Here’s Why Small is Beautiful

Two of Park People’s recent reports highlight the importance of starting out small when launching a community park project. In my life, when a theme reoccurs I tend to stand up and take notice. So, I went out in search of projects that demonstrate that “small is beautiful “when it comes to getting park projects rolling. This quest led me to two amazing park champions, each of whom recently received a grant from Park People’s TD Park Builders program.

I spoke to Jennifer Wellman, who is the founder of Friends of Henrietta Park,  and Althea Knight, who is bringing her model of mindfulness nature walks to Toronto’s Redwood Shelter. Both of these groups are recent recipients of Park People’s TD Park Builders grants.

Research Proves it: Small is Powerful

The benefits of starting small are clearly highlighted in our recent Sparking Change report which is essentially a playbook for how to maximise parks’ social impact. The report advises:

“Make small, strategic investments that will have an outsize impact…smaller investments of time and energy can go a long way towards galvanizing renewed interest in the park.”

This insight comes through again and again in the report. Sparking Change recommends: “It’s often simple, low-cost projects—yoga, a community mural, children’s outdoor art classes—that build confidence for something larger.”

Another of our latest reports, entitled Breaking New Ground, provides guidance to prospective park funders on how to make solid and sustainable investments in green spaces. One of the findings from the report and The Weston Family Parks Challenge is to: “use seed funding to build capacity and evidence of larger transformations.” The report echoes Sparking Change, but from a funder’s perspective:

“Sometimes a project idea is fantastic, but it might be too early to award a large, multi-year grant.”

Park People’s TD Park Builder micro-grants are ideal for early stage park initiatives like the ones highlighted below.

Starting Small takes Big Vision

Honouring Tree Wisdom

Althea Knight, Honoring Tree Wisdom, Photo Credit: Robert Huff

Jennifer Wellman started Friends of Henrietta Park during her maternity-leave and, as such, she had modest goals for her local park.

“I just wanted to meet some neighbors and cultivate some community spirit in the park. I saw it could use some love and I knew there was an influx of families that could use the park to connect with eachother.”

Jennifer started animating her park by running a couple of “tried and true” events including a park cleanup and a Pumpkin Parade. Both of these events were low cost and didn’t require her to “reinvent the wheel.” The success of these gatherings laid the groundwork for more further community investment and engagement.

Althea, who heads up Walking, Nature Appreciation, Mindfulness, Peer Support and Leadership (WNAMPSL) has (as her multi-faceted organisational name suggests) a big vision for her walking group concept, which aims to train vulnerable and underserved populations to lead mindfulness walks in their neighbourhoods and parks across the city.

Althea’s vision includes a robust walking and education program that will ultimately train vulnerable populations to lead walks that promote self-care and wellness through mindfulness practices, nature, and walking. That’s the long-term vision goal. However, in the immediate term, Althea secured a TD Park Builders grant to lead nature walks to foster mindfulness among women who are survivors of domestic abuse. It’s a start she’s grateful for.

Small is Foundation for Success:

Althea’s application to Park People’s TD Park Builders program was her very first grant proposal. As someone brimming with passion and a desire to make a difference, the grant proposal helped Althea clearly and concisely articulate what she wants to achieve with her program. Althea says that she was great at “writing 10 pages about my dream,” but that the TD Park Builders application process helped her put her vision “in terms anyone could understand and want to get behind.”

In the short time that it’s been in existence, Friends of Henrietta Park, has demonstrated the power of incremental growth. Soon after forming a Friends of Henrietta Park group, Jennifer and other community members noticed that a light in the alley adjacent to the park that had been out for “the longest time,” was suddenly repaired. This was the first clue that, as Jennifer puts it, “something was happening in Henrietta Park.”

Since then, the local councilor has become actively involved in the park and there have been clear indications that the park is being more loved. Jennifer notes that there’s

 “less garbage in the playground and more and more people in the neighbourhood have been using the park, ranging from families and their kids playing on the playground and pet-owners walking their dogs through the park.”

In fact, the park was recently approved for funding to upgrade the play structure and substantially improve the park’s lighting based on feedback from the community.

Screen shot 2017-05-18 at 2.27.55 PM

Proposed park improvements for Henrietta Park

And, to think, it all started with a new lightbulb.

Needless to say, the momentum for the project has far exceeded Jennifer’s modest expectations. However, in retrospect, Jennifer acknowledges the value of starting small. “We didn’t apply for funding until we had some experience and were better able to tell out story.” Clearly, it’s an approach that’s had traction for Friends of Henrietta Park.

Small is Inviting:

When Jennifer started encouraging neighbours to get involved in Friends of Henrietta Park, her ask was manageable. While she wasn’t necessarily trying to be strategic, her approach is consistent with the fact that, particularly in the early stages, most volunteers prefer short-term opportunities to get involved. While most organizations want and need long-term commitment, it’s far better to offer people time-limited opportunities to volunteers who can grow their committment as the group evolves.

“I’m glad we didn’t go big right out of the gate. Keeping it small made it easier to attract new members. If we were too big, the time investment would seem daunting. Instead, we pulled people in based on their skills for particular projects. People are really willing to contribute that way.”

Althea had to learn the value of small, for herself. She laughingly calls herself a “recovering perfectionist” who, in the past, wouldn’t share her idea until it was perfectly polished.

“If I didn’t know how to perfectly articulate my idea, from beginning to end, I would often just keep it to myself. The external pressure to have the ‘right idea’ kept me from sharing and exploring how to include others on my journey.”

Today, Althea constantly musters up the courage to share her vision with others and is increasingly seeing the value in allowing others to “in” to help bring her idea to life. In fact, this willingness to put herself ‘out there’ led Althea to attend one of Park People’s workshops where she shared her idea with another TD Park Builder grant recipient from Friends of Parkway Forest who suggested she connect with Park People about a TD Park Builders micro-grant.

High Park Stroll

Photo Credit: Robert Huff

When Park People’s Manager of Outreach, Minaz, heard Althea’s big idea for mindful walking groups in nature, she knew Althea had a powerful vision:“Althea’s approach is really unique. The fact that she’s connecting the community to nature and working with vulnerable populations is so compelling.” However, Minaz emphasizes the importance of starting small:

“Often, when groups are applying for funding for the first time, they think they have to go big or go home. Althea has a fully formed vision that will serve her well. As a first step, a TD Park Builders grant will help WNAMPSL find its groove.

Althea says: “Doing this at a smaller scale keeps the program more manageable, both for me and for the participants.”

As someone who knows the perils of taking on too much, Althea appreciates having a manageable scope. “I don’t feel like I have to do it all.” In fact, Althea emphasizes that meeting Minaz and receiving this grant was a watershed moment. “For the first time, it became clear to me that I’m no longer alone.. There’s a community of people supporting my vision, work and me. I’m no longer walking alone.”

Cover Photo credit: Gabriel Gonzales 

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