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Will a Community Garden Bring “Lowlifes” to Winchester Square Park?

A NIMBY-ish fight over a community garden design jeopardizes food for local programs.

Planters along the perimeter of Winchester Square Park.

A dozen raised vegetable garden beds in Cabbagetown’s Winchester Square Park have yet to generate any food, but they have produced a bitter feud involving an experienced activist, an established community organization, and, most recently, the office of Mayor Rob Ford. Since staff at Central Neighbourhood House installed the planters last fall, a small and determined group of residents led by lawyer and activist Karen McArthur have been demanding that the City remove them. Those who object to the planters insist their design will encourage homeless and marginalized people to relax, drink alcohol, and use drugs within the small City-owned park.

McArthur, who once advocated for figure skaters to have greater access to City ice rinks, said she fears the planters will attract “the loiterers, the drinking, the bums.” She has taken dozens of photos and videos of so-called unwanted people in the park, and says their activities are a danger to her three young children. McArthur said she and other residents would support a garden designed to make it “less easy for lowlifes to hang out,” but that their ideas have been ignored by CNH and City staff.

As the summer growing season wears on, the 12 planters, each with the capacity to grow about 100 pounds of food, remain empty, with one exception: the box closest to McArthur’s nearby home in Cabbagetown contains two miniature rose bushes that she planted herself. She told us she put them there to signal to her neighbours, “Please don’t drink; we’re growing stuff here.”

Two miniature rose bushes grow in one planter.

Meanwhile, McArthur has almost single-handedly delayed CNH and community members from planting vegetables by calling City officials, the police, and Mayor Ford’s office at various stages of the process. Community garden member Bob Steffler was incensed by the delays. “If we were to have planted these vegetables now,” he said, “she would have called the police on us.”

Dozens of outraged residents, some with placards supporting the garden, showed up at the park yesterday after hearing that Mayor Ford’s office had ordered the project to be halted. McArthur said that she has been in touch with the administration, and that officials had contacted opponents of the garden to say that the project may be cancelled. Mayor Ford’s office did not return our requests for comment.

As supporters challenged and taunted McArthur in the park, City staff from Parks, Forestry, and Recreation met quietly with CNH staff inside the nearby Bleecker Street Co-op to ease tensions and reaffirm their support for the project. CNH Executive Director Elizabeth Forestell assured us that despite disruptions, “we’ve had the go-ahead for some time.” She emphasized that her organization has spent over four years working with City staff to plan the garden, and that CNH has put just under $13,000 in to realize it. “We’ve put our own resources into it,” Forestell said.

Addy Saeed lives in the area and maintains the website of a group called “Friends of Winchester Park.” He agrees with McArthur that the City did not properly consult the community about the garden. “The issue is not what they’re doing, the issue is the communication,” Saeed said. “They’re sending out information to a select group of people.” He says the City failed to address concerns about soil contamination and the possibility that people might steal from the garden. “What happens if people start stealing the food? Would the next move be to put up a fence?” he asked.

CNH Community Development Coordinator Rebecca Price, who has led the effort to build the garden, said her organization has worked with the City to ensure the soil is safe. She said the garden’s open concept was meant to be inclusive, and that if people steal food, “it speaks to the larger issues that we are facing in the community around food security.” She added that St. Jamestown Community Cafe is one of several groups counting on the garden’s produce for local programming. Price said that although some people were initially opposed to the plan, most residents have come on board after learning more.

As we ended our interview with McArthur, she pointed out two people sitting on a planter and suggested that they were the type of visitors she didn’t want in the park. We approached and asked them what they thought of the controversy. A man called Elvis told us his home is “wherever I can lay my head.”

“If you always think of the bad people, the bad things, that’s what you’ll be walking into,” he said. A woman named Jennifer added that the garden is “just giving people something to do.”

Both said they would be back to work in the garden.

Photos by Desmond Cole/Torontoist.

CORRECTION: 5:12 PM We originally reported that She says Central Neighbourhood House spent $9,000 on the garden; their executive director informs us that the amount is actually just under $13,000.


  • Anonymous


    • Vampchick21

      Apparently. It’s sad really.

