Executive Summary

The second annual Canadian City Parks Report tracks the trends, challenges, and leading practices in parks across the country in five theme areas: nature, growth, collaboration, activation, and inclusion.

Work on this report started in October 2019 and while we incorporated the emerging impacts of COVID-19, much was still in flux at the time of this report’s final writing.

Over the next year, we will be reviewing how COVID-19 impacts Canadian parks, building on the ideas in this report. To read more on our thoughts about parks and COVID-19, please read this special blog post. And keep in touch with our continuing analysis on parks and COVID-19 on social media and by signing up to our newsletter.

As we worked on this report’s stories about biodiversity, creative park development, community engagement, and homelessness, the world changed around us. But it quickly became apparent that these stories were not made irrelevant, but more urgent than ever.

This includes the report’s special focus on urban biodiversity.

In Canada, some of the areas most rich in biodiversity are also the areas most densely settled, making biodiversity both an urban challenge and opportunity. As urbanization and climate change put pressure on ecosystems—and as the COVID-19 pandemic puts pressure on our mental health—the stewardship of urban nature becomes even more critical for our planet and our well-being.

While Canadian cities are using creative ways to engage people in biodiversity, more holistic biodiversity planning is needed, including an integration of its mental health and human well-being impacts.

  • We found just 19% of cities have citywide biodiversity strategies, while 52% have biodiversity policies embedded in other environmental plans.
  • Emerging research underscores the human well-being benefits of biodiversity. Experts have called integration of this aspect of biodiversity a “missed opportunity” in Canada—one that becomes even more urgent due to increased stress from COVID-19.
  • While the focus is often on large naturalized areas, we found small-scale neighbourhood projects can have outsized impacts, both ecologically as habitat connections, and socially, as places to build community and connection to nature.

When it comes to space to build parks in many Canadian cities, much of the low-hanging fruit is gone—meaning new park projects are more complex and expensive, but also more creative: parks on top of malls, underneath highways, in rail corridors, and more.

  • The top three challenges identified by cities were keeping pace with growth, aging infrastructure, and insufficient operating budgets, yet only 63% of cities reported park system master plans that address growth needs.
  • COVID-19 has accelerated actions to creatively expand public space, especially through the conversion of streets, as cities seek to increase the amount of room for people to spend time outdoors.

Demographic shifts and urban growth are changing park use in many cities, necessitating changes in community engagement methods that can reach new and more people and broaden conversations behind physical design.

  • Online engagement currently includes project websites and surveys, but COVID-19 is spurring a shift to online tools such as video meetings and collaborative mapping.
  • Experts reported more of a need for engagement methods that include small-group settings, explore a park’s social dynamics, and offer ongoing opportunities for involvement.

Dog parks can provide important social benefits, but many cities reported increasing challenges with off-leash areas including finding suitable space, conflicts with other park users, and concerns over sensitive natural areas.

  • While 85% of cities reported increasing demand for off-leash dog areas, only one third of cities have strategies in place with policies to guide new off-leash dog area development.
  • Strategies to encourage responsible behaviour include promoting dog park community groups that take on a stewardship role.

With homelessness already a pressing challenge in many cities and predicted to rise due to the economic hit of COVID-19, there is a need for cities to better recognize the importance of parks as places of shelter and support networks for unhoused people.

  • While homelessness in parks was reported as a top social challenge, Canadian cities struggle with equity-informed responses that aren’t centred on encampment monitoring and clearing.
  • Strategies some cities are using to better support people experiencing homelessness in parks include providing on-site counselling, creating park-based employment opportunities, and offering programs that build connection between differently housed park users.

The report includes data and stories from 27 cities in eight provinces, including the capitals of each province and the nation’s capital. The cities range from smaller cities like Fredericton to larger cities like Toronto, representing 14.5 million people.

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