COVID-19 has highlighted the potential for parks to contribute to local economic resilience. With reduced opportunities for businesses to operate safely indoors, parks have filled in as dining spaces, gyms, offices, markets, and more.
But as the pandemic has deepened existing economic divides, it has also raised questions about the role of commerce in outdoor spaces and how to ensure the benefits are distributed equitably.
Studies on the economic benefits of parks often quantify the return on investment of green spaces by highlighting increased property values, tax and tourism revenues, and cost savings related to improving public health and reducing urban pollution.
Critics point out, however, that these benefits often only extend to the already privileged.
“Historically, parks have often been leveraged for the economic development of people who already have money,” said Dr. Naomi Adiv, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. For example, a park-induced boost to property values often further enriches homeowners and can contribute to the displacement of lower income residents from rising rents and development pressure—a process often called green gentrification.
The opportunity then is in finding ways to harness the economic development potential of parks, particularly given the impacts of COVID-19, to support local neighbourhood economies beyond the measuring stick of property values.
In the past year, cities have worked to support local businesses through creative new initiatives that bring retail and services outdoors.
- Supporting picnic culture. In our survey of the Canadian public, 32% of Canadians said they tried eating in parks for the first time during the pandemic, highlighting a surge in interest in park-based dining. In response, Mississauga added food trucks and farmers markets to its downtown Celebration Square, while Kelowna, too, plans to expand its food truck program in parks this summer.
- Taking classes outdoors. In our public survey, 52% of Canadians said they would like to see more recreational and fitness classes permanently moved from indoors to outdoors. North Vancouver supported this during the pandemic by allowing private businesses to offer yoga, fitness, and art classes in parks—as did Mississauga by expanding rentals for outdoor facilities like tennis courts and picnic areas for groups that faced restrictions indoors, like dance classes.
- Creating pop-up parks. North Vancouver created parklets on the busy commercial strip of Lonsdale Avenue, providing a space for people to eat takeout from local restaurants. The city also used the parklets to keep in touch with the public, by posting information about engagement opportunities for upcoming park projects.
- Pairing cultural and economic. Kingston’s Love Kingston Marketplace saw Springer Market Square transformed with vendor stalls, a night market, musical performances, and Indigenous programming—highlighting how outdoor arts and culture programming can complement economic initiatives. Halifax got a boost to their 2021 parks and recreation budget to help fund outdoor community events to draw in residents and tourists to support local businesses that have taken a hit during COVID-19.
Projects like these have provided an economic lifeline during a period of hardship for many, and offer inspiration on how parks can be part of COVID-19 recovery. Moving forward, park projects have potential to help address economic inequities that have deepened during the pandemic—but they also have potential to do the opposite, unless designed thoughtfully.
For example, Dr. Adiv pointed out that while restaurant owners have been permitted to expand their patios onto sidewalks during the pandemic, street food vendors—many of whom lack the start-up capital to open a storefront—remain heavily regulated or prohibited in many cities. This disparity could be addressed by ensuring new permitting opportunities that allow restaurateurs to operate outdoors are extended to street food vendors, too.
Similarly, planners Amina Yasin and Daniella Fergusson draw attention to the ways COVID-inspired economic initiatives in public space have come at the cost of access for some. “Pandemic patios have not only privatized many public spaces, but they have also … displac[ed] specifically vulnerable users including disabled people and unhoused residents,” they wrote.
Despite the potential to exacerbate inequities, Dr. Adiv argued that we shouldn’t dismiss or restrict economic activities in parks altogether.
“Economic development is not one thing, just like public space is not one thing,” Dr. Adiv said, pointing out that a large beer festival in a downtown signature park is not the same as a small market in a local park where community members can sell their handmade wares.
One example of an equity-minded economic model is the Business out of the Box program, led by Toronto’s Scadding Court Community Centre. The program sees shipping containers converted into storefronts for aspiring local entrepreneurs to start up businesses. Market 707, the first site where the program was implemented, launched in 2010 adjacent to Alexandra Park. It now supports a diverse roster of 22 vendors, including takeout restaurateurs, a tattoo parlour, a bike repair shop, a dreadlock cleaning service, and a tech shop.
The Business Out of the Box program has also helped to seed other shipping container businesses, like the cafe created by the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee in RV Burgess Park, which benefited from start-up guidance from Scadding Court staff.
“As places of congregation, where people come together, parks have historically and continue to be places where lots of big ideas get made,” said Alina Chatterjee, Scadding Court’s Senior Director of Communications and Innovations.
But bringing these ideas to life can be a challenge, Chatterjee noted, as many of the entrepreneurs Market 707 supports are lower income and face racism and other systemic barriers in accessing employment. “Our mission is to basically get people whatever they need to reach their potential and become part of the labour market,” Chatterjee added.
The program delivers a “triple bottom line,” said Chatterjee. For vendors, it provides an income source and sense of belonging to the community. For the city, it animates public spaces and diversifies the local retail landscape. For Scadding Court, the low rent charged to vendors—$14 a day—generates roughly $300,000 in annual revenues that are reinvested back into community programming.
