Lessons from a pandemic year

What COVID-19 taught us about how to work towards more resilient, equitable parks.

We can’t talk about 2020 without talking about COVID-19. The pandemic touched every part of our lives, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of our society.

The same was true for parks.

We saw the increased importance of parks for mental and physical health, but also troubling instances of anti-Black and anti-Asian racism in public spaces. We saw how parks helped people stay safely socially connected, but also how unhoused people were displaced. We saw historic highs in park usage, but also the strain this put on already tight park budgets.

We covered many of these topics, and more, in a series of webinars we hosted in fall 2020 as well as numerous resources, which are archived on a special COVID-19 resource page on Park People’s website.

As we recover from the pandemic, the year ahead will be critical in understanding where we go from here. Will park use remain high? Will calls for more equitable approaches result in action? Will enhancements like more winterized washrooms and pedestrianized streets continue?

Here we highlight eight lessons from our pandemic year, which helped inform the stories in this year’s Canadian City Parks Report, and point a way forward to more resilient, equitable cities.

Park circles. Credit: Steve Russell, Toronto Star via Getty Images.

Park circles. Credit: Steve Russell, Toronto Star via Getty Images.

Inequities became impossible to ignore
  • 90% of cities said that addressing homelessness in parks was a challenge.
  • 43% of cities said addressing systemic inequities and discrimination was a challenge—roughly the same percentage also indicated the pandemic had increased attention on these issues.
  • Canadians who identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour were more likely to report experiencing barriers to park use during the pandemic, such as fear of ticketing (24%) and harassment (22%).

If 2020 was anything, it was a bright hot light exposing the existing inequities in our cities. We often speak about parks as being “for everyone,” but, as many community leaders pointed out, this obscures the racism, inequitable enforcement, historic underinvestment, unequal access to amenities, and social judgment that exclude many from enjoying and benefiting from green spaces.

Community advocates were critical in foregrounding these issues, publishing research and leading activism that kept media attention high. We saw this in the disproportionate impact of physical distancing by-laws on Black, Indigenous and marginalized groups in public spaces, in the rising visibility of people experiencing homelessness in parks, and the increase in anti-Asian racism in Canada (half of which took place in public spaces).

Experts in Park People’s Urbanism’s Next Chapter webinar argued that in 2021, we need less talk about “returning to normal” and more actions that address systemic discrimination, the displacement of people experiencing homelessness, and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in our park systems, policies and organizations.

As Canadian placemaker Jay Pitter wrote in the introduction to Engaging Black People and Power, the 2021 publication she co-produced with York University students and the Canadian Urban Institute: “It’s time to centre Black place-based expertise and wisdom.”

We can start by listening to and supporting Black, Indigenous and people of colour who are leading by reframing our understanding of park stewardship. We can also better address homelessness and parks through inclusive policies that recognize the rights of unhoused park users—a topic that we explored in depth in our 2020 Canadian City Parks Report and a webinar.

Finally, we can develop new equity-based policies to help guide decision-making about where to make investments and how to better engage communities, like the ones we profile in our stories on environmental justice, public health, and park philanthropy.

"A PARK FOR ALL" Mural on the Don River, Toronto. Credit: Claire Harvie

"A PARK FOR ALL" Mural on the Don River, Toronto. Credit: Claire Harvie

Park budgets were hit from all sides
  • 60% of cities said COVID-19 had negatively impacted park budgets.
  • 85% of Canadians said they want to see more public funding invested in parks.

Even before the pandemic, city park budgets were squeezed. For the third year in a row, cities reported insufficient operating budgets as a key challenge. Shifting demographics, aging infrastructure, rising demand for programs and high quality designs—these were all pressures cities faced pre-pandemic that will only continue to grow.

As people spent more time outdoors last year, costs increased due to higher maintenance needs, new public space pilots, and increased staffing in busy parks to ensure public safety. All of these additional expenses came as cities saw revenues decrease due to cancelled park programs and events.

The bright spot, however, is the increased attention on the importance of parks by all levels of government. In a survey we did in June 2020, 94% of cities said they had seen increased awareness among city leadership of the importance of parks. And the Canadian public is highly supportive of new investments in parks, with our 2021 survey showing that 85% support more public funding.

Finally, there is potential for organizations working in parks to tap into new funding sources as part of the COVID-19 recovery, such as the Healthy Communities Initiative launched by the federal government in 2021.

16th West Parklet. Credit: City of North Vancouver

16th West Parklet. Credit: City of North Vancouver

Parks were used more than ever
  • 94% of cities said that park use had increased during the pandemic.
  • Two-thirds of Canadians said they had spent more time in parks compared to pre-pandemic, with 39% reporting their park use had doubled during COVID-19.
  • Of Canadians that said they had spent more time in parks during the pandemic, 82% said they either expected that use to continue or even increase.