  • Vashty Hawkins

    I think someone left her cake out in the rain …

    • Vampchick21

      I think being a litigation lawyer is starting to affect her reason and logic…..

    • Jimmy Jam

      Well played!!!

  • Anonymous

    since when does Rob Ford care about consultation?

  • Weston1975

    Yay! Gentrification!

  • Anonymous

    There’s nothing homeless people love more than vegetables.

  • Chris S

    If you build it, they will come…

  • Canadianskeezix

    I am at a complete loss to understand how the planters will cause a certain “type of visitor” to congregate in the park. I am similarly puzzled why McArthur thnks she has any more entitlement to the space than any other resident of the city. I find it particularly amusing/sad that she is worried about “the loiterers”. Isn’t the great thing about an urban park that one can stop, relax and enjoy the green space?

    Having said that, open space in the central city is valuable, and battles over uses in parks are commonplace. I can understand why some people might believe there are other priorities for the space or a better location in the neighbourhood for the planters. I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but those might be fair comments to make depending on the facts.

    But the actual concerns being raised by McArthur and her cohorts are just bizarre and represent the worst kind of NIMBYism.

  • Steven Smith

    The real question should be: “why is it assumed that we should make public space uncomfortable for the homeless?” The end result of the fixation on making space uncomfortable for “low lifes” is that it is also uncomfortable for everyone else. This means that public space, actually stops being public space, and people stop using it.

    If people are concerned about crime and other unsavory elements disturbing the peace, they should consider that the most effective deterrent is not reducing the usage of public space, but drawing people into public space, what Jane Jacobs calls: “Eyes on the street.”

    Indeed the police often turn to homeless people themselves as key witnesses to crime, because they are out and about, and see what is going on, often ignored by criminals and other citizens alike.

    • Vampchick21

      The other real question is why McArthur thinks planting two lonely mini rosebushes in one planter rather than the intended lush vegetable garden across all the planters would deter those scary lowlifes she’s certain will be offering her daughters bath salts.

  • blah
    • Fonzymorris

      Tenderness and mercy for genital mutilators, not so much for the urban poor.

  • Anonymous

    This is CRYING out for a Flashmob response

    • Anonymous

      A flashmob guerrilla gardening response.

      • Anonymous

        People wearing all Green apart from Guy Fawkes masks……hmmm.
        Is it illegal to garden there without a permit?

        • Anonymous

          Get in and get out quickly, over night, and it’s sort of irrelevant; the issue then becomes a matter of someone really, really wanting to tear all those plants out, and cleaning up after they do.

          • ATV

            I like your thinking

        • Anonymous

          Green overalls with LOWLIFE on them.

  • Bob Loblaw

    Those ain’t rose plants. Just sayin’……..

  • Bill H

    Look, if you people would only support my proposal to outfit the homeless with shock collars designed to keep them out of the parks and streets this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.

    Think of the children people. And the house prices.

  • Corey

    Sounds like the logic of a hyper-vigilant, over-protective mother that has no sensitivity concerning anyone else’s circustances in life. Add in a dose of litigation lawyer and, bam, recipe for disaster. I feel for those less fortunate in that community…and for her children!! Unless they escape her shackles, they don’t stand a chance of being compassionate human beings. (God, I think I threw up a little in my mouth with her references to “Lowlifes”…I didn’t know people still talked like that, much less someone with her education!!)

  • Cabbagetowner

    Karen McArthur is the type of person with little regards to others. For example, she demanded and got the Park people to turn off one of the lights in the park because it shines into her house. Everyone must suffer becasue she wants things done her way.

    Addy Saeed and Karen McArthur are definitely NO friends of Winchester Park. Addy being the sponsor of the web site of Friends of Winchester is a joke and an insult to the people that are real builder of community like CNH.

  • Neighbour

    I live doors from there. As soon as the boxes went up there were syringes left behind them, and prostitutes using them as cover to turn tricks. It is a nice idea, but there was very little communication or consultation with people in the area about this project. I do not agree with the ‘lowlife’ name calling, but this area does face it’s challenges still. There is a community garden close-by at Winchester Public School that is fenced in and it is well managed and looked after. Frankly this one refered to in article is an eye-sore, and rarely is anyone seen tending to it. Let us not confuse the unfortunate choice of words of this advocate’

    • ATV


    • no eyesore

      You can not honestly believe that a garden can do this. The history of what was going on in the park is to blame. People were drinking there before the beds went in. Please do not misguide the public with you mis information.