Similarly, Montreal’s Coop Les Valoristes—a cooperative for informal workers who earn an income collecting refundable beverage containers, known as “valoristes” in Quebec and “binners” in Western Canada—is creatively making use of public space to expand job opportunities. The coop operates a seasonal outdoor bottle depot underneath the Jacques Cartier Bridge, and pop-up mobile depots in other parks and public spaces, where binners can redeem their recyclables for cash.
Not only do the depots create income opportunities for people who, for a variety of reasons, “can’t fit the 9-to-5 framework,” said Marica Vazquez Tagliero, the coop’s coordinator, but binners also “have a super important role in helping divert the stuff that would go to garbage otherwise, especially littering.” The importance of the coop’s outdoor Jacques Cartier depot was highlighted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when redemption services at grocery stores in Montreal were closed. In just 20 days, the coop collected 80,000 containers.
A past mobile depot hosted by Coop Les Valoristes took place at Mount Royal Park on Sundays alongside Tam-Tams—a popular weekly festival that sees drummers and dancers gather in the park. Pairing the depot with park programming helped to ensure the park remained clean after the large event, but also created a fun atmosphere where passersby could learn from coop members—both about proper recycling practices, and about the value of binners, a group faced with “a lot of stigma,” Tagliero said.
The coop’s work also highlights how economic activity can help spur creative programming in public space. The group hosts the annual Valoriste Olympics, which sees binners participate in games and competitions like “who can count a bag of cans the fastest” and “who can toss a bag of cans the farthest,” allowing for community-building while animating an underused space.
City support has been crucial to Coop Les Valoristes’ success. In partnership with two Montreal boroughs, Coop Les Valoristes implemented participatory waste bins which are designed with a dedicated space for refundable containers, making them easy for binners to retrieve. The project highlights how small changes to park amenities can support economic and environmental benefits, Tagliero said.
“I think it's healthy to recognize that there is this informal economy,” Tagliero said, “so let's accept it and let's make it better—let's see the contribution that it has to the rest of society.”
Noting the important impact binners have on park maintenance by cleaning up litter, Tagliero urges cities to provide supports—whether subsidizing the work of binners through creative employment programs, or adding supportive park infrastructure like participatory waste bins or lockers where binners can store their containers overnight until redemption centres open.
Building off of established models like farmers markets and concessions, a new wave of entrepreneurs—and the cities that support them—are pushing the creative envelope for the types of income opportunities that can exist in parks.
- Growing food, growing income. In Victoria, innovative city policy allows residents to participate in small-scale commercial agriculture by selling produce grown in vacant lots or backyards at local food stands.
- Providing start-up space. In Vancouver’s Riley Park, Merakos, a collective of social entrepreneurs, runs a business incubator program out of a fieldhouse—a space they use rent-free in exchange for providing community programming, through the city-led Fieldhouse Activation Program.
- Creating low-barrier employment. In Edmonton, the city is leading a pilot that sees washroom attendants in parks hired through a partnership with Boyle Street Community Services. The attendants, who are trained in working with vulnerable populations and may face employment barriers themselves, act as “greeters”, offering park users referrals to local services when appropriate, while also providing custodial services—a role that has helped the city to keep washrooms open during COVID-19. The Roundhouse Cafe in Montreal’s Cabot Square, which employs underhoused Indigenous community members as cashiers and cooks through flexible working arrangements, is another park-based employment model.
- Building skills. Sundance Harvest, a community organization in Toronto, runs the Growing in the Margins program—a free 12-week course that offers mentorship to youth who identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour, and are interested in starting their own urban farm. Cheyenne Sundance, the organization’s founder, said that community garden programs that allow for the sale of produce can help to build intergenerational wealth for BIPOC communities.
- Supporting the circular economy. In Halifax, Art Bikers—a bike-powered mobile arts program led by Wonder’neath Art Society—hosts clothing repair events in parks across the city. These community-building events not only teach participants how to mend holes and broken zippers, but also how to embroider and screenprint, encouraging creativity and skill-sharing among community members.
These models provide inspiration on the possibilities for parks to contribute to an equitable economic recovery:
- Align with community needs. Start by defining a clear vision and engaging local residents in community asset mapping to ensure the proposed businesses fill a gap in retail or service offerings, advises Scadding Court Community Centre’s Business out of the Box toolkit.
- Consider the trade-offs. An initiative like a market makes a park less accessible to other uses when it’s in place, said Dr. Adiv. It’s important to ensure that people who don’t make purchases are still able to access the park freely and without being singled out from purchasing park users, she argued.
- Embed it in policy. In Toronto, Parks, Forestry, and Recreation staff are collaborating with Economic Development and Culture to explore creating economic opportunities for Indigenous businesses as part of the implementation of the city’s Ravine Strategy.
- Scale up community-led models. Many equity-focused park employment projects are spearheaded by creative community organizations that can use the support of cities to help scale up their successful programs citywide—as Montreal city staff have done in supporting Coop Les Valoristes’ participatory waste bins.
- Support informal workers. Whether binners or unlicensed street vendors, the pandemic has highlighted a gap between the opportunities offered to formalized businesses compared to informal workers. Adjusting policy, for example through permit expansions for street vendors, is a key step in promoting equitable economic development for those who use public space as an informal workplace.