What Ping-Pong can tell us about city parks

In 2012, Dianne Moore, a long time Rotary Club volunteer, was fortuitously seated next to Park People’s Executive Director Dave Harvey at a community meeting. It was there that Dianne shared her idea with Dave: What if we could get outdoor ping pong tables into Toronto parks? Inspired by a love of ping pong she cultivated by playing daily with her dad as a child in Windsor, Dianne had been noodling the idea around for some time. Dave’s advice was simple. He said: “Go for it.” And, Dianne did. With gusto.

At last count, Dianne’s model for concrete outdoor ping pong tables is in 106 parks, most of which are in Toronto. A recent article highlighting Vancouver’s emerging ping pong scene admits:

“The game has become the hip new urban trend in Vancouver – belatedly.”

The popularity of outdoor ping pong and our conversation with Dianne got us thinking about what’s really behind the table tennis trend? What can we learn from ping-pong that we can apply to city parks across Canada, to help them engage more people with amenities and programming? Here’s what we discovered.

Keep it Cheap & Cheerful: 

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Ping Pong Table at Mel Lastman Square

You don’t need lessons, don’t need to join a league and there’s no fancy equipment required to play ping pong. This is definitely contributing to its spreading appeal. In fact, a recent Statistics Canada report shows that ping pong’s exploding growth is consistent with trends across the country:

“Canadians are moving away from organized sports to informal sports activity in their leisure time.”

Some experts hypothesize that the rising costs of organized sports and intense competition may be turning some people off traditional, competitive activities like soccer.  At the same time, activities like walking and jogging are on the rise. Cities can respond to this very real shift in behaviours and interests by making it easier for people to engage in informal activities that boost their health and well being. Investments like ping pong tables and walking loops help make it possible for people to engage in fun, healthy activities when they want, where they want, and with very little cost.

It’s About the Social, Silly:


Stanley Park Ping-Pong Table

Dianne believes that the increasing number of high-density apartments and condominiums has left many people looking for ways to connect with one-another in pretty traditional, face-to-face, ways. As a person who lives in a multi-story building Dianne says

“there are so many people I would never have met without ping pong,” adding “really, nothing compares to it.”

As we’ve highlighted in a previous post dedicated to parks’ impact on social isolation, more and more people are living alone and reports highlight that it’s deadly. Instead of trying to persuade people to live together, journalist Erik Kleinberg suggests, “we’d all be better off accepting that going solo is a new norm and doing whatever we can to make it a safer, healthier and more social experience.”

Mediated shared experiences like ping pong help people socialize with each other without the awkwardness of a cocktail party. Somehow having a ball and a net between you creates a safe, shared space that helps make engagement comfortable for people who may not otherwise be inclined to socialize.

Low Barrier:

Nearly anyone can play ping pong. You can play it regardless of age, it’s relevant to numerous cultures and it’s suitable for people with differing abilities. Dianne has witnessed people running from their offices to catch a round of ping-pong over their lunch hour, and has seen kids and adults playing together much like she did with her dad.

“You don’t even need a common language to play together,” Dianne asserts.

Dianne has shared the designs for her concrete outdoor ping pong table with a visitor from Pakistan who saw them in Toronto and has since had three tables built in parks there. Dianne’s Rotary Club also donated two ping pong tables to the Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba as a gesture of friendship and support. We know quality amenities help get more people to parks. A recent study of parks in the US found that “most parks are geared toward youth rather than adults.” The popularity of outdoor ping pong tables shows that adults, as well as kids, need meaningful ways to engage in our parks, helping them build the social infrastructure that’s needed to keep people healthier and happier.

So, More Ping-Pong Anyone?

Yes, of course, more ping-pong . But the ping-pong phenomenon really tells us that we need to ensure that parks foster social connections and fun, physical activities for people of all ages, abilities and income levels. The classic play structure you see in parks across Canada only targets one population-kids. There are opportunities to attract more adults into our parks and, at the same time, keep them more physically fit and mentally healthy.

Also, this ping-pong tale reminds us that people like Diane have had great success bringing their ideas to life in parks. With a lot of tenacity and innovation, anything’s possible in a park.

Four years ago, we made a great little video to celebrate the first ping-pong table being unveiled at Mel Lastman square. It hits on many of the themes, and even features Diane Moore.



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