This year, parks have shown their value as the glue that holds communities together. Whether through distanced walks with neighbours, picnics with friends, or simply people-watching, parks were one of the few places we could safely connect with one another during an isolating time.
Indeed, our survey showed that 73% of Canadians who self-identified as struggling with social isolation during the pandemic said that parks had a positive impact on their social well-being, compared to 64% for those who did not experience isolation.
The social connections parks catalyze and support “are such an important factor in resilience, especially in traumatic events”, said Florence Lecours-Cyr, who is a Programming, Planning, and Research Officer at Montréal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre. “To have connections, to have someone who cares, who will think of you” is especially important for vulnerable communities, including older adults, people with disabilities, and those who live alone,” Lecours-Cyr said.
In leveraging the resilience-building power of parks, however, it’s important to remember that resilience is not inherently equitable. Resilience planning “requires asking whose resilience is at stake” and ensuring marginalized communities are centred, experts point out.
Many community-led park groups are doing just that—whether through delivering mutual aid to neighbours living in encampments, organizing distanced park events in underserved neighbourhoods, or grocery shopping for seniors. The essential work of park groups in stepping up to care for their communities offers lessons for building equitable resilience as part of COVID-19 recovery and beyond.
Park groups are crucial in maximizing the potential of parks to create more connected, and thus more resilient, communities. In our January 2021 survey of almost 300 community park groups across Canada, 79% said that despite a challenging year, their work in parks and community helped build a sense of belonging.
- Putting heart into art. Calgary’s Springbank Hill Community Association hosted Tokens of Hope, using a park to distribute 200 kits of wooden tokens and paints. The community then used the tokens to decorate the park, hanging them along a bridge to help lift community spirits. Also in Calgary, Springboard Performance engaged the community’s youth in creating beautiful murals inspired by their COVID-19 experience.
- Connecting to nature and each other. Vancouver’s Still Moon Arts Society invited residents to collectively create a virtual symphony of bird songs called Spectacular Dawn Chorus to celebrate bird month in May 2020 and 2021. Participants learned from an environmental educator about the birds they might encounter, before heading out at 5 a.m. the next day to record a minute long audio clip of the neighbourhood bird sounds. The individual recordings were then compiled into a playlist.
- Engaging with intention. When the pandemic disrupted their usual methods of door-to-door outreach, Ottawa’s Neighbours of Meadowvale Park got creative. In a neighbourhood where many residents are lower income or new to Canada, the group knew virtual events would be inaccessible to many in the community. Instead, they organized creative events like an Eco I Spy Challenge, where participants were equipped with photos of pollinator plants and native tree species to embark on a scavenger hunt through the neighbourhood greenery. When public health restrictions loosened in the fall, the group organized a distanced clean-up. “That event honestly brought tears to my eyes because everyone was just so happy to see each other,” the group’s leader Heather Douglas said.
- Taking baby steps. In Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, many residents struggled with anxiety leaving their apartments during COVID-19. In response, Friends of Regent Park adapted their events to cater to a variety of comfort levels. During the fall, for example, they organized a pumpkin carving event with a “grab and go” option where people could pick up a pumpkin and instructions on how to carve it from the comfort of their home. Sean Brathwaite, leader of Friends of Regent Park, said that the creative methods park groups adopted during the pandemic will help them strengthen their engagement in the future. Brathwaite advised that remaining attuned to people’s mental health and providing these opportunities for “baby steps” will be especially important as people re-acclimate to post-COVID life.
At the start of the pandemic, the social networks formed through park programming were critical in allowing MABELLEarts to rapidly respond to community needs. An arts organization based out of Toronto’s Etobicoke neighbourhood, MABELLEarts works in collaboration with low-income communities to animate their local park.
In the pandemic’s early months, staff from MABELLEarts used the roster of phone numbers they had gathered through park programming to call community members and check in about their needs. When they learned that the most pressing need was food, MABELLEarts started by delivering groceries to the ten most vulnerable households, many of whom were seniors.
“We went into that process with no predetermined goals or sense of what that was going to lead to—very much like making an art project,” said Leah Houston, the organization’s Artistic Director. What it did eventually lead to was the creation of MABELLEPantry—a weekly outdoor market where residents can pick up fresh produce in the park.
