A Ravine Runs Through It: Meet Rowntree Mills Park’s own Ravine Champion

Rowntree Mills Park, one of Toronto’s largest parks, is bisected by the Humber River which flows through en route to Lake Ontario. This unique riverfront park is in Rexdale which is home to 24.4% of GTA’s immigrant population, many of whom live in one of the community’s many highrises.

Adassa is a proud member of her community who, once retired from a customer service role, embraced the opportunity to become more deeply involved in Rexdale.

Early in her retirement, Adassa signed on to become a Walk Leader with Park People’s Walk in the Park program. It was there that Adassa first discovered Rowntree Mills Park, which had been around the corner from her apartment for more than 20 years.

“In Rexdale, most of the events and activities happen indoors, at the community centres, “ Adassa explains, “and I was busy working and raising my kids, so I never really went to the park or knew about the ravine.”

Adassa is wearing the purple hat next to one of her fellow walk leader

Now, Adassa is excited to become an InTO the Ravines Community Champion, helping to spread the word about the ravines in her community so more people know about the incredible gem of a park right in their backyards.

Toronto’s Ravine Strategy, now in the implementation phase, has a focus on helping to share the nature and history of the ravines with Toronto residents:

“Toronto’s ravines provide great opportunities for people to connect with nature and the city’s rich history. We must ensure that people understand and appreciate the value of our ravine system and have physical opportunities to connect with these spaces in a safe and sustainable manner.”

Adassa’s deep connection to the ravines was inspired by Etobicoke Master Gardener Jim Graham who led her group on a series of nature walks. Jim knows the wildlife of the ravines more than anyone and he fervently believes that the ravines are home to the best quality natural spaces in the city. While he’s sometimes frustrated by what he sees as “laziness and apathy” around exploring nature, he relishes the opportunity to share his view on the ravines with anyone who is keen to learn more.

“In a way Covid has been a blessing,” he says. “People are starting to use their local parks more than ever.” Park People’s recent Parks and Covid national survey, shows that 66% of Canadians are visiting local parks more frequently since Covid.

When Jim led Adassa through the ravine, he was able to show her how invasive species are threatening the native species that struggle to grow in the ravines. He showed her native wild raspberries and blooming bloodroot plants that captivated her attention. He also highlighted the encouraging sight of American toads that are an indicator species whose presence shows that the ravines’ water quality is currently very good.

Adassa was amazed: “I love to garden. There are so many types of wildflowers and edible plants in the ravines. I was so surprised.”

While for now, in-person events and activities in the ravines will be very limited, the InTO the Ravines program and a group of 10 InTO the Ravine Community Champions like Adassa will help people feel more connected to nature, and to one another this fall.

To see all of the opportunities to learn more about and celebrate the ravines, see Park People’s ravine events listings. Be sure to check out all that’s planned for InTO The Ravines on the InTO the Ravines web page.

 

InTO the Ravines, a program in partnership with the City of Toronto

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. 

 

The Benefits of Getting Out of your Park Comfort Zone

Toronto is a big city made up of many distinct neighbourhoods. For most of us, our lives generally revolve around local friends, businesses, and the public spaces that are close to home. Travelling to other neighbourhoods, however, offers new perspectives on what’s working in other places and opens up new possibilities for enhancing the familiar places we frequent on a regular basis.

This is the core principle behind the tours we offer through the TD Park Builders program which encourages community engagement and animation of vital community green space through micro-grants for Toronto’s underserved neighbourhoods.

The tours are opportunities for people working hard to transform their parks to witness park efforts in other neighbourhoods.

Our latest TD Park Builders tour was to downtown Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park. This infamous park has probably received more global media attention than any other Toronto Park. The Project for Public Space called Dufferin Grove “More like a big backyard.”

We knew we had taken some of the TD Park Builders out of their comfort zone when a group from Friends of Chester Le Park inquired whether they were Mississauga. Once we got our bearings straight, the visit opened everyone’s eyes to new possibilities for their parks.

Warming Up to The Bake Oven:

Eighteen Toronto parks have public bake ovens. Dufferin Grove’s bake oven was among the first, built in the summer of 1995. CELOS (stands for Centre For Local Research into Public Space) which collaborated with the City to bring the bake oven to the park, is so entrenched in bake ovens that it runs a website dedicated to sharing information about public bake ovens. Spacing Magazine awarded Jutta Mason, CELOS’ administrator, the 2001 Jane Jacobs prize and called the bake oven: “the hallmark of community revitalization for the Dufferin Grove Park community.”

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Naheed, coordinator, Thorncliffe Action Group (TAG) bakes scones with Dale from Montgomery Inn

The TD Park Builders experienced the magical impact of the public bake oven at key points of throughout the day-long tour.