      There is no way that someone can turn tricks on these beds. A lot of consultation and communication has gone into the process. It is UNFORTUNATE for you that you don’t get the idea here.

      Perhaps you should ask Karen and Addy where this is an eyesore and no activity has occured? Are you aware of how many times that they have tried to STOP the planting and the garden?

      Perhaps you should ask Karen how many times she has come out and harrassed people working in the garden-I saw this on Friday.

      CNH put a butterfly garden up in front of the church which is tened to by your neighbours is this an eysore too?

      Rather than sitting back and criticizing perhaps you should be a part of the change. An eyesore is ignorant people who want to bully their way and stomp their feet like little children to get their way.

    • Anonymous

      You are a terrible liar.

      • Cabbagetowner

        I don’t know who gbread is calling a liar. I live across the street from the park for over 22 years. These kinds of things been going for years especially behind the little church. They feel free to do whatever they want in that space because it looks like no body cares. With the Community Garden, it is engaging the whole neighbourhood and beautification of the space is now taking shape. This is exactly what CNH has intended – to engage the community to reclaim the space for our own use. People now feel pride of ownership and security while walking through the park. I want to send a million thanks to Rebecca Price, CNH, and to the people for their contribution. I would even say thank you to Karen, without her, I would not be as committed to make sure the Community Garden succeed.

    • Kjbrezina

      I also live there. I walk through that park almost every day. It is used by all sorts of people for all sorts of purposes. This was so before CNH installed the planters, and will continue to be so as long as Winchester Square is located in the middle of downtown Toronto.

      Having groups of people making reuglar visits to tend to the plants is going to make it a safer, more well used space. And as we both know there is a massive field to the north were those who covet greenspace can get their fill of it (literally one minute on foot up the street).

  • Michelle Jennings

    We need more of these gardens in Toronto, not less.

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t using the park precisely what will send the right message to those who, shall we say, don’t have the community’s interests at heart?

  • Anonymous

    Karen McArthur is hurting the community she “cares” for. She doesnt have a sociological or scientific leg to stand on. Coyotes? Give me a break.

  • Community

    I live in the area, and often walk through the park. I was delighted to see the raised beds go in last year and even more delighted that they are so tall – people who are wheel chair users would be able to move around them and garden from their chairs. It makes the project seem both thoughtful and accessible.

    I play in the park with my dog (on a leash) and my two year old child – does that make us low-lifes?

    If people want to write to the city in support of the garden, who would they write to? I would be very interested in writing in support and helping the gardens get growing.

    • Cabbagetowner

      You can write to Tom Beyer – special assistance to the Mayor. His email address is He is responsible to this file. And you can also write to mayor Ford himself –

      I encourage everyone to write that is in support of this project.

      • Community

        Thank you and done.

  • Bc

    When some one calls other people lowlifes who really is the lowlife

  • Bc

    The only person I would like not to see in the park is this woman but she still has a right to go there just as do all the rest of us.

  • Redrocket

    “MacArthur Park”… One of the worst songs ever written. Let’s hope this story has an happy ending and has nothing to do with a less than constructive and productive outcome based on a nearly hysterical and paranoid point of view… Please, City of Toronto, don’t leave the cake out in the miserable rain…

  • Becsaini

    I find it puzzling that no one has stop the slanderous propaganda against ms.mcArthur. Is anyone aware that she single handedly had all of the trees planted in the park. Or that her repeated offers to help and asking for her children to be part of the project have been refused. Her points are valid in that pressure treated wood can be dangerous. And if this project does not do regular soil testing it can have serious health implications. Her social activism is of coarse brought out emotional reactions from her. This is right in her backyard and her children are being turned away from the project. If this is a true community project ALL members of that community have a say not just the ones who fully support it. Listen to her valid points may actually improve the project. The main objection to her is that in reality if they did listen the project may be delayed to ensure it is the best it can possibly be. Bottom line they don’t want to delay the project, include everyone and ensure a true community project. This has been negatively spun against one person who rightfully so has an emotional connection to the park since it is less that 15 feet from her home and her children are being denied the access to participate unless they play by their rules. Media can spin an issue to either promote a project and highlight the efforts of opposion to be a thorn in the projects side. Rebecca has not been honest and forthcoming with ms.mcauthurs offers to help

    • Johanne Daoust

      On June 15th when we installed the sub-irrigated system (SIP) in the bottom of the beds I offered Karen and her son a shovel to help us out. She refused my offer of help and continued to photograph the 15 volunteer gardeners with her cell camera. Her son said no as he wanted to play soccer.

