Four ways parks help address climate change

By Jake Tobin Garrett, Policy and Planning Manager

As Park People staff prepare to participate in the climate strike this Friday, September 27th at the rallies in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, we have turned our attention to the ways in which parks play into this conversation. 

In addition to the social, health, and economic benefits of parks, our shared green spaces are powerful ecological forces worthy of increased investment.

Here are four ways parks help combat and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Parks reduce the urban heat island effect

Last year Montreal suffered from a devastating heat wave that left 66 dead. When the City plotted the deaths, they found that people who lived in neighbourhoods deemed heat islands—where temperatures rose higher than in other neighbourhoods—were twice as likely to die.

As the Toronto Star noted, the heat islands divided “the cool, treed areas from the hot concrete-covered ones.”

Urban areas can feel as much as 12 degrees hotter than rural areas due to pavement, brick, and concrete surfaces that absorb the sun’s heat. One Montreal city councillor said that urban greening projects such as tree planting and green walls can be a way to combat this effect, and help cool some of these particularly hot neighbourhoods.

How does this work? Think of green spaces as natural air conditioners.

Increasing the tree canopy increases shade, which helps shield surfaces from the sun, reducing their ability to absorb heat. Trees and other vegetation also help cool the air around them through a process called evapotranspiration, which is basically when plants sweat. Water evaporates into the air through the leaves, cooling the air around it in the process.

As temperatures continue to rise in cities across the country, features like tree-lined streets and well-tended parks to keep things cooler will become ever more important. 

Parks mitigate flooding from extreme weather

Another devastating impact of climate change has been increasing extreme weather events such as heavy rainfalls, known, poetically, as cloud bursts. In these events, stormwater systems can be overwhelmed by too much rain in a short period of time, leading to flooding. 

As we documented in our Canadian City Parks Report, flooding continues to impact Canadian cities.

Calgary’s Bow River overflowed due to heavy rainfall in 2013, causing widespread property damage and evacuations. Flooding caused 4 million dollars worth of damage to Oakville’s waterfront in 2017 — the same year high water and flooding caused millions of dollars in damage in Toronto, and the closing of the popular Toronto Islands park for the summer. And this past spring, heavy rainfall caused flooding in many communities in Ontario and Quebec. It goes on and on. 

Sudden storms can also lead to the release of raw sewage into waterways. This is because cities were planned with systems that combined stormwater and sewage pipes into one. When those systems are overwhelmed by a sudden onslaught of stormwater they vent untreated water into nearby lakes, rivers, and oceans. 

This impacts water quality. High E.coli readings at some beaches in Vancouver closed them this summer and Ontario’s environmental commissioner found that sewage flowed into southern Ontario waterways over 1,300 times in the year between April 2017 and March 2018.

The amount of paved surfaces in our cities only further contributes to flooding and overwhelmed stormwater systems, which is where parks, as soft landscapes capable of absorbing water, come into play. 

As our Resilient Parks, Resilient City report noted, turning our streets, public spaces, and parks into sponges through green infrastructure can help address flooding. Green infrastructure includes engineered natural elements — rain gardens, bioswales, retention ponds — that help to store, soak up, and treat rainwater where it falls, rather than whisking it away through underground pipes. 

Green infrastructure can relieve pressure on aging stormwater systems, but also contributes to more beautiful, biodiverse cities through the creation of more green space.

Despite that, our Canadian City Parks Report found that while Canadian cities were experimenting with small-scale green infrastructure projects, less than half had strategies for scaling the practice up across the city. That work is urgently needed.

There is some great work happening in Canada, though.

Toronto’s Corktown Common includes a flood protection berm and a wetland that helps to stop and soak up water. Vancouver’s Rain City Strategy coordinates green infrastructure projects across the city, including a new plaza built last year that can soak up water from over 1,000 square metres of impervious surfaces in the neighbourhood around it. And Calgary just finished the first phase of West Eau Claire Park along the Bow River, which safeguards neighbourhoods from flooding.

Parks suck up carbon from the air

While governments and oil companies experiment with technology that can capture carbon from the air and store it underground, we already have a natural, tested way of removing carbon from the air and storing it: trees. 

Planting trees may seem like a small act, but reforestation is the most effective way to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

According to National Geographic, there’s enough land around the world to plant new forests to cut carbon by 25 percent. This would erase “nearly 100 years of carbon emissions.” Apparently, Canada has 78 million hectares that could be reforested. Not bad.

