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cityscape

Toronto’s Park People Creating Fertile Ground for Growing Neighbourhoods

One year in, we check in with the people behind Park People, an organization that wants to make the city within a park even better.

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Toronto is a city that loves its parks. When the weather gets warm and the leaves begin to unfurl, it can seem like the entire city is out lounging on the various grassy lawns and park benches and splashing in the wading pools. But not all parks are created equal, and getting a dynamite neighbourhood park takes a lot of work.

That’s where Park People comes in.

Park People works to engage Torontonians with their parks, providing support and guidance to neighbourhood groups, and advocating for better parks. The organization is the brain child of David Harvey, author of “Fertile Ground for New Thinking,” a report on the state of Toronto’s parks that’s well worth a read. As it finishes up its first year, Park People has acquired Anna Hill, who will be acting as Park People’s community outreach coordinator. We spoke to both as the organization gears up for its second annual Park Summit, taking place this Saturday at the Evergreen Brickworks.

A Friend in Need

“Parks aren’t as good as they can be,” Harvey says. “We’ve been taking our parks for granted.” But, he adds, “there’s this appetite in communities to get involved in parks and there’s been people doing great things in their parks for decades. It’s about building that network up into a higher level and getting better parks.”

One of the ways that Park People sees this happening is by fostering the creation of “Friends Of” groups, which are created by community members who are interested in taking stewardship of their local park. These groups do a variety of different work from organizing farmers markets and community gardens to small festivals and pizza nights. Some of them, like the Friends of Trinity Bellwoods or Friends of Dufferin Grove have been very successful in activating their parks and serve as models for other groups.

“There’s 1,600 parks in Toronto and just over 50 Friends Of groups,” Hill says, “So there’s more work to be done.”

“But,” Harvey says, “That’s 10 more than there were last year.” Harvey says that Park People has lent a helping hand in the creation of these new groups and expects even more to crop up in the next year.

Park People encourages these new groups by connecting them with other groups and sharing information, but also through a handy do-it-yourself guidebook that explains everything from the organizational structure of a Friends Of group to working with City staff to fundraising tips. Hill is particularly proud of the guidebook. “It’s a consolidated resource book of information, stories, tips, and a list of the different types of development you can do in parks that makes it a lot easier for new groups to get off the ground.”

“Generally,” she says, “the parks that have the Friends Of groups are much more activated and tend to be more developed as well, so it’s really important for people to take ownership of public spaces and help to shape them.”

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Financing the Parks We Want

One of the most pressing concerns Harvey identified for Toronto’s parks was maintenance. “By and large as a city we’re very well served by the number of parks. The big issue now is that the parks are fraying around the edges, and there’s this capital backlog and the backlog is getting bigger.”

Concerns over maintenance also affects the design of new parks, Harvey says. “With increasingly limited funds for park maintenance and support, the City is going to this concept of building the easiest-to-maintain park, so it’s just a little bit of grass a couple of benches and a tree and that’s not serving the community’s needs.”

As often happens with municipal issues, the conversation shifts to one of funding. “I think there needs to be a thoughtful consideration of how to find new funding sources for maintenance in parks,” Hill says. She mentions an idea to use Section 37 money, the funds the City gets from developers who are going through a re-zoning, to fund future park maintenance. (Currently, Section 37 money is only available for capital projects.)

Park People has also previously advocated, in one of their park solutions papers, the idea of mobilizing private capital for park funding, an idea that may make some Torontonians uncomfortable, but which is used in many U.S. cities. “I think there are ways that we can bring in private sector funding that don’t involve major advertising in parks,” Harvey says. However, he says, “we can’t let the City off the hook for being the core funder, the core responsibility for new parks and park maintenance across the city. This can’t be about bringing in private sector funding for parks because the City is cutting back funding for parks.” Any private sector funding, he says, should be above and beyond the City’s own funding, allowing parks to be more animated and have better programming and amenities.

Investment in our city’s public spaces can improve private residences and neighbourhoods, Hill adds. “It’s really worth nurturing our parks for many reasons beyond having a nice park,” she says, “A great way to develop a neighbourhood is to develop a park.”

“Or,” Harvey adds, “conversely, a great way to ruin a neighbourhood is to have a horrible park. It can really make it a place you don’t want to live.”

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Diverse City, Diverse Parks

Toronto is an incredibly culturally diverse city, but do our parks reflect and provide opportunities for that diversity? “No,” Harvey says, “I think there’s still a lot of work to be done on that.” Park People hopes to work more in new immigrant and diverse communities “to help form citizens’ groups or Friends Of groups in neighbourhoods that don’t have them so that these communities can really articulate what it is they need in a park to fully activate that park for the community.”

Having good parks is especially important for new immigrants, as they provide a space to socialize and meet people in their community. Parks “really are the areas of the city that are great democratic areas that anybody can get into and anybody can use,” Harvey says. “They’re these real mixing areas.”

Hill, who is originally from the United States, knew no one when she arrived in Toronto. “Everyone I met in my first year in Toronto I met in my park,” she says. “And if it wasn’t for my local park, I’m not quite sure how I would have met people, so I think that parks are critical places for new immigrants. Especially new immigrants that have young children. You need these public spaces, the places where new immigrants can go to kindle the beginnings of a first relationship.”

There is also a disparity between more and less affluent neighbourhoods and their parks. “Often the more affluent areas are in more dense neighbourhoods so people use their park more actively,” Harvey says. “Where you are in inner suburbs, there’s a lot of green space, but it’s not set up to be all that activated.” There’s also the issue of funds, of course. “In the more affluent neighbourhoods the Friends Of groups can do some fundraising or they’ve got that capacity to make a difference with their councillor because they’re politically connected or they’ve got people who can write grant applications and know where to submit for grants.”

The vast majority of the Friends Of groups in Toronto are located in downtown parks, Hill says, but she is hoping to change that as she works on building connections in the city’s priority neighbourhoods and new-immigrant communities. She mentions Dallington Park as an example, where mothers from Albania and Pakistan sit on the steering committee for their local park group.

Both Hill and Harvey are excited about rolling out some new programs in the coming year, while continuing to spread information and connect park groups across the city. It’s great to see so many people engaged in their communities and working to make their public spaces the kind of places that work for them. Because in the city within a park, we’re all park people.

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