Celebrating Fall and Pumpkins during COVID-19

Pumpkin Parades started in Toronto in 2004. They’ve not only grown in popularity locally but have spread right across the country, landing in cities like Vancouver. Held on November 1st each year, the City of Toronto has historically provided free park permits and provided on-site pumpkin composting at the end of the night.

This year under the gloomy shadow of the second wave of COVID 19, the City of Toronto did not issue Pumpkin Parade permits. 

Even though in-person Pumpkin Parades were canceled, through Park People’s Sparking Change and Community Resilience  programs, Park People helped make virtual and safe in-person Halloween-related events happen in underserved communities. We positioned the events as “Fall Fests” in order to include those who have not traditionally celebrated Halloween. In fact, we learned that almost ½ of the people in attendance had never carved a pumpkin before.

These “Fall Fest” events included:

The popularity of these Fall Fest events show that people are looking for social connection now, more than ever. For example, we saw newcomers taking a risk and participating in new ways because they were craving activities that would make them feel like part of the community. The Fall Fest was a success because it created a safe space for people to once again feel a sense of community.

Fall Fest by the numbers. 

Here are key lessons from the Fall Fest events:

Give it away now:

We quickly saw how critical the pumpkin giveaways were to participation. In these communities where many people had never participated in Halloween events, pumpkins are not a priority item to purchase. Also, try lugging a pumpkin on public transit along with other groceries. You get the idea. The free pumpkin giveaways in parks got people excited to engage in and embrace a new creative activity.

Consider your position:

Rather than theming these events as Halloween activities, we called the events “Fall Fests.” This positioning was critical to the events’ success. Newcomers may not be familiar with the North American concept of Halloween and using that terminology may be intimidating or foreign. Using seasonal language helped make the event more inclusive and feel welcoming to those who were carving and displaying pumpkins for the very first time.

Show me the way:

The pumpkin carving demonstrations and virtual events helped people get involved in a low-risk way.

The virtual pumpkin carving session not only provided creative inspiration for pumpkins but also featured live music, storytelling, and activities.

The demonstration helped people become inspired to participate for the first time. Also, the virtual format made the event accessible to many, like seniors, who may not have been able to participate in person.  Don’t think for a minute that pumpkin carving is just for kids. Seniors in these communities loved having the opportunity to make a gooey mess for the first time.

Start small:

The ‘Fall Fest’ events helped Sparking Change and Community Resilience leaders develop new skills by hosting a small scale event and seeing how their efforts paid off.  The Fall Fest event provided a great opportunity for park leaders and animators to build skills and confidence necessary to make great things happen in communities. 

Make a contest of it

People love a good contest- but not if it’s too competitive. The contest aspect of the Pumpkin Parade helped motivate more people to participate and to bring all their creativity to the process. However, it’s important to make everyone feel like they have a chance to win. You can do that by creating multiple categories of ‘winners’ that meet different criteria.

Mix it up

Including artists and storytelling into the virtual pumpkin carving event was a great way to keep the event lively. When you’re planning your event, remember that it can be challenging for people to hold their focus on a single thing for a long time. It’s good to mix up the program and offer a bit of something for everyone. It’s also an opportunity to invite artists and other guests from the community to show off their talents on a whole new stage for new, local audiences. 


Thanks to our generous supporters

The Balsam Foundation


Reducing the impact and increasing connection to nature for park and ravine events

An important objective of the InTO the Ravines program is to help more people connect to and engage with their ravines. However, given the environmental sensitivity of the ravines, this goal must be carefully balanced against the importance of protecting these fragile spaces. After all, Toronto is a city of almost 3 million people and population growth, new development and climate change are all putting increased pressure on the ravines which do a whole lot of “heavy lifting” for our city.

We are eager for more people to experience the ravines and see an opportunity for these kinds of events to contribute rather than just extract from the natural world. However, this takes deliberate thinking and action. We encourage people to start by asking:

How can your event be in alignment with nature?  How can you use a ravine event to foster reciprocity to ensure the natural world benefits as much as the community does?  How can you strive to use events as opportunities to give back to the natural world which offers us these meaningful and enriching experiences?

We explore these questions through conversations with Monica Radovski, Natural Environment Specialist from the City of Toronto in the Natural Environment and Community Programs unit of Urban Forestry and  Carolynne Crawley, a Mi’kmaw woman with mixed ancestry from the East Coast known today as Nova Scotia.  Carolynne operates her own business, Msit Nokmaq, which focuses upon decolonizing current interactions with the land, self, and others to build healthy and reciprocal relationships.

Given that we are writing this on the land we now call Toronto, which is on the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, Carolynne focuses our conversation on sharing teachings that may resonate across many nations. She also reminds us that Indigenous people have been in relationship to these lands since time immemorial.

Guidelines for safe, happy and fun park programming during COVID-19

It’s important that you review the rules and guidelines provided by your local public health authority (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Gatineau, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax). These will contain the most up-to-date information relevant to your local context including current information on the numbers of people permitted at an outdoor event. Once you are familiar with these, here are some additional guidelines to help promote safety during park activities and events.