      Those beds are now lined with a Hydroplan PVC pool liner which is safe for fish and plants. The liner is NON-toxic, un-recycled polyvinylchloride, german technology, 10 year manufacturer’s warranty and they have in use for over 50 years. The liner is stapled to the inside frame of the beds and covers the wood to the very top. No chance of soil coming in contact with the pressure treated wood now.

      We added organic compost and perlite to amend the soil in the beds. Standard practice in container bed vegetable gardening. Another standard practice is to add organic compost to the beds every season.

  • Becsaini

    Seriously this has been given a negative spin against one individual that in actuality has done nothing but state her concerns. Truth be told ms.mcauthur has offered several times to be part of this group and offered to connect this group with worthy connections. Her points are valid and deserve to be heard respectfully and considered. Planting in pressure treated boxes is a concern if the soil is not tested. Does this group have the money to test the soil on and ongoing basis year after year? Ms. Mcauthur has presented other boxes that are safer and end up being cheaper. Of coarse everyone has been made aware that it was her efforts that the city finally planted the trees in the park. Becareful before you respond to the propoganda you read and ensure you have both sides not just what one wants you to know. This individual has asked for her children to be allowed to participate which they have been denied. Does Rebecca tell you that? The main issues is that if they listen to this individuals ideas they realize that it might be best to postpone the idea and fully develop a safer idea and they don’t want to do that so they have used media to slander and misinform the public. Has this individual been emotional over the issue and at times fierce? Of coarse being a social advocate is all about fighting for something you believe in. This is where her kids are being denied the right to participate. How would you feel? Let’s all be honest here and realized that one individual making a stink because she cares gives no group the right to threaten and try and shut her up by shaming her through media. I ask Rebecca to produce the email trail between them and it clearly will show ms.mcauthurs repeated request to be apart of the garden group. Shame on Rebecca for acting all innocent and slandering and denying children the right to be included.

    • Cabbagetowner

      Here comes the children card….

      Ms. McArthur’s confrontational style of communication, such as calling the police, parks and rec, and the mayor office to stop the program so that she can get things done her way has not been constructive at all. She may have some good points about the trees and the soil. Because of her comments/action, the trees are now planted, the soil has been tested with no problem and the boxes have been lined. Those are all good things. However, the way she communicated and the way she used our tax dollar by calling in authority to stop the program had angered so many people that she will not be welcome in participating in any of the program. Unfortunately, this will extend to her children. Because, the sight of her right now trigger so much negative emotional response that it will not be good for anyone, including her and her children.

      Overtime, this may fade. In the meantime, I suggest Ms. McArthur to send a open letter of apology to the community and ask for forgiveness. This may start the healing process.

  • Becsaini

    Wow, propaganda sure works doesnt it. Rebecca has lead you to believe that she has not confabulated facts and in actuallity has denied karen and her famiily access to participate in the project. She has suggested ways to make the project safer, more cost efficent and sustainable for years to come usposted to the one trick pony way. She researched it a provided Rebecca with these connections to do so, did Rebecca tell the community that? So it means delaying the project. Do you not want the best you can for the park and the garden beds? I also notice that karens efforts for the park have benifited everyone as well. Did you know that it was karens persistance to the city that got those 17 trees finally planted after 10 years of her fighting for them. Really? Did you expect her not to be emotionally charged when her kids are being denied access to participate in a “community” project? I would be very emotional about something that effected my kids. Lets back up the bus and listen to everyone and not he propaganda that social activism is know to use to intimidate and silence oppostion parties. Slandering one women only makes them look like the bullies not karen.