The food is provided at no cost, but MABELLEarts has taken great care to ensure “people feel like they [are] coming to a market and not to a food bank,” said Nicolette Felix, MABELLEarts’ Director of Community Mobilization. Open throughout the winter, the pantry also serves as a place for wellness check-ins where seniors and others living alone can socialize safely. The program has grown to serve more than 550 households.
Ensuring local communities are involved in “strategic planning, response, and recovery” is an important part of community resilience, research shows.
This is something Minaz Asani-Kanji, Park People’s Manager of Outreach, is intimately aware of through her work with park leaders in Park People’s Sparking Change program, which supports capacity-building for park groups in underserved neighbourhoods in Toronto.
At the start of the pandemic, Park People staff held weekly Zoom check-ins with park group leaders in underserved neighbourhoods, where Asani-Kanji heard that pilots being implemented downtown were not suited for their communities.
Social distancing circles painted onto grass? No need, because parks were empty (as parks in these communities are mainly used for social gatherings, visiting them was not top of mind, Asani-Kanji noted). Street closures? Not helpful, since many essential workers in these communities still needed to get to work.
Local park leaders had ideas about park programming that would address the unique ways COVID-19 was impacting their communities, but no channels to make these ideas a reality. “They had so much to share, but nobody to share it with,” Asani-Kanji said.
Recognizing this led to the creation of Park People’s Community Resilience program in summer 2020. The program saw animators from five underserved neighbourhoods in Toronto hired to engage their communities in safe park programming. Equipped with a $2,000 budget for programming expenses every two months, and support from other Park People staff, animators engaged their communities to design and lead programming uniquely responsive to local needs:
- Abdul Rashid Athar created the Steps Challenge: a walking program that motivated 135 of his neighbours to get out for walks in the local ravines by offering a weekly gift card draw for participants who submitted their step counts. Collectively, they walked 42,400 kilometres—more than the circumference of the earth!
- Annisha Stewart, a passionate advocate for holistic healing for Black women, organized weekly park meet-ups for 10 women in her community and organized an African drumming workshop in Summerlea Park.
- Hanbo Jia worked with 9 leaders in her community of Scarborough-Agincourt to organize a variety of events like tai chi and diabolo in the park. The events brought Chinese seniors—some of whom had not been outdoors at all for two months—into the park to connect with one another.
- Issaq Ahmed organized a photo contest with prizes that encouraged 98 residents to get out into 54 local parks, a back-to-school event featuring free haircuts in the park, and the first-ever pumpkin carving event in his social housing community.
- Sharon Glaves animated the green space surrounding her social housing community through events like outdoor yoga and a back-to-school backpack giveaway, while also introducing residents to nearby, but underused, parkland through a walking initiative.
Asani-Kanji urged cities to reflect on which residents and neighbourhoods they engaged with successfully during the pandemic, and where there were gaps, to consider “how do you make these connections stronger for next time?”
Building relationships in underserved communities can require a deeper effort, Asani-Kanji acknowledged, but she advises to start small. “It might seem so unsurmountable, but even starting with one underserved community and having one champion that [lives there] to start that consultation with, I think is really important.”
Park People’s February 2021 survey of Canadian community park groups found that the top two challenges reported by groups are financial insecurity and communication with the city. However, some cities have raised the bar during COVID-19 by initiating creative new programs that bolster the work of community groups—supports that will be essential to continue beyond the pandemic.
- Waterloo introduced pandemic mini grants to support COVID-safe resident-led events like art installations and outdoor games, as well as a block connectors program to strengthen relationships between neighbours.
- Regina launched a $25,000 winter grants program to support community-led activities to bring people outdoors in the colder months.
- Edmonton piloted a pop-up community garden program that saw 29 new community-managed gardens added to the city to address food insecurity during COVID-19—a program that will expand in 2021.
- Winnipeg created a new wellness grant in 2020 for community groups to put on activities that allow residents to connect safely to improve emotional, physical, and spiritual health during COVID-19.
- Laval created a new grant to support community organizations during COVID-19, which has offered over $18 million to more than 50 organizations focused on recreation, sport, social development and the outdoors.
- Prince Albert supported local community organizations during the pandemic, including partnering with a local cross-country ski club to offer a free skiing experience at Little Red River Park, working with local Indigenous groups to provide educational opportunities through pre-packaged craft kits, and collaborating with a local cycling club on an outdoor bike skills park.