over the space.
It’s important to step back and reassess your program as it matures. Is the composition of the neighbourhood changing? Are there enough highly involved participants to move beyond planting trees to creating, planting and caring for a vegetable garden? Step back and reassess in an honest, objective way.
As a sense of community and belonging grows, the community begins to act more autonomously. When a woman moved into an apartment in one of the buildings and people discovered that she had nothing in it—no bed, no linen, no furniture—participants got together to help her. Now, when they see that someone doesn’t have enough to eat, they will give them home grown veggies or cook for them.
Public spaces like courtyards and parks are perfectly suited to people working and playing together. People start conversations and creates the bonds that help banish social exclusion, one individual at a time.
“We are constantly assessing where we are at. To see if you are still in balance with community needs, you need a high degree of openness and honesty. It’s easy to get wrapped up in program details.”Katherine Jarno