As indoor gatherings were restricted, Canadians flooded into parks in all weather. We heard this from cities who reported increased use of parks and trails as well as from Canadians themselves.

People using parks is positive, but it also presents challenges. Cities scrambled to create new booking systems for amenities like skating rinks and manage crowds at suddenly busy splash pads.

Many cities also instituted new rules for jammed trails, creating one-way systems and trying to keep people from trampling sensitive natural areas. Montreal created a Natural Environment Protection committee to put in place awareness raising measures for sensitive areas.

While some of these pressures will ease with reduced physical distancing restrictions in the coming months, it seems that this high use of parks will stick around after the pandemic.

This increase in park use, however, was not the same for everyone. Our survey results show that Canadians who identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC) were less likely to report visiting green spaces more often during the pandemic (59%) than white Canadians (69%). BIPOC Canadians were also more likely to indicate they spent less time in parks (25%) than white Canadians (17%), during the pandemic, likely related to the increased barriers to access that this group reported experiencing.

Kelowna multi-use path. Credit: Tourism Kelowna

Kelowna multi-use path. Credit: Tourism Kelowna

Nearby nature was critical for public health
  • 83% of Canadians said parks had a positive impact on their connection to nature during the pandemic.
  • 61% of Canadians said they prefer to visit naturalized or “wild” parks or green spaces as well as trails and ravines.
  • 58% of Canadians became more interested in engaging in stewardship activities in natural spaces during the pandemic.

As our stress levels rocketed in 2020 and Canadians’ mental health declined, many sought out more time in nature. Our survey found that 85% of Canadians said parks had a positive impact on their mental health during the pandemic.

As we wrote about last year, the connection between human well-being and spending time in nature has long been established in science. But not everyone enjoys access to nature. Perceptions of safety and unfamiliarity can make people feel wary in natural spaces — a point we explore in our stories about planning parks for public health.

In 2021, we hope to see more focus on neighbourhood greening projects that insert naturalized spaces where we live our everyday lives — our streets, yards, parks, laneways and schools — perhaps by setting targets for space converted from mowed to naturalized landscapes. Paying attention to informal green spaces beyond parks is important, as 25% of Canadians said they visit these kinds of spaces most often.

As we document in this year’s report, greening projects are key to increasing the climate resiliency of our communities, reducing flooding and cooling the air. But access to these green space benefits is not evenly distributed. We can act on this awareness through new investments, particularly in underserved neighbourhoods.

This must include working towards reconciliation with Indigenous land stewards by first reckoning with the violent colonial history of our parks, as Future Ancestor Services Founder Larissa Crawford told us.

“Not only are we going to be working towards the spirit of restorative relationships and having better relationships with our communities,” she said. “But we’re also going to tap into the plethora of expertise that Indigenous peoples have, especially with regards to the land and its sustainability, and the ecosystem and our roles as humans in that ecosystem.”

Gatineau Park, Gatineau. Credit: Emily Cordonier

Gatineau Park, Gatineau. Credit: Emily Cordonier

Neighbourhood parks became the star of the show
  • 71% of Canadians said that local or neighbourhood parks are among the types of spaces they prefer to visit.
  • 37% of Canadians said lack of amenities such as washrooms and benches made visiting neighbourhood parks less appealing.

The pandemic heightened the importance of local parks as places of respite. Indeed, some cities reported higher use of local parks, and demand from residents for new types of all-ages amenities for biking, skateboarding, and adventure play.

We know quality neighbourhood parks are not enjoyed equally — and this has real impacts on people’s mental and physical health. BIPOC Canadians were less likely to report that parks had a positive impact on their mental and physical health or their sense of social connection during the pandemic compared to white Canadians.

In 2021, we foresee a renewed focus on quality neighbourhood parks, including an emphasis on providing basic amenities to ensure parks are comfortable and accessible. For example Charlottetown said adding more park washrooms was a 2021 priority, Richmond Hill pointed towards adding more shade structures to parks, and Kelowna noted an interest in rethinking the style and arrangement of group seating.

But we can go further. Take Richmond, which expedited the creation of new community gardens in parks to address food security. Or how markets for locally produced goods and food could aid in local economic development—a key part of the COVID-19 recovery as we detail in this year’s report.

Riverdale Park East in Toronto. Credit: Jake Tobin Garrett

Riverdale Park East in Toronto. Credit: Jake Tobin Garrett

People engaged in new outdoor activities
  • 89% of Canadians said they had tried a new activity in a park in 2020, with top activities including regular walks through parks and trails (56%) and socializing with friends and family (40%).
  • 76% of Canadians said they want to see more community programming in parks.
  • 79% of surveyed community park groups said that despite a challenging year, their work in parks helped build a sense of belonging.