Trees and other plants capture carbon from the air through the act of photosynthesis, removing it from the air and storing it within themselves. The carbon is then only released if the plant is burned, which is why the recent spate of large forest fires in British Columbia and Alberta are so concerning–a trend that is only likely to get worse

Forest fires release all the carbon sucked up by those trees back into the air. In fact, it was found that California’s 2018 wildfires released as much carbon into the air–68 million tons–as the state does in providing a year’s worth of electricity.

Cities across Canada have tree planting programs in place, with varying targets. 

Mississauga is partway through a multi-year plan to plant one million trees in the city by 2032, having planted over 340,000 so far. Victoria has committed to a more modest, but still beneficial, 5,000 trees planted by 2020 as part of the United Nations Trees in Cities Challenge.

Vancouver is on track to reach its goal of planting 150,000 trees in the city by 2020. And in Ontario, the provincial government backed down from axing its tree-planting program after public protest in 2018, which has a goal of planting 50 million trees in the province by 2025 (it’s about halfway there).

So, hug a tree. Or better yet, plant one–lots of them. 

Parks provide space to come together

This benefit doesn’t deal with the science of evapotranspiration or the engineering of green infrastructure, but instead with social capital and good ol’ fashioned meeting your neighbours.

With climate change being such a large and often intangible force in our lives that can cause anxiety, stress, and feelings of helplessness, the benefits of parks to provide a collective space to gather becomes even more crucial. 

Take this recent example from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where, after being ravaged by a hurricane, community members gathered at a park bake oven to provide food and warmth for families without power. Other community park groups contribute to a cleaner environment by hosting park clean-ups, tree planting, and even zero-waste picnics.

An existential threat like climate change can spin us apart from one another or it can be a force to drive us together–and our parks and public spaces, as sites of gathering, will become only more important to ensuring that we join with our community in calling for action.

Join us and thousands of others at the Global Climate Strikes across the country on Friday, September 27. For more information on finding a rally near you, click here.

A conversation with Brianna Aspinall about learning to talk about climate change

In light of the Global Climate Strike taking place this week in cities around the world, we spoke with our very own Brianna Aspinall who, in addition to her community engagement work at Park People, also heads up Carbon Conversations TO

In this blog, our Manager of Policy and Planning, Jake Tobin Garrett, chats with Brianna about how to talk about climate change with empathy, how to stay positive and motivated in the face of such a large issue, and why a mix of hope and anger is a good thing.

Jake Tobin Garrett: Tell me a little bit about Carbon Conversations TO and how you got involved.

Brianna Aspinall: Climate change can be pretty paralyzing, so with Carbon Conversations TO, which is based on a UK group, we try to help people move from those feelings of anxiety, anger, and sadness to action. The structure of Carbon Conversations TO is a small-group guided discussion over a 6-week period where we meet for two hours a week. We discuss elements like personal carbon footprints, how people feel about those and climate change at large, and what actions we can take. We also developed a workshop to help people in their journey to talk to others about climate change.

The reason I worked on bringing it to Toronto was really out of love for my partner who was struggling after seeing a documentary on climate change. He was quite sad and felt a little hopeless for the world. Seeing that at home everyday made me want to try to find a solution. 

JTG: Why is it important to have these conversations about climate change with people in our lives?

BA: I think about the metaphor that if your house is on fire, then you better learn how to talk about it with the people in there. It’s a big house and you don’t know everyone, but you better figure out ways to cooperate and collaborate, even though you might all be feeling a little anxious. 

JTG: How do you see your work on climate change intersect with your work at Park People?

BA: A big reason I started working at Park People was because I wanted to also focus on social issues. I think they’re quite interconnected with environmental issues, yet those groups don’t always work together. So I wanted to immerse myself in an environment where I would learn more about community development work. 

When you think about resiliency, it’s strong communities—communities that know each other and have strong networks—that are way more resilient, right? There are cool moments like we saw recently in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where community members came together to share food at a park bake oven after the hurricane. And so that’s why I think the work that Park People does is super important and connected to climate change. 

Credit: City of Toronto, Matt Forsythe

JTG: Do you have tips for people to have conversations about climate change? I feel like those conversations can often get very personal, where people can feel like their individual choices are being judged—like they have to fly for work or they have to drive their kids to soccer practice. 

