Safety Audit in your Park

Resource | septembre 12, 2019

How do you create safe environments in parks?
Because parks are used by different people whose sense of safety may bump up against one another, the topic of safety is very complicated. What makes one group feel safe, may make another feel unsafe and unwelcome.

At its core, safety means inhabiting a predictable, orderly world that is somewhat within our control. After our basic physiological needs are met, the need for safety and security is a basic need for everyone.

How do you create safe environments in parks?

Because parks are used by different people whose sense of safety may bump up against one another, the topic of safety is very complicated. What makes one group feel safe, may make another feel unsafe and unwelcome.

We spoke to two community park groups who have faced safety challenges and are working hard to make their parks welcoming, inclusive, and safe places. Here’s what we learned.

  1. Community Voices First

    When a sexual assault happened in Graham Park in September 2017, the community surrounding the St. Clair West Neighbourhood in Toronto was devastated. People retreated from the park and laneway that was a common access point to the park.

    The park had experienced mounting safety concerns over many years and the sexual assault catalyzed the community members surrounding Graham Park to move into action. Feeling helpless in addressing this complex topic, their first step was to connect with Metrac, a non-profit that delivers innovative safety services in Toronto, including conducting safety audits for communities. As they describe, the goal of Metrac’s safety audit is to “improve the environment to make it safer, more inclusive and less threatening for users.”

    When Julian Back contacted Metrac, they set up a one-day training followed by a safety audit. The audit was open to everyone in the community and to any park users. Key government and park staff were also invited.

    The core of Metrac's safety audit process is a facilitated walk around the entire park, giving everyone a chance to reflect on their experiences and feelings of safety while at specific locations within the park.

    As Metrac points out, “lived experience informs the outcome of the audit.”

    To this end, Metrac strongly encourages groups to go the extra mile to ensure that people from different ages and backgrounds participate in the audit. This is anything but simple to put into practice. But, they encourage groups to  go beyond the general principles of good outreach to ensure a range of perspectives are welcomed and heard. A solid approach is working with community leaders who have the trust of the community. Providing them with some training and key messages to address any concerns will help ensure diverse representation.

    Even if there’s not a version of Metrac in your city, it’s critical to have a facilitated discussion about the challenges the park is facing. An experienced facilitator can make sure voices are respectfully heard and that no one group or individual feels like the “target” of the discussion, even if conflicting perspectives of the park emerged.

    For example, youth who gather on the picnic benches may justifiably feel unsafe when adults throw accusatory glances or make disparaging comments. On the flip side, the adults may feel unsafe when large groups of youth congregate on park benches. It takes careful facilitation to make it possible to recognize and acknowledge differing and conflicting perceptions of safety, but it is possible.

    “The safety audit is an opportunity for the community to learn how to better resolve conflict, together,” says Linda Frempong a safety audit Coordinator at Metrac.

    Another Toronto park group, Friends of Masaryk Park and Melbourne Parkette  formed to help improve conditions in the park which had been neglected for years and was in a horrible state of disrepair, including broken benches and playground equipment, dead trees and broken lights.

    Masaryk Park is in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, where people struggling with addiction live alongside the largest concentration of Tibetans outside of Asia. It’s also a community that is quickly gentrifying.

    Friends of Masaryk Park and Melbourne Parkette took concrete steps to get input from as many people in the community as possible.

    Very quickly, Susan Armstrong, the group’s founder, learned two valuable things:

    1. Approaching the challenges of the park through the lens of safety ensures improvements will move more quickly with the Municipality.
    2. Community members need to participate in the process since they know their park best and are at risk of feeling alienated by the very people who are trying to help.

    Armstrong kicked off the new Friends group by launching a petition asking the city to replace a broken-down play structure. The petition included pictures of the structure in a state of disrepair. The petition gave the park group a reason to connect to the community and to make it known that they were actively working to engage the city. They also communicated that a meeting in the park would follow the petition to discuss next steps.

