Parks and the creation of social capital

I had a friend in university who would pass the same person each day. Their schedules just matched up so they walked by each other at the same time in the same spot. It got to the point where they would nod hello or say hi to each other—their only interaction. My friend called this person her “vortex friend” and I’ve since become obsessed with the importance of vortex friends for making us feel like we’re part of a community.

I thought about this anecdote while reading the Toronto Foundation’s ground-breaking research report into Toronto’s social capital, which examines the levels of group trust, civic connection, social networks, and local agency in Toronto. It’s a fascinating look into our city and provides some interesting intersections with research that we’ve done here at Park People into the social impacts of parks.

In our Sparking Change report from 2016, we spoke with park volunteers, non-profit leaders, and city staff from municipalities in the US and Canada who were doing hands-on work in local parks in underserved neighbourhoods to better understand the social impacts of that work.

Our research found that engaging in local parks can help create a sense of shared ownership, increase civic engagement, reduce social isolation, and provide a place for people to meet across difference. All, by the way, important elements of increasing social capital as detailed in the Toronto Foundation report. Parks achieved this, largely, because they provide a way for people to meet their neighbours—to build connections with people, including those different from them in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic status, or race and ethnicity (what the Toronto Foundation report calls “bridging capital”).

The power of just saying hello

One of the interesting things we found when reviewing the academic literature around social connections was the importance of the casual connections in our lives, even if it’s knowing someone just enough to say hello. As we wrote in our Sparking Change report:

The casual interactions between people in parks—a simple hello, nod, or wave of the hand—are small but powerful. The results of these interactions—what some researchers call “weak ties”… can lead to greater feelings of safety, social support, and reduced feelings of social isolation. The creation of these ties contributes to social capital—the social connections, trust, and support that are important not only for strong, healthy communities, but also for developing networks that can link people to opportunities, such as jobs.

While the Toronto Foundation report doesn’t explicitly use the term “weak ties,” it does highlight how critical knowing your neighbours can be.

It turns out knowing your neighbours is super important—and not just for borrowing that cup of sugar—but for fostering a higher sense of trust, engagement, social network, and belonging. For example, over half of those surveyed who said they know their neighbours rated their sense of belonging as strong, while only six percent of those who don’t know their neighbours did the same. That’s a big gap.

Park as social infrastructure

As we always say at Park People, parks are not simply patches of grass, but critical pieces of social infrastructure in our cities that can help fuel communities that are more socially connected.

The park as venue for social connection is particularly critical in a city as rich and dense in high-rise towers as Toronto—both in our downtown and the inner suburbs.

As the Toronto Foundation report points out, people who live in single-detached dwellings (houses) are much more likely to know their neighbours than those of us who live in high-rise apartment buildings. We know at Park People that providing a great, well-maintained park nearby with amenities and programming that draws people out and gives them a reason to stay, can help us meet our neighbours, even if we live 30-storeys up in a box in the sky.

Not all parks are created equal

Of course, the social benefits of parks don’t just happen because you have a park nearby. As with almost all things, there is an equity lens that needs to be applied. Our own literature review found that the quality of a park (how well maintained it is), the amenities provided (how it meets our needs) and the programming in that park (how engaging it is) is critical in encouraging people to not just come out to a park, but interact with others.

That’s why so much of our work focuses on distributing the benefits of high quality, engaging parks beyond the high-profile parks, often downtown, that already achieve a lot of them.

We do this through our Sparking Change program (named after the research we did), where we provide capacity building and micro-grants to those living in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas in Toronto to help them animate their local park. But we also do this through programs like Arts in the Parks, where we work with the Toronto Arts Council to bring arts programming to parks outside the downtown core, and our own TD Park People grants, where we fund small community events in parks in five different Canadian cities.

So the next time you’re out in the park, be sure to nod hello, and know that you’re doing your part to make your community feel a little more socially connected.

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