Towards Equitable Parks
Credit: Park People

The unequal impacts of COVID-19 necessitates a renewed conversation about systemic urban inequities in Canada, including who has access to high quality parks and where new investments are made.

This is especially true as parks have become more relied on during the COVID-19 pandemic. In our survey of over 1,600 Canadians, 70% said they appreciate parks more since physical distancing began. This fact is further supported by our survey of over 50 municipalities, over half of which reported an increase in park use since the pandemic hit.

Two thirds of people reported that they were also more likely to visit parks within their own neighbourhood, showing the importance of having good parks nearby. Additionally, 82% said that parks had become more important to their mental health and 70% to their physical health.

As these results show, access to high quality parks close to home was hugely beneficial during COVID-19. But does everyone have equal access to these benefits in our cities?

Unequal COVID-19 impacts, unequal parks

While the collection of race-based data is not uniform across Canada, data collected in Toronto and Montreal shows higher rates of COVID-19 infection in neighbourhoods that are lower income and have higher proportions of Black residents and recent immigrants. Canadian medical experts have posited that this could be due to working conditions and smaller dwellings with people living more closely together—a factor that placemaker Jay Pitter also raised in her piece on spatial inequities and density.

Dr. Onyenyechukwu Nnorom from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto told Global News that it’s important to remember that these disparities exist in the first place due to anti-Black racism. “It’s not because people who are racialized enjoy living in a densely populated context; it’s because poverty in this country is racialized,” Nnorom said.

Recent reporting has also revealed how enforcement of physical distancing measures has impacted racialized communities. A recent report by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association found “Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia have issued nearly $13 million in COVID-related fines that have disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous and other marginalized groups.” In Ottawa, for example, a school board trustee has come under fire after calling herself “park patrol” and harassing a Black teenager playing basketball by himself for allegedly flouting physical distancing rules.

How does this connect to park development? For Minaz Asani-Kanji, Manager of Outreach for Park People, the connection is clear—and troublesome.

“Why are the most underserved communities the ones with the highest number of COVID-19 cases? Why are these same communities also the ones with parks that have fewer amenities than the parks in more affluent downtown neighbourhoods?” she asked in a recent UofT School of Cities publication. She noted that parks in non-downtown neighbourhoods, while large, are often flat grassy expanses with a lack of amenities like playgrounds, shade, and benches.

Previous research has also pointed to connections between health outcomes and access to quality parks. A 2018 paper by Geneviève Westgate found higher levels of parks in affluent Montreal neighbourhoods, and an analysis of heat wave-related deaths in Montreal found higher deaths associated with neighbourhoods that were lower income and had less green space. A research paper by Nadha Hassen made a compelling case for how park access and quality impact health outcomes, and why this is particularly important for lower income and racialized communities.

In a follow-up conversation, Asani-Kanji said that equitable park development is more than simply about park amenities. It starts with good public consultation that prioritizes local community needs and includes a commitment to equitable funding for park programming. You look at many downtown parks and there’s tons of programming happening, she said. “And then you look at a park somewhere else in another part of the city and there’s no programming.”

“Many people who live in underserved communities are newcomers, lower income, and people of colour,” she said. “Many of them can’t or don’t vote. There’s language barriers. They don’t have connections to their politicians. It’s very different from the more affluent communities where people are mostly white and unafraid to pick up the phone and ask for their park to be cleaned up.”

The actions that many Canadian cities have taken to expand public space during COVID-19 by pedestrianizing streets are also out of step with the needs that Asani-Kanji is hearing from communities she works with. When she spoke to people living outside the downtown and asked if they would like to see similar open streets initiatives in their community, people told her: “What we need is more food. People are hungry. We need spaces in our parks where we can grow food.”

Beyond community gardens

This response wouldn’t come as a surprise to Cheyenne Sundance, Founder of Sundance Harvest, whose work centres Black, Indigenous, and people of colour and promotes the connection between urban agriculture, food security, and issues of social and economic justice.

Sundance said parks are the perfect place for growing food in cities, but would like to see the conversation move beyond community gardens to community-run urban farms where residents are able to grow larger amounts of food and also sell the produce—something that cities do not allow in community gardens.

Food insecurity comes from a lack of income, not a lack of food, Sundance argued, pointing out the abundance of food that is thrown out in Canada. If people can’t legally sell the food grown in community gardens, “how are they going to create their own self-sufficiency, self-sustainability, and inter-generational wealth,” which, she added, is “very important for newcomers, and people who have backgrounds of being dispossessed from the land—so Black and Indigenous peoples. Creating that wealth for their families and these skills are incredibly important.”

