Park People helps you enjoy Toronto’s green spaces

David Harvey loves urban parks, and this love inspired him to found, in 2011, Park People, a charity dedicated to helping people get involved in their local green spaces.

One of his first initiatives was the creation of a Toronto City Parks System (now expanded across Canada) to help start and support local park groups to organize events such as Farmers Markets , adding facilities such as pizza or tandoor ovens, maintaining gardens and cleaning. invasive plants and litter.

Four years ago, he began publishing a report providing insight into how parks can better serve their neighborhoods. The just-released Canadian Urban Parks Report 2022 reveals that the pandemic has changed the way Canadians use parks. When people couldn’t gather indoors, parks became a refuge, a respite and a gathering place, especially for the many Canadians who don’t have backyards.

“From more frequent walks along trails, to eating out, to spending more time in naturalized areas, city residents are using their parks more than ever for things they weren’t doing before the pandemic. “, says the report.

It’s no wonder people flock to the parks. In a survey of more than 3,000 Canadians for the report, 94% said parks improved their mental health and 91% said parks improved their physical health. Given these benefits, increased use of the park is expected to continue; 58% of respondents said they