As a reminder:

Here is a simple checklist that might be used by park leaders, volunteers and participants before any event: https://www.toronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/95f0-Survey-Screening-poster-TPH.pdf 

How to support your community while physically distancing

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on community park groups and the work they do on behalf of their communities. In April, 120 community park groups responded to a national survey of their needs. We learned that:

Before COVID-19 our National Network hosted the vast majority of their events in city parks. In 2019, our National Network’s park events were attended by 242,010 community members and supported by 19,916 volunteers.

Today, community park groups across Canada are discovering new ways of serving their communities to help them stay connected, supported, and most of all, safe.

In a recent Park People webinar, Marie-Caroline Badjeck from Overbrook Community Association (OCA) in Ottawa and Hussein Janmohammed, the Artistic Director of Iftar Nights with Toronto’s MABELLEarts shared how they were bringing the power of parks home at a challenging time by highlighting new programming they developed to support their neighbours when they need it most.

Ways to Enjoy Nature While Social Distancing

We know that getting into nature is excellent for your physical and mental health. Getting out of your house, while keeping 6 feet of distance from other people, avoiding crowds, breathing fresh air is exactly what you need during these stressful times. Experts say that we need to spend at least 20 minutes a day (and two hours a week) in nature. Access to nature may become more and more difficult during this period of social distancing. While medical experts continue to encourage people to go outside and spend some quality and social distanced time in parks, you may need more than those 20 minutes of outside daily time to feel connected to nature while spending time at home.

Here are a few extras ideas to help you and your loved-ones access nature while staying indoors.

Host a Climate Change Workshop

Shwasti” is a Bengali word meaning peace and comfort. It’s also the name of a grassroots community organization in Toronto’s Taylor Massey and Oakridge Neighborhood Improvement Area.

Many of the people who take part in Shwasti’s programs are from Bangladesh, a country on the frontline of climate change. When the group’s leaders sensed rising anxiety and fear about climate change, they looked to Park People to help develop new programming. As per their name, the group was eager to restore a sense of “peace and comfort” to their community in the face of this global challenge.

Park People supports Shwasti’s work, both through our Sparking Change program and in 2018 Shwasti received TD Park People Grant which they used to support the program.

The workshop was led by Park People’s own Brianna Aspinall. Besides her community engagement work at Park People, Brianna heads up Carbon Conversations TO. Brianna and her team delivered two workshops to Shwasti participants.

Taking indoor programming to the park

Shakeera Solomon from Vision of Hope Resource Centre in Brampton says:

“When I was a kid, everyone was in the park.”

It’s true. And it’s also true (as proven by research) that kids today don’t spend as much time in the park. The question is, how do we get young people off the couch and back into parks?

In 2019, Shakeera’s organization applied for and received a TD Park People Grant. The grant was for Vision of Hope’s Youth Council to take monthly programming outside, into the park.

Here’s what they learned along the way.

Animate Your Park in Winter

Do you count yourself as an ‘indoorsy’ person during the winter months? Winter-loving folks will tell you that you need to “change your attitude” and learn to love winter. The term attitude (singular) suggests that you have just one (a bad one) and you need to turn it around (in the frigid temperatures of winter nonetheless).

When it comes to finding a way to love winter, I prefer the term ‘mindsets’ to attitude. Mindsets are defined as the many “lenses through which information is perceived, organized and interpreted.

The challenge with winter is not singular, it’s plural. To be more explicit, winter is dark, cold and snowy. This is not an attitude, it is an external reality. But, breaking the challenges with winter down helps us find tangible ways to shift our mindsets.

We know we benefit when we get outside and connect with others when winter makes us feel isolated.

Park groups across Canada are helping us find light in the dark, warmth in the cold and a ball in the snow.

A city park can be a stage, and the community your audience: Bringing arts to parks

Performances offer some of the most interesting ways to engage with your community. But how do you build good, collaborative relationships between artists and the community?

We talked to three people who were directly involved in Arts in the Parks, an initiative of Toronto Arts Foundation, which brings free family-friendly arts events and activities to city parks: Hanbo Jia from Friends of Beverly Glen Park, Laura Hammond from Birchmount Community Action Council and Adam Barrett, from the renowned performing arts group, Shadowland Theatre. Here’s what we learned.

Host a picnic in the park

A picnic in the park is a great way to celebrate a special occasion or meet new friends and neighbours. Outdoor picnics are also a great add-on to events such as a park stewardship day or harvest festival. Whether you intend to celebrate with a private group or host an open community-wide picnic, food helps bring people together in public spaces.

Planning a private picnic with less than 25 people attending is generally a straightforward undertaking. You can jump right in and choose your food, activities and guest list. However planning an open community picnic involves some additional steps that you need to be mindful of to ensure the safety of your event.

Here are some steps to help you plan your community picnic:

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