What she’d like to see is a system of neighbourhood farms, run by community members, rather than large centralized farms. “We don’t need a large four-acre farm that’s run by a capitalist white ex-CEO lawyer. What we need are community-led urban farms that are within each neighbourhood that are run by the community and where people can rent out allotment plots to grow food and sell it.”

Sundance said that the best thing city staff and decision-makers can do is to “check their ego” and “listen and learn from other leaders who are really experts in the food justice mission” who have been doing this work for decades. “I would like to see community teaching community,” she said. “I do think that with trust and respectful, dignified representation of who’s teaching, that something really cool could happen.”

In particular, she pointed towards the work of FoodShare in Toronto, which started an urban farm in Flemingdon Park where people can grow food, but also sell it. She also pointed to the Halifax organization Hope Blooms, which works with youth to grow food and make products, like salad dressings. “They make an income and they also have actual jobs to put on their resumes,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

Shifting priorities

In our story on how cities are grappling with squeezing parks into dense areas, many of the projects highlighted are located in downtown areas and more expensive to build because of complicated designs. However, this raises questions of equitable park development when cities are facing tighter budgets.

Even before COVID-19 hit, cities participating in our Canadian City Parks Report listed insufficient budgets as a top challenge two years running. Our COVID-19 follow-up survey to more than 50 cities across the country showed that 57% anticipate that COVID-19 will have a negative impact on park budgets in the next year.

So in a time of ever tighter budgets, where and how should we be prioritizing scarce parks dollars? While keeping pace with growth is key, it can’t be the only metric by which cities evaluate where to invest in parks. In fact, doing so may mean underinvestment in parks in lower growth areas of a city, often outside downtown neighbourhoods--something new planning tools are hoping to address.

In 2019, Vancouver and Toronto approved citywide park system master plans that include new equity-based tools to prioritize areas through socioeconomic and demographic data coupled with park access and investment.

Vancouver’s equity tool, for example, recommended the creation of “Initiative Zones” where new parks dollars will be allocated to address historic and current inequities. Interestingly, the plan proposes targeting city investment in lower growth areas that don’t have access to the same development dollars that other areas of the city might.

VanPlay Initiative Zones. Credit: Vancouver Park Board
VanPlay Initiative Zones. Credit: Vancouver Park Board

Unfortunately, this equity-based lens is not common in park system master plans, which often simply prioritize areas of population growth rather than social or economic factors. The creation of such tools, layered with public health and demographic data, could be a way for cities to begin to address systemic underinvestment in parks and some of the attendant health disparities that result.

Asima Jansveld is the Vice President at the High Line Network—a non-profit based in New York City that provides tools and networking to promote equitable park development. The group has two Canadian member parks: The Bentway and The Meadoway.

Like Asani-Kanji, Jansveld sees a correlation between neighbourhoods most affected by COVID-19 and those impacted by lower access to quality parks. In New York City, for many lower income communities the only access to public space are playgrounds or basketball courts, she said, many of which were closed down during COVID-19.

“I think it’s opening up some interesting conversations about how people prioritize development in new open space. It’s making an even stronger case for the importance of quality open space to support public health,” Jansveld said. “Open space is falling across racial lines in a lot of communities. Are Black and brown communities the ones that are served with quality open space?”

“My guess is that with limited resources in the next few years you’re going to see a trend towards more neighbourhood community spaces as opposed to the large mega parks,” she added.

“Mega parks are to me borne out of thinking about economics as metrics of success—economic development, real estate value—which is going to be important too, frankly,” she said. But shifting to more of a public health-related metric as Jay Pitter has called for, she said, could help to prioritize parks investment where it’s really needed to address critical urban inequities that often disproportionately affect Black and brown communities of colour.

For Sundance, the issue of park funding is connected with the growing call for defunding police in Toronto and many communities across Canada. Police budgets are often the single largest line item in a city’s budget and there have been increasing calls to shift that funding to more community-based programming and social services.

Sundance argued the police should be defunded 50% with the funds redistributed to address underlying systemic urban issues like adequate housing and jobs for people. “Crime often comes out of poverty,” she said. “What are preventative measures that can be used outdoors in parks for community groups?”

The answer for Sundance is not funneling this money to improvements for playgrounds and more benches, but towards programming, specifically food programming, that can provide social and economic benefits to local communities by providing opportunities for skill-building, wealth generation, and increasing food security.

“I truly do think it’s having urban farms in parks,” she said, “and people given the opportunity to make a livelihood.”