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. 


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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