    “The truth is, more affluent residents tend to be more vocal and therefore don’t leave a lot of space for the rest of the community,” says Armstrong.

    The Friends group addressed this challenge by decentralizing the input process by allowing people to share their views on potential changes in the places where they spent time. A small group of volunteers approached residents one by one to let them know of the potential changes to the park and to get their input. It is a great way for park groups to meet neighbours and to reach out to residents who you might not hear from. They also posted notices of the changes at the library, the community centre, the Community Health Centre, at a series of community meetings and of course, right in the park.

  2. Small changes make a huge impact

    Metrac’s 40-page report on Graham Park highlights numerous recommendations on improved lighting and visibility, the park’s features, the quality of maintenance and access to the park and the beautification of the park to create a space that is engaging and inviting. The report was shared with the Councillor and police

    Julian Back knows that it will take time to implement the changes and is confident that key structural changes will happen over time. But he also realized that quick wins would help build momentum for the park.

    One of the key recommendations from the report was to make the park entrance much more inviting. Previously, a park sign forced people to enter the park through a narrow, roughly paved entryway that made them feel unsafe. Now, the entrance to the park has been significantly opened up by moving the sign and electrical box and the pathway has been repaved. Because the park’s entrance is ostensibly the doorway to the park, the change made a significant impression on the community.

    Another finding was that the alleyway at the back of the park was tagged with graffiti, making the view into the park uninviting and ominous.

    With funds from a community-driven crowdfunding campaign and the support of the city, local community members Julian Back and Kim Lesperence engaged with Wall Expressions and Street Art Toronto and 40 walls and garages were painted with vibrant artwork--all in a single weekend. It was a painting blitz which resulted in a vibrant “outdoor art gallery.”

    Julian and Kim invited the whole community to join in a celebration in the Graham park while the painting process took place. The celebration helped launch the new murals which brought much-needed vibrancy to the park.

    Susan at Masaryk park drives home the importance of small changes home when she says:

    “Once residents see a few improvements they will take notice and start to view the park differently.”

    After the petition was submitted, the park’s play structure was replaced within 6 months. Next, the city removed a fence and dense shrubs and lowered a hill to improve sightlines and make the park feel more open and accessible from the street.

    Over the next 2 years, broken benches were removed and replaced, and finally, more garbage bins made a huge difference in getting garbage out of the park. A small but mighty way to make a difference.

    Susan’s experience has taught her that while it’s important to have a plan for changes to the park, you have to be willing to be flexible.

    “Keep asking the City nicely and stress the need for safety” she advises.

    Of course, Masaryk park still has a very long wish-list but an iterative process has benefits: people feel the history of the park is respected and they get to see how small changes impact park use.

  3. Animate, animate, animate

    Safety comes with getting more people to come to the park. Generally, a busy place is a safe place. This goes back to what Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street.”

    Masaryk park has a long history of collaborating with local organizations to animate the park. Greenest City, a local non-profit has a flourishing community garden, called HOPE community garden, in the park and they have partnered with Friends of Masaryk Park to host parties, art projects, potlucks in the park and provide support for the summer/fall Good Food Market.

    In addition Friends of Masaryk Park and Melbourne Parkette has collaborated with the local library to host kids book readings, sourced drums from the local Community Health Centre to run community-led drumming lessons, and worked with the Greenest City to host a Good Food Market in the park.

    The Friends of Masaryk Park also hosts their own programs in the park-like family pizza parties, a pumpkin parade, the annual 50 Cent kids book sale, movie nights, and splash pad Water fight nights.

    Susan’s advice is that it can literally take years for programs like these to catch on, so be patient and give programs time to grow and iterate.

    Since changes at Graham Park, Julian has seen more young children using the park and more summer camps use the park for activities. It’s the beginning of a long journey to restore a sense of safety within the community, but it’s already making a difference.