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 www.carbonconversationsTO.com. You can also sign up for the group’s newsletter and follow them on Facebook.

title photo by Erick Dransch

Parks Platform 2018: Investing in a strong park system for all of Toronto

It’s no secret that Toronto loves its parks. In the past four years, we’ve seen new investments in planning, design, and use of parks by communities. All of this is commendable, but it comes with a cost—one that we are not adequately keeping up with.

Despite continuing pressure on our parks operation budget from population growth, rising maintenance costs, and new park development, we’ve seen only slight inflationary increases in the past four years, with direction from Mayor Tory to keep budgets flat or reduced. For a bit more on that, here’s our take on the 2018 budget from earlier this year.

We must reverse this trend. Parks are not a frill, but core pieces of city infrastructure that bring critically needed benefits to strengthen our communities, our environment, economy, and our physical and mental health. As we find ourselves living closer and closer together, but also paradoxically with higher reported feelings of social isolation in Canada, our common spaces become more important as places to connect, share, learn, and create together.

Underinvestment in operations and maintenance threatens the many laudable plans and strategies approved during the last term of City Council. These include the in-progress Citywide Parkland Strategy, TOCore Parks and Public Realm Plan, Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan, and the Ravine Strategy. Without funding for construction and maintenance, these plans are nothing more than municipal thought experiments. This is a fate that has befallen many elements of past plans. For example, just to fund the remaining initiatives in the Parks Plan, a five-year plan approved back in 2013—the operations budget would need an extra $8.6 million.

The operating budget squeeze also impacts our ability to program parks, engage residents, and support community members in the kinds of activities that bring our parks to life. While we’ve seen great positive moves in making permits easier and supporting community events like Pumpkin Parades, more is needed.

In this Parks Platform, you’ll find our proposals for park funding, planning, and engagement that can take Toronto to the next level—supporting a park system that is more equitable, inclusive, connected, resilient, and animated. They were devised based on our own experience and input from over 450 people across Toronto that filled out our Parks Platform survey.

We hope candidates for mayor and council steal these ideas. Some are simple to implement and some will take political courage, but they are all practical, impactful, and necessary if we are to continue creating a great park system together.

To download a PDF of the platform, click here.

Paying for parks


Increase the parks operating and maintenance budget and commit to clear multi-year funding for park plans

We’re asking our parks to deliver a lot more than in the past. Parks are being used by more people for more activities, extreme weather damage is more prevalent, and park designs are becoming more complex to meet these changing demands. Because of this, the cost of maintaining parkland in Toronto continues to rise, with the City projecting it will cost almost $700 more to maintain a hectare of parkland in 2020 than in 2015—no small increase with over 8,000 hectares of parkland in Toronto.

Additionally, City staff pointed out in the recently approved 20-year Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan that “frozen or reduced” operating budgets have negatively impacted staff’s ability to respond to routine maintenance issues that then grow into larger, more costly repairs.

This must be addressed, and it must be addressed through public funding. While the trend towards park philanthropy in the past four years is a welcome one—with great initiatives like The Meadoway, Grange Park, and The Bentway—philanthropy is in no way a substitute for a well-funded, robust public park budget.

1. Increase operating budgets to create dedicated park supervisors in large and heavily-used parks and decrease workload on park staff. Currently, park supervisors can be responsible for dozens of parks, stretching their abilities thin to respond to community requests and stay on top of maintenance. On the resident side, many people don’t know who to contact about their park and become frustrated.

Extra funding should increase the amount of park staff like gardeners so they can take care of a smaller area of parks. Dedicated park supervisors should be established for coordinating maintenance and programming in particularly heavily-used or large parks (such as Trinity Bellwoods or Earl Bales Park) rather than dozens of parks. Park supervisor information should be clearly posted in the park. This will go a long way in opening lines of communication between City staff and the community and ensure our most used parks are in tip-top shape.

2. Commit to multi-year funding for implementing park plans and strategies and publicly report annually on their progress. Many of the new plans are citywide and are critical for ensuring our park system provides equitable facilities and access across the entire city. Tracking our progress in implementing these plans and the funding required to do so should be clearly communicated each year.

Reform park levies to better fund park development across the city

The last time the City established policies for its park levy, officially referred to as Section 42, was more than 10 years ago when development in Toronto was very different. This tool allows the City to extract land or cash from new developments that can only be used to pay for acquiring land or developing parks. We need to increase the rate at which we collect these levies to keep up with growth.

3. Explore a tiered system rather than a firm cap on the amount of land or cash a developer must provide.The current policy caps the amount the City gets for parks based on the size of the land being developed, meaning super tall towers end up providing the same amount as smaller towers built on the same land size (see below image from the City of Toronto). This despite many more people living in the taller tower that need parks. A tiered system based on building density would allow the City to continue to collect park levies in high-density buildings, but not overburden developers with fees.

How the current cap impacts park levies (City of Toronto)

4. Explore borrowing against future expected park levy revenue based on developments in the pipeline. In a real estate market as aggressive as Toronto’s, we need to act fast on opportunities to purchase land. Waiting until enough money is collected means the City misses out on opportunities. Additionally, the longer money sits in reserve accounts, the more it depreciates in spending power as real estate prices rapidly rise.

