David Harvey loves urban parks, and that love inspired him to found, in 2011, Park People, a charitable organization dedicated to helping people get involved with their local green spaces.
One of its first initiatives was creating a Toronto city park network (now expanded across Canada) to help start and support local parks groups to organize events such as farmers’ markets, add facilities such as pizza or tandoor ovens, tend gardens, and clean up invasive plants and litter.
Four years ago it began issuing a report offering insights into how parks can better serve their neighbourhoods. The just-published 2022 Canadian City Parks Report reveals that the pandemic has changed how Canadians use parks. When people could not get together indoors, parks became a refuge, a respite, and a gathering place, especially for the many Canadians who don’t have a backyard.
“From more frequent walks along trails, to eating outdoors, to spending more time in naturalized areas, city residents are using their parks more than ever for things they were not doing before the pandemic,” the report states.
It’s no wonder people have been flocking to parks. In a survey of more than 3,000 Canadians for the report, 94 per cent said parks improved their mental health, and 91 per cent said parks boosted their physical health. Given those benefits, the increase in park use is set to continue; 58 per cent of respondents said they wanted to spend even more time in their parks.
It’s a trend visible in Harvey’s beloved Riverdale Park East. “It’s my escape,” he says about the expanse of turf and trees that’s a gateway into the Don Valley ravines where he walks, bikes, jogs and, in the winter, cross-country skis. “You can be 100 miles away from the city in seconds.”
Over the course of the pandemic, the park, with its stadium-like slope overlooking downtown, became a destination for people to hang out (in socially distanced groups) and watch the sun set. Harvey speaks fondly about how he and his aging big brown rescue dog, Clarence, enjoy just sitting together amid that evening crowd.
Further east, Cassels Avenue Playground near Gerrard and Woodbine is the local park frequented by Erika Nikolai, who recently became Park People’s co-executive director. It’s where she walks Ruby, her poodle-Boston terrier mix (who’s listed on the Park People website as “Happiness Manager”). Nikolai set up the organization’s charitable status to get it on a sustainable footing, then led its expansion from a local Toronto focus into a national organization.
“The benefit of things being local, small scale for us in a city like Toronto is really key,” Nikolai says. For many people in the city, she notes, it’s not easy to access the wilderness parks for which Canada is known.
Bringing people and parks together is why Harvey put “People” in the organization’s name. There are plenty of landscape architects, climate experts and park managers, he says, but no association was focused on getting people into parks. And, he adds, “in the city, if people aren’t using the park, there’s something wrong with the park.” It could be that it doesn’t have the appropriate facilities for the community – lacking, say, a playground in an area with a lot of children. Or it might not feel safe due to run-down paths or overgrown foliage. Park People helps local communities identify and fix these kinds of problems.
One of the key goals Harvey and Nikolai are working toward is, in Harvey’s words, “to make sure that all parks in Toronto share equally.” While most underserved communities in Toronto enjoy nearby green spaces, the pandemic underscored the ways those spaces may not be well-resourced, compared to those in more affluent neighbourhoods.
Nikolai points to one of her favourite projects, MABELLEarts. With Park People’s support, over the last few years organization turned a patch of grass in the middle of a Toronto Community Housing complex in Etobicoke into a vibrant community hub with trees, seating, a firepit, and a colourfully decorated trailer that serves as a mobile café. During the pandemic, it became a free farmers’ market for residents in need.
Over the next decade, Harvey and Nikolai plan to intensify their focus on equality. The impetus for that drive lies in part in the threat of climate change, which, Harvey notes, “has disproportionate impacts on communities that lack tree cover and green space.” He cites the Jane-Finch area, whose tree canopy is far below Toronto’s average.
Between the pandemic, climate change, and all the other stresses facing cities, Harvey says, parks have gone “from a nice to have to a need to have.”
SPECIAL TO THE STAR