The morning started with fresh scones with jam; lunch was an “all-hands-on-deck” DIY pizza making session prepared by tour members. The experience of enjoying food made in the park cannot be underestimated. It made the park feel like a cozy kitchen with everyone gathered around the table. Also, the collaborative experience of helping to make and then share a collaborative meal creates both personal efficacy and community connection. The people who felt and experienced the bake oven left with a profound understanding of what elements like these bring to parks and communities.

Sitting in The Shade:

Jutta Mason, CELOS’ Administrator doesn’t take the matter of seating lightly. She tells the group when her mother first visited the park she told Jutta, “people need places to sit.” Jutta instinctively understood that what she really meant was older people need places to sit. Dufferin Grove now has a large shaded nook surrounded by gardens and shade where people of all ages can choose from several park benches.

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The shady picnic benches were the ideal spot for 20+ TD Park Builders to gather and listen to Jutta share the history of the park and pass along gems of wisdom from her many years dedicated to this work and community. The park benches gave tour members respite from the hot August temperatures and gave us all a comfortable place to gather and socialize.

You could easily imagine any number of community meetings, philosophical discussions or  family celebrations taking place around this cluster of benches.

Simple features like Dufferin Grove Parks’ benches make it clear how important it is to have well-considered seating.

Getting Animated with Art

Dufferin Grove Park has long been a hotbed of creativity. The park has been Clay & Paper Theatre‘s performance space since 1994. Every year, the group hosts Night of Dread which culminates into a neighbourhood parade of that they describe as “our private and collective fears through the darkened streets of Toronto.” For the tour,  Dufferin Grove invited several artists to the park to share their work with TD Park Builders, including Clay & Paper Theatre, Cooking Fire TheatreArt in the Park and Meredith Thompson, an incredible tap dancer who performed on a picnic bench and had all of us grinning ear-to-ear. A question that came up again-and-again was: “How can I do this kind of art in my park?” Of course, it’s not a simple process or journey, but eyes were opened to the possibilities of bringing different kinds of artistic expression to public spaces.

 

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Meredith Thompson performs a tap routine on a picnic bench

We encourage you to get outside your park comfort zone. One of the easiest ways to do this is to pick a park event and in a new part of the city. Visit parkpeople.ca/events to find one that suits you. If you’d like to know more about Dufferin Grove,be sure to check out  Dufferin Grove Park as a neighbourhood commons, 1993 to 2015.

Many, many Thanks to Dufferin Grove and to Jutta Mason for hosting the event. As always, thank you to TD Bank Group for providing TD Park Builder Grants micro-grants that support our Sparking Change initiative.

 

 

This initiative is part of Park People’s Sparking Change Program, which works to create green community hubs in underserved neighbourhoods. It is made possible with generous support from TD Bank Group, The John and Marion Taylor Family Fund, City of Toronto, Cultural Hotspot, Toronto StreetArt, Toronto Arts Foundation, Toronto Community Housing and Ontario Trillium Foundation.

 

TIFF In Your Park in 2015

This summer Park People and TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) piloted TIFF in Your Park, an event series celebrating TIFF’s 40th anniversary, in collaboration with ten community groups across the GTA to bring movie nights to parks via Community Games Festivals. Each Festival consisted of a variety activities promoting healthy and active living as well as showcasing current park programming initiatives within each community. The summer long event series totalled over 3000 attendees and concluded on September 4th at Prairie Drive Park.

David Carey, Director of Government & Foundation Relations and Philanthropy at TIFF, noted the importance of teaming up with local partners for this project: “like Park People, we think that when communities get involved, parks get better. There’s something very special about watching a film outdoors; sharing a communal cinematic experience with your neighbours. In addition to acting as meeting places and recreation hubs, Toronto’s parks and green spaces make for pretty great cinemas too”.

To complete the Community Games Festivals experience, attendees were also given a staple movie snack – popcorn! For Joseph Villegas, owner of the Toronto Popcorn Company, it was important to be involved: “Toronto Popcorn Company is a business that was inspired by our dear city’s diversity. Being an immigrant myself, I am very fortunate to have been able to be given the opportunity to jump start a small business It’s our own little way of reciprocating the warmth and acceptance that this wonderful city has offered us”.

Overall, the program has received positive response throughout. In addition to providing local residents the experience of a new type of park programming, it also allowed them the opportunity to build a sense of community. Anthony Rampersad, a Community Leader of Scarborough Village, said: “Apart from looking at concrete walls and sitting at home all day we were able to experience engaging with the community, being outside enjoying nature and experience what the community has to offer. Having this event makes you understand who you are living next to. It gives you a connection. I feel being in a community of apartments it limits you because you cannot go and meet people and build relationships. This event does that.”

Finally, we would like to thank the Toronto Popcorn Company, Kernels Popcorn Limited, Toronto Foundation, Friends of the Games, and the Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF in Your Park returns in 2016. Stay tuned for details on how you can get your community involved by joining our mailing list.

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