Vital Signs showcases where parks are vital

The release of the Toronto Foundation’s annual Vital Signs report has provided Torontonians with both a wide and deep look into our city. There are a lot of bright spots and also a lot of areas that require us to do more work to ensure that Toronto is a city that is inclusive, equitable, and resilient.

Here we highlight three key areas where parks intersect with some of the report’s findings. 

Parks and Resilience

Vital Signs offers a glimpse into Toronto’s climate change future that should give us all pause.

The cost of damage from extreme weather has increased four times in the last decade. In the next thirty years, it’s predicted that Toronto will suffer from 2.5 times more extreme hot weather days and that the maximum daily rainfall amount could double by 2050, causing even more flooding and damage to parks and neighbourhoods.

As we wrote about in our Resilient Parks Resilient City report and our recent blog on parks and climate change, parks play a huge role in helping cities adapt to an environment that is wetter and wilder.

Parks do this by moderating air temperatures, soaking up stormwater, cleaning the air of harmful pollutants, and more. We recently spoke to the Globe and Mail about this very fact. 

In Toronto, the ravines are paramount to the city’s ability to mitigate the effects of climate change. As the green network that threads throughout the entire city, the ravines provide key natural spaces that perform important ecological services like stormwater management and reducing the urban heat island effect.

In 2017, Toronto approved its first ever Ravine Strategy, which aims to maintain and improve the health and resilience of this incredible natural feature. While the strategy is excellent, it also needs funding approved for its implementation. This should be a key focus in upcoming budgets. 

Parks and Growth

As Vital Signs notes — using statistics from our first Canadian City Parks Report — Toronto has on average of 2.4 hectares of parkland per 1,000 people. While this is on the lower end, it’s also in line with other major urban centres like Montreal (2.7ha) and Vancouver (2ha). 

This showcases the difficulty of ensuring parks keep pace with cities that are growing in both population and density. Indeed, growth is a big feature of Vital Signs, with the report stating that Toronto grew by more than 77,000 in 2018 alone. Toronto’s parks also aren’t evenly distributed, with some areas of the city requiring more investment in new green spaces to keep up with this growth.

Toronto is on the right track by investing heavily in growth-focused plans, such as the Facilities Master Plan, TOcore Parks and Public Realm Plan, and forthcoming Parkland Strategy. These strategies are key in understanding where investments in parkland and recreational facilities are most needed. 

However, strategies are only as good as the dollars we have to invest in their implementation. With changes made by the Provincial government to how cities collect development fees that can be spent on parks and recreation facilities, there is much uncertainty about the financial underpinnings of these parks strategies. 

Ensuring these plans are funded remains a critical challenge, especially as the Province releases the new regulations that will govern these new rules.

Parks and Social Isolation

Parks are places of nature, but they are also places of people. Many of us head to our neighbourhood park to hang out with friends and family, meet community members, or simply people-watch. 

There are some worrying trends in Toronto’s social fabric that Vital Signs highlights. For example, some populations like people living on lower incomes, newcomers, and young people have a weaker sense of belonging, are more likely to feel socially isolated, or have less people they can call on in an emergency situation. 

As our Sparking Change report found, parks can be powerful enablers of social connection that combat social isolation, but this depends on having a park that contains the right amenities, is well-kept, and well-programmed. 

In fact, a recent study of US parks found that each additional supervised activity in a park leads to a 48% increase in park use, making parks engines that power human connection and community. Events and activities provide an opportunity for people to come out and meet new people, building their local social networks and creating a greater sense of belonging. 

One effective way to do this is through arts events. Vital Signs found that people living on lower incomes lack access to arts events.

Our work with the Toronto Arts Foundation on its Arts in the Parks initiative for the last three years has seen us connecting local community groups with artists in neighbourhoods outside the downtown core. This provides community members with an opportunity to engage with their neighbours and participate in an arts event without paying an entrance fee.

While many people appreciate the intrinsic value of parks, they are not often part of the conversation when talking about critical resilience infrastructure and investment in social services. However, as we’ve outlined here, parks play important roles in addressing many of the issues raised in the Vital Signs report. 


Lonely? Head to your local park

When I first moved to Toronto, I didn’t know many people. I found myself wandering out of my apartment day after day that first summer and plopping down in various parks around the city. Being in a park relaxed my mind, but placing myself amongst the energy of the people around me also helped me feel more connected to my new home.

Turns out I’m not alone in seeking out parks to make me feel less alone.

A new survey produced by CARP, a national organization that advocates for the health and vibrancy of people as they age, found that living near a park had a huge effect on reducing feelings of loneliness.

As Wanda Morris, VP of CARP, wrote of the survey in the National Post:

“The most intriguing result from the survey was the effectiveness of parks in reducing loneliness and social isolation. Even when we controlled for socioeconomic status, green space mattered. A lot. In statistical terms, the relationship between avoiding loneliness and living near a park was four times greater than the relationship between avoiding loneliness and having children.”

That’s pretty astounding. But it also gels with what we’ve seen at Park People in our own work and research about why people love and get involved in parks.

For example, when we surveyed park friends groups—volunteer-led groups caring and animating local parks—and asked them why they volunteered their time, we found that the second most popular reason (after spending time in nature, of course) was to meet neighbours and build social connections.

And combatting loneliness and social isolation was one of the key impacts we found in our Sparking Change research, which looked specifically at the benefits of park engagement in underserved neighbourhoods. Many of the people we spoke with at the community level told us they first got involved because they wanted to create opportunities for social connection in their community—for the park to become a hub.

Reaping the benefits of a park’s social environment doesn’t just happen though. It takes easy access to a park (a 10-minute walk is good), and the right mix of amenities and structured and unstructured programming to provide a platform for social connections.

Research has shown, for example, the importance of amenities like playgrounds and dog parks for social interaction as it gives parents and dog owners reason to chat with each other. But programming, like music events, community picnics, and farmers’ markets, is also important in encouraging people to not only stay in the park for longer periods of time, but actually talk with people.

All of this has huge equity implications. If people have less access to green space in their neighbourhood, they are automatically shut out of the positive wellbeing benefits of living near a park. And if they live near a park, but that park offers little in terms of the amenities or programming that people actual want, then that too can result in a disadvantage.

This last point was highlighted in some of the interviews we did for Sparking Change from residents and agency workers in some of Toronto’s tower communities—neighbourhoods characterized by large towers surrounded by open space mainly outside of the downtown core.

Whether it was Rexdale, Thorncliffe Park, or Flemingdon Park, community members spoke about the vital importance of improving and animating the green spaces in their community in order to bring people together and create a shared space that could act as that “hub.” This meant connecting with residents to brainstorm programming like small festivals, organize programming specifically for older adults and youth, advocate for new amenities (like a tandoor oven), and bring people together over sharing food and tips at a community garden.

Because having a green space nearby is good, but having one nearby that you love is even better. See you in the park.

For more information, read our Sparking Change report and our literature review.



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