Along with high use, parks also saw an increase in the types of activities people engaged in, as many did outside what they used to do inside. Cities reported activities such as fitness and art classes, more outdoor eating, and even having a drink in a park. Some cities responded to these with new policies, such as a by-law passed by the City of North Vancouver to allow drinking in certain parks and expansion of park permits to cover more activities.

The heart of community programming in many parks is resident-led initiatives. Many grassroots groups struggled in 2020 as COVID-19 restricted access to park amenities and required them to keep track of fluctuating public health guidelines.

Despite these hurdles, 74% percent of the 273 park groups we surveyed said they had continued to provide a mix of in person and virtual events. This resulted in over 3,600 events (half virtual), put on by over 11,600 volunteers for 125,300 attendees.

We hope to see greater support for community park programming from cities. This year just half of cities reported having a formal park group program in place and the same amount reported having a policy in place to waive permit fees due to financial need. The top two areas park groups said they will need help with were funding and re-engaging community members to participate in park gatherings.

City staff can work with communities and partner organizations to provide funding and institute policies like simplified permits that allow park groups to do more with less paperwork and fees. And rather than relying on signage and punitive by-law enforcement, cities can instead work with local leaders and community organizations to spread information about safe gathering practices and collaborate on programming that gets people back to enjoying the park together.

Credit: Stanley Park Ecology Society

Credit: Stanley Park Ecology Society

People got out more during winter
  • 50% of Canadians said they had used parks more during winter than pre-pandemic, with 73% saying they expected this use to continue.
  • 51% of Canadians said they wanted to see increased access to winter recreation activities in parks.
  • 57% of Canadians said they wanted to see more winterized washrooms in parks.

It’s often said that Canada is a winter nation, and it’s true: for many months of the year our weather is wet and cold. But people continued to turn to parks and trails this past winter to keep active and lessen the winter blues.

In Regina, the city started a new winter grant program to support outdoor community-led programming. Prince Albert saw a 400% increase in downhill skiing and a 250% increase in cross-country skiing over 2019 levels. Calgary installed 14 portable fire pits and Brampton expanded its outdoor skating rinks.

Washrooms in particular are a critical element of accessible parks in any season, but especially during COVID-19 when access to private businesses’ washrooms has been restricted. In response to busy winter use, many cities told us they had stepped up efforts to keep washrooms open during the winter or add winterized portable washrooms—an action popular with Canadians.

In order to support more winter recreation, some cities like Mississauga and Richmond Hill reported keeping certain facilities open later into the season or during the entire winter such as tennis courts, picnic shelters, pickleball courts, outdoor fitness equipment, and soccer fields and plowing more trails to keep them free of snow.

These winter recreation opportunities were appreciated by Canadians who spent more time in parks this winter, trying new activities from bird-watching to cross-country skiing. This winter use may remain high after the pandemic, presenting an opportunity to make permanent many of these winter offerings—an action that will depend on additional investments in park budgets.

Wellness Instructor, Kaitlin Powers, on a yoga hike at Huron Natural Area, Kitchener. Credit: Susan Koswan

Wellness Instructor, Kaitlin Powers, on a yoga hike at Huron Natural Area, Kitchener. Credit: Susan Koswan

Parks expanded and made new connections
  • 55% of Canadians said they wanted to see outdoor cafes permanently implemented.
  • 49% of Canadians said they wanted to see pedestrianized streets permanently implemented.

Responding to the need for more space for physical distancing, many cities quickly “found” acres of new space in 2020, such as roadways and parking lots, to open up to people and businesses. This created more space for cycling, running, rolling, walking and dining out.

Just under half of Canadians said they had taken advantage of pedestrianized streets in the last year, and about the same amount said they wanted them to remain permanent features.

In 2021, Canadian cities should continue this creative rethinking of the space in our cities to make them more people-friendly. But we can expand it so that more neighbourhoods can benefit from slower streets, expanded public spaces, safer walking and cycling connections, and other community-identified public space needs.

We can learn from cities like Kingston, which created a pop-up market in a downtown square and Longueuil, which expanded its “ephemeral spaces” by opening up streets for people with temporary furniture. Toronto and Vancouver opened up certain streets for recreational activities and rolled out new bike lanes and curbside cafes. And Edmonton created 29 pop-up community gardens during the pandemic—a program which will expand in 2021.

Some of these initiatives lasted into the winter, while others were removed until warmer weather returned. But they point a way forward in reimagining our cities’ largest public space resource—streets—in new ways to support more people-friendly places.

Places éphémères. Credit: Ville de Québec

Places éphémères. Credit: Ville de Québec

This article is updated from one previously published on the Park People blog and in First Policy Response.

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