5. Commit to maintaining the 50/50 redistributive policy that directs half of park levies funds into a citywide account to fund parkland acquisition and improvement in areas of the city that do not see as much development. This is a critical equity policy.

People in parks

Sean regent park bake oven

Wrap funding for engagement and programming within park development budgets

Toronto needs to up its park engagement game beyond the standard open house meeting and support longer-term engagement and community programming in parks long after the ribbon is cut. This will help decrease the chance that new amenities, like bake ovens or stages, are created in parks with no support to actually program those spaces. It will also help ensure that parks are well-maintained over the long term, as communities that are more involved in their local park can help reduce incidents of vandalism and keep an extra eye on maintenance issues.

6. Include funding for long-term engagement, including community programming, within capital budgets for new park designs. We routinely spend millions on new park development, but very little to none on long-term engagement or programming. Even dedicating a small percentage of capital budgets would go a long way to supporting ongoing involvement by community members in their local park.

This funding would support a more equitable park system because currently residents must finance park activities through their own money or by soliciting donations. Funding could go towards City staff working as community animators and grants directly to community groups or non-profit partners to support activities in parks like nature walks, stewardship events, community festivals, and adopt-a-park-tree programs.

Series of images of a volunteer tree planting event

photo by Matt Forsythe

Better enable community programming

For years, one of the top requests we hear from community members is to reform the park permit system, which can be costly and confusing for people when organizing activities in their local park. In the last four years, the City has made this easier by introducing free park permits for arts, music, and movies in parks. But we know still more work is needed. We know that community programming contributes to greater levels of civic engagement, connections within communities, leadership skill-building, and more.

7. Establish a free and easy “community event permit” open to local community groups that are not necessarily a registered non-profit who are organizing open activities in their local park for less than 75 people. Currently, the lowest level of special event permit for events under 200 people costs more than $130–money that residents must pay out of pocket–and requires an eight week lead time. Approving this lower-entry community event permit would create a more equitable way for residents to organize park activities, recognizing that their capacity is different than non-profit organizations and other groups putting on larger events.

Planning for parks


Prioritize park system connectivity

One of the pillars of the new Citywide Parkland Strategy is ensuring that we are building a connected park system. This is important for people moving through it, but also for ecosystem health and wildlife movement. We already have a great backbone for this system based on our ravines, but we can do more to connect parks together.

8. Prioritize investment in projects that increase park system connectivity across the city, such as the Green Line, Rail Deck Park, Meadoway (pictured above), and the Core Circle proposed in the TOcore Parks and Public Realm Plan. Linear parks and parks that bridge gaps, like rail corridors, help increase connectivity, provide more green space, and promote safe cycling and walking.

9. Identify a series of priority “greenway” corridors outside the downtown where improvements to parks, streets, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure can create greener and safer connectivity between parks to increase access. Look to Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway, San Francisco’s Green Connections plan, or more locally to the Mobility Greenway, a community initiative proposed to link green spaces along Finch Avenue West.

Invest in parks that create a more climate resilient city

As we’ve seen for several summers in a row—and as we outlined in our Resilient Parks, Resilient City report—extreme weather from climate change is leading to more flood events that damage parks and other city infrastructure. We must move away from simply investing in grey infrastructure, such as underground pipes, to investing in green infrastructure: natural elements like bioswales, retention ponds, and rain gardens that soak up, hold, and filter rainwater where it falls. Green infrastructure increases biodiversity through native plants, increases green space, and reduces neighbourhood flooding and sewer overflow incidents that release raw sewage into the lake.


10. Approve a stormwater fee based on area of impervious surfaces and direct a portion of revenues towards the construction and maintenance of green infrastructure in parks and along streets. Many other cities have successfully created such a fee, such as Mississauga and Philadelphia. Toronto had a chance to institute such a fee in 2017, but Mayor Tory’s Executive Committee shelved the idea. This was the wrong decision.

11. Direct green infrastructure to be included within new park development and redevelopment projects. With new parks developed or redeveloped each year, this is an easy way to increase the amount of green infrastructure across the city to help mitigate neighbourhood flooding. While we have great examples of parks with green infrastructure embedded in them, like Corktown Common, this is not the norm and should be standard practice to create a more climate resilient city.

Build more seating and more variety of seating in parks

One of a city’s simplest pleasures is finding a good park bench. Unfortunately, in many of Toronto’s parks it’s often difficult to find a place to sit. This is particularly important for people with disabilities and for older adults who may not be able to spread out a blanket on the grass.


12. Speed up implementation of new benches and get more creative. Our parks should follow the lead of New York and establish long benches along central park pathways and introduce social seating areas with curved, group, or moveable seating to enable social interaction. Seating should include backrests and arm rests to make them accessible and comfortable, but “defensive” elements like middle arm rests should not be standard.

13. Institute a “no net bench removal” policy that dictates that if a bench is removed for any reason from a park, it must be replaced with another in the same park.

For a PDF copy of the platform click here. To get in touch with us write to Park People at info@parkpeople.ca.


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