On the surface, parks are open to all—but the reality is much more complex. Whether due to design features like inaccessible park washrooms, or social discrimination based on race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and housing status, parks can be spaces of exclusion, discomfort, and even harm.

For this year’s report, we take a closer look at how these physical and social barriers shape the experiences of two groups of park users—people experiencing homelessness, and people with disabilities—and how cities are working to address this.

The urgency of addressing equity issues in parks, and homelessness in particular, has been brought to the forefront by the COVID-19 pandemic. With reduced access to shelters, washrooms, and indoor community spaces, cities have seen rising numbers of people residing in public spaces, facing multiple vulnerabilities with little ability to meet public health directives around physical distancing and sanitation.

While COVID-19 has underscored the risks of sheltering in public space and urgent need for permanent housing, it’s also made clear that even during times of crisis, unsheltered homelessness remains an enduring reality in many of our city parks. This reality highlights the need to ensure parks are safe, functional, and accessible for this community.

Meaningfully addressing exclusions related to homelessness and accessibility is complex work, but, as some Canadian cities show, it also creates opportunities to strengthen communities. Through thoughtful and intentional policies and programs, parks can allow people of different life experiences to exist together safely, confront stereotypes and stigma, and learn how to better live together.

  • Despite listing homelessness in parks as a key social challenge, few cities reported examples of responses that are not centred on encampment monitoring and enforcement, showing a need to prioritize equity-informed work in this area.
  • There is a need, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, for essential amenities, like washrooms, and services, like social workers, to be integrated into parks.
  • 81% of cities reported universally accessible designs are increasing in demand, yet less than half of cities have accessibility guidelines or strategies in place that address parks.
  • Value and engage people experiencing homelessness as a community of local experts in park design, stewardship, and employment opportunities, rather than defaulting to approaches that aim to deter and displace.
  • Challenge community concerns related to homelessness and parks that are often rooted in stigma through investing in public education and community-based efforts to change perceptions, such as artistic and cultural park programming.
  • Consider social methods to improve accessibility, alongside necessary park design upgrades, including thoughtful programming led by people with disabilities and/or aimed at bringing people of different abilities together.
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