BA: The first thing we tell people is to learn about your own connection to climate change and climate action. Learn what your carbon footprint is and your reaction to that footprint. Are you proud of certain things you’re doing or are you overwhelmed? That will hopefully give you a little bit of empathy when talking to others, because it’s not easy to change. 

Instead of coming from a place of judgment and assumptions, come from a place of curiosity. That might look like talking less and listening more. Asking more open ended questions.

JTG: Just good skills for having a good conversation anyways! 

BA: You will learn a lot from people, it’s kind of cool. Another thing you can do is focus on feelings. It’s quite common that people start coming from a place of blame, because they might be trying to defend themselves by putting responsibility on bigger actors like government or business. Those bigger actors definitely have a lot of responsibility and power, but we’re also a part of it. 

I try to focus on the emotion instead of the content. I might say “Oh, it sounds like you feel a little disempowered” or “It sounds like you feel like you can’t make a difference” and see where that conversation takes us. Because then you might understand them a little bit more, and help them get out of that negative space. 

JTG: What do you say to those that feel helpless, or that their individual actions—like biking to work or using a metal straw—are so infinitesimally small in the face of such a large issue? Do individual actions really matter in the face of climate change?

BA: I understand that people feel that their individual actions may not matter. I get into that mindset, too. But then I try to get myself out of it, because if you really think about it, it’s such a complex challenge. You can’t just have one group acting, because there isn’t just one clear solution.

JTG: Right, it’s not just: we have a carbon tax, now the issue is solved.

BA: Right, because you might not elect someone who advocates for a carbon tax if you don’t have people talking about climate change and understanding what is needed. We’re at a point where it’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about taking your own individual action because you’re a part of the big puzzle. And then also holding business and government accountable—thinking about your vote as a way to push for better climate action and better social justice as well. 

JTG: An important message considering we’re in the middle of a federal election. 

BA: There are some good groups like Lead Now’s Cooperate for climate campaign, 100 Debates for the Environment, Our Time for a Green New Deal that can help you choose candidates that are thinking about climate justice. 

And don’t underestimate how your actions might inspire others. I think about it as a drop falling into a calm lake—that ripple effect. You see it with Greta Thunberg, where she started on her own and now she’s created this mass movement. 

We all might have our own inner mini-Greta. I went to a restaurant and brought my own container. The person near me said, “Oh, cool. I should bring my own container.” Not everyone tells you that they’re inspired by you, but don’t be fooled. You probably are inspiring people. You might be inspiring yourself every day by acting along with you values. And then you’re actually building a way forward. 

We have ideas of what the world might look like where it’s better for everyone, more socially just and better for the environment, so we need to build that by showing people what that looks like. Doing the right thing does not always mean that you’re sacrificing your happiness. There’s also happiness in these different types of actions. 

JTG: It feels like a very interesting moment in time right now around climate change. We have Greta and this youth movement, a kind of swell of activism around this issue, but at the same time we’re also getting these incredibly grim scientific reports, and increasing instances of wildfires and flooding and ice melting in Greenland, and all sorts of catastrophic events. How do you feel about this particular moment that we’re existing in around this issue? Do you feel hopeful?

BA: I feel a mix of hope and despair, sadness, and anger. Depending on the day. I just try to embrace that and continue building my own hope by acting. 

But I think it’s such an opportunity, because if you look at the science it’s still very grim and scary, but there’s still time to act, literally right now. And putting money into climate change might also mean putting money into housing affordability and other problems that we face as a society.

I sometimes avoid the grim and scary side—reading about climate change effects—but I do think it’s important to remind ourselves of the urgency. Holding that balance of hope and urgency, or outrage, is super important to help us move forward.

To learn more about Carbon Conversations TO and how you can get involved and their upcoming workshop this November on how to talk about climate change, visit their website at You can also sign up for the group’s newsletter and follow them on Facebook.

title photo by Erick Dransch

Join Park People and the global climate strike on September 27

Months ago, I signed on to receive updates from my local chapter of Fridays for Future, a global movement that started in August 2018, when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish parliament every school day for three weeks, to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis.  My goal was to take some time away from work on a few Fridays to join  youth, including my two teenage daughters, at Queen’s Park on Fridays to connect with others and form a collective sense of urgency and action for climate change.

I’m ashamed to say, I have not gone once.

