Power to the People
Seniors tend to a roadside garden in Toronto. Credit: Park People

More and more, residents and organizations are getting involved in local parks—bringing new ideas, programming, and partners.

A 2020 Park People survey conducted of over 200 Canadian park groups found a broad range of organizations, including arts organizations, social service agencies, and neighbourhood associations.

These inspiring groups put on fun activities, enhance nature, advocate for improvements, and create more inclusive places:

  • Vancouver’s Vine Arts Festival produces park performances that work towards decolonization and address social issues around race, class, and gender.
  • Winnipeg’s Spence Neighbourhood Association manages 15 green spaces in a low income community to promote local food and social gathering.
  • Gatineau’s community-based Fondation Forêt Boucher recently signed a 3-year agreement to work with the city on a Boucher Forest Master Plan.
  • Calgary’s Crescent Heights Community Association brought together residents of the diverse and socio-economically divided Crescent Heights community for an epic water fight. “Play is a great way to bring people together and we were trying to tackle some of the social issues that we have in our neighbourhood in a cheeky and playful way,” said CHCA engagement coordinator Kevin Jesuino.
Crescent Heights water fight. Credit: Crescent Heights Community Association
Crescent Heights water fight. Credit: Crescent Heights Community Association

The impacts of these efforts by park groups are clear: they support neighbourhoods and cities that are more socially connected, civically engaged, and environmentally friendly.

  • 96% said their work in parks helped build a stronger sense of belonging in their community.
  • 83% said they developed an increased awareness of how to protect and enhance green spaces through their park work.
  • 82% said they developed an increased awareness of civic engagement and how to work with city staff.
How the COVID-19 pandemic affected park groups

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada in March, many park groups had to quickly change their programming and get creative. In April, we conducted a special COVID-19 survey and got nearly 120 responses. Here’s what we learned:

  • The top two challenges facing park groups are financial uncertainty and pivoting programming online. Relatedly, the top two areas park groups will need long-term help with are funding and re-engaging community members in park gatherings.
  • 63% of groups said their work was on hold, but nearly a third of groups said they were developing new ways of offering services.
  • 42% of groups said they had responded directly to community needs (e.g., purchasing groceries for vulnerable people). Of those groups, nearly half said that their involvement in a park group helped them better respond to the COVID-19 crisis. For example, Toronto’s Flemingdon Community Support Services pivoted to organizing people to sew masks.
Resident groups need support

Even before COVID-19, we consistently found that accessing funds was the number one challenge facing park groups.

Some cities offer support: 70% of cities reported some kind of financial program that can be used for park activities or improvements.

For example, Ottawa offers cost-sharing grants for projects both minor (tree planting, park furniture) and major (new facilities or renovations), as well as a separate grant for community-based environmental projects.

A few cities have created neighbourhood units that act as one-stop support shops. Waterloo’s newly created Neighbourhood Services group supports the creation of neighbourhood groups, providing access to toolkits, information on neighbourhood programming, and grant opportunities. Surrey’s Neighbourhood Team also connects residents to grants and services.

Another way to support is through a formalized volunteer program that offers pathways for people to get involved beyond one-time or event-based opportunities. We found 56% of cities have created some kind of adopt-a-park program where people can self-organize to care for and animate local parks.

To learn more about available community grant and park group programs, check out the City Profiles.