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.

 

The Power of Small: The TD Park Builders’ Community Gardens Tour

Conversations about parks often gravitate toward large-scale projects that transform big swaths of land. While big parks are indeed important, this summer I learned a valuable lesson about the power of small.

On a sweltering day, 30 recipients of the TD Park Builders grant program boarded a big yellow school bus with an ambitious goal of visiting five community gardens–from Scarborough to Rexdale.

Led by our Outreach Manager, Minaz, we visited The Access Alliance Rooftop Garden, Panorama Community Garden, Prairie Drive Community Garden, 1021 Birchmount Road TCHC Community Garden and Black Farmers and Growers Collective.

These visits  made it clear to me that community gardens deliver some of the highest returns per square foot than almost any park project you could name.

Here’s why:

1. Community Gardening Culture is a Learning Culture.

The TD Park Builders met for breakfast at Access Alliance, and, like many meetings, the day started with a round of introductions.

Without fail the grantees, each of whom run highly successful community gardens, said they were on the tour to learn from other members of the group and from the gardens on the tour.

One introduction involved a participant passing around a large basket of ripened tomatoes that would make any gardener gush with pride. Like the other grantees, this experienced gardener expressed her desire to learn more to make her garden better.

The open-minded and open-hearted curiosity I witnessed among the group reminded me why community gardens produce such a hearty bounty of social capital like building strong social ties and neighborhood cohesion. Community gardeners are linked by a limitless curiosity that far exceeds the square footage you’d find in even the biggest city park.

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2.  Community Gardening is an All-Ages Party:

One of the challenges Friends of Park groups face is serving many groups in a single space. The default is often to put up a play structure that serves children, but often not other age groups.

It’s hard to create parks that are meaningful for older people, and almost unheard of to create a space that is welcoming to both younger and older folks.

The TD Park Builders community garden tour demonstrated that community gardens are unique in their appeal to multiple demographics. We had in our midst a rare sight: teens talking to people their parents’ age, seniors mixing with kids their grandchildren’s age and every iteration in between.

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While people generally agree on the value of bridging the age gap, it is extremely difficult to create intergenerational programming that delivers on that promise. As demonstrated on the tour, community gardens bring people of different ages together around a common interest that supersedes age limits.

3. Cultural Differences Meet Common Cause:

Many people have talked about the vital role community gardens play in supporting people who have experienced the traumas of displacement, such as new immigrants and refugees. However, few people have pointed out community gardens’ role in promoting interculturality.

The tour included several grantees whose first language is Mandarin. At one point in the tour, one of the hosts forgot to pause to allow for translation.

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Without hesitation, the English speaking members of the group stopped the presenter and asked: “Do you mind slowing down so this can be translated?”

For me, this was a glorious and telling moment when it was clear that members of the group valued inclusion above all. It’s was a small gesture that spoke volumes about their sensitivity to cultural diversity and their deep commitment to making knowledge accessible.

Let’s not forget, in a community garden, Chinese long beans grow alongside Jamaican callaloo.

 

Special thanks goes out to our tour guides and participants for an outstanding day. An extra special thank you to Hanbo Jie for translating throughout the tour.

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.

 

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