Like many, I live in two worlds: one where daily to-do lists keep me focused on the present, while horrible existential dread about climate crisis makes me feel overwhelmed and afraid. 

Greta explained her rationale for striking from school this way:

“Why study for a future that isn’t there? Why spend effort becoming educated when the government doesn’t listen to or behave like the educated?”

Of course, the same can be said about work. I remember turning to my husband a few years ago, saying, “if what they’re saying about the climate crisis is true, why don’t we all stop everything, stop working, and put all of our energy into saving ourselves?” This is what Greta was brave and smart enough to do when she stopped going to school.

Now it’s our turn to take a stand with kids and youth like her and put human life and the life of species that share this planet before our daily work lives. In Greta’s own words:

“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope, but I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

It’s scary, but she’s right. And we support her and all of the other youth who face a scary and uncertain future. 

In our weekly staff meeting last week, two of my brave and smart colleagues encouraged us to strike together and walk out of our offices on September 27th because our house is on fire. Our Founder and management agreed.  That’s why I, along with all of my Park People colleagues will stop work on September 27th and walk out in solidarity with students all across Canada who will strike from school to express the urgent need to address the climate crisis. 

Park People’s work is strongly connected to the environmental movement. We know that many of our community park groups focus on environmental stewardship and have a deep love of nature. But more than that, all of us are humans who want to continue living on this planet and sharing it with other species, and we know that we must act now.


We hope you’ll join us in your communities and Strike for the Climate on September 27th. 


Here are ways you can get involved: 

If you can’t strike: Check out Global Climate Strike to find other ways to participate,  including a digital strike.

What we can learn from Copenhagen’s plan to create a more climate-resilient city

As the images of flooding and damage in Houston from Hurricane Harvey continue on the front pages of newspapers and on social media, it’s a good moment to think about how ready Canadian cities are for managing extreme weather.

As we wrote about in our Resilient Parks, Resilient City park solutions brief last month, climate change in Canada is leading to more and more extreme weather, causing stress on our urban environments. This includes droughts and heat waves, but also heavy rainfall that can lead to flash floods and long-lasting damage to our cities.

Toronto just experienced what climate change means in a very real way when heavy spring rain caused flooding that closed Toronto Islands for most of the summer. Parts of Montreal have also experienced flooding from heavy rainfall this year. And only a few years ago, Calgary experienced severe flooding that caused the evacuation of neighbourhoods and killed several people.

All of this was on my mind when I went to the City Parks Alliance’s Greater Greener conference in Minneapolis/St. Paul at beginning of August where I was able to hear Lykke Leonardsen speak. Leondardsen works in sustainability at the City of Copenhagen and spoke about that city’s climate adaptation plan (well worth a read) and cloudburst management strategy which relies heavily on green infrastructure investments.

We covered green infrastructure and its different elements in the Resilient Parks park solutions brief, so I won’t go into detail about that here. But I do want to share a bit about what I heard from Leonardsen at the conference and the amazing, forward-thinking work that Copenhagen is doing to climate-proof their city by rethinking their streets, parks, and other public spaces to transform stormwater from a liability into a celebrated resource. There is much we can learn in Canada from Copenhagen’s approach.

Build parks to flood

By now people are likely familiar with the idea of parks being designed as places that can also capture and hold water during storms or protect a city from flooding. We have some great examples in Toronto, including Corktown Common, which we covered in our Resilient Parks, Resilient Cities report.

But Copenhagen is taking this a step further, engineering public spaces, both hard-surfaces and soft green areas, to hold water and use it as a resource in the park. Their newly built Tasinge Plads (title picture) captures not just the rain water that falls on the park, but water from the surrounding neighbourhood during storms. This helps reduce flooding, but it also creates a unique park where large upturned umbrellas capture additional rainwater and create a playful element.

A park built to flood doesn’t have to be green, however. It can be a hard-surface plaza, basketball court, or other playing surface that is designed to capture water during a storm, transforming it into a kind of reflecting pool while the water drains away–like Copenagen’s Enghave Park.


Create rivers out of streets

Part Copenhagen’s plan calls for Cloudburst Boulevards, which, despite being beautifully poetic, perform a very important function when it rains. These boulevards are designed with depressions, like bioswales, and other graded-areas that essentially become small streams during heavy rainfall events, slowing down, soaking up, and guiding rainwater.

It also has the added benefit of creating what could be a really delightful amenity from the water that we usually see rushing down the gutter, picking up cigarette butts and other garbage along the way, before pooling around clogged drains on city streets. Apologies for the poor image quality below, but this is a picture I took during Leondardsen’s presentation of a Cloudburst Boulevard in action. You can see more images in this presentation.


Find a win-win-win solution

Finally, all of this will actually save Copenhagen money. And not just a little bit, but a huge amount. Forget for a moment the cost of damage from storms (although it can be huge–Toronto’s July 2013 storm caused $1 billion in property damage insurance claims), which this plan will surely help mitigate. Focus instead on the cost of just implementing the infrastructure improvements to cope with extreme weather and increased rainfall. Copenhagen’s plan, which relies on a combination of green infrastructure elements and more traditional “grey” infrastructure (like pipes and treatment plans), will cost less than half of what it would have cost to implement a plan based entirely on grey infrastructure.

That’s an impressive saving. But there’s more. Because green infrastructure also usually results in new and improved public spaces and parks, you get the added benefit of a stormwater infrastructure investment that also provides a visible public recreational and aesthetic benefit.

Save money, build infrastructure, improve public space. That’s a nice set of wins.

Creating a greener 21st century city

We often wax poetic about urban parks as areas of nature in our cities, but it’s interesting to note that some urban parks are not actually the best representation of the natural landscapes of their city, sometimes burying—literally in the case of urban streams—the features and particularities of the landscape upon which they’re built.

I don’t mean these parks are made of plastic trees and AstroTurf, but the central feature of many parks is lawns of mowed grass, hardly a naturally occurring landscape in many of our environments, and gardens planted with non-native (but pretty flowers) that require a lot of water and care.

Is there a better way for our parks to contribute to more sustainable, resilient cities, especially as stresses on our natural environment increase through growing density, population, and the unpredictable threats of climate change?

Green City, a paper written by University of Calgary landscape architecture professor Bev Sandalack for Park People’s Heart of the City Conference, is a great launching pad for this discussion. Part history of park development, part manifesto, Sandalack proposes a new way of planning and designing our park systems as deep ecological infrastructure.

Park Systems as Ecological Infrastructure

Creating this higher focus means we need to re-prioritize investments, placing parks and public spaces, as the landscape of our cities, at the very base upon which everything else must be built and organized. We need to reintegrate parks into our natural systems, Bev writes, planning and designing them not as lawns plunked down in the urban fabric, but as part of an interconnected natural system.

Doing so can connect us in a more visible way to our own city’s particular natural landscape, vegetation, climate, and topography. But it also better positions our cities for a future that will be determined by our ability to adapt to climate change by reinforcing and enhancing natural systems that perform functions such as stormwater management, habitat creation, heat reduction, air purification, and more.

This doesn’t mean of course that we should seed every lawn in our parks with wildflowers and native grasses—we need lawns for lounging, social events, and sports after all—but it does mean prioritizing a more intentional, integrated approach to park (and city) planning that takes an ecological systems view and works across our cities departmental silos.

Putting A New Approach into Practice

Bev points to Toronto’s new Ravine Strategy—the first ever for the city—which lays out a framework for how the city’s vast network of ravines can be better protected, enhanced, and enjoyed in the face of all the challenges that come with being sensitive natural environments squeezed from the big city around it. The Ravine Strategy takes a holistic rather than siloed approach to revitalizing ravines involving input from staff from city planning, parks, recreation, economic development, and water.

Similarly, but on a smaller scale, Toronto’s Green Streets pilot program, has transformed several under-used portions of roadway into small green spaces. These spaces offer places for community members to gather, but also contain stormwater management infrastructure. This layering of benefits—safer roads, community green space, stormwater infrastructure—is the key to a smarter, climate resilient city. Plus, it unlocks potential new funding for green spaces through funding from municipal water departments which collect water and sometimes stormwater fees. Zooming out, you could see how this program could be a way to celebrate and make visible the city’s buried streams or targeted for areas that are at risk for flooding.

Understanding and prioritizing investments in parks and park systems as infrastructure is critical, especially in an era of increasing extreme climate events including droughts, flash floods, ice storms, and more. If past eras of park development were based on creating islands of nature in the city or places for people to recreate, this new era must be predicated on integrating natural systems at the foundation of our city building.

Read the Green City report to learn more about how park systems thinking can buffer the impact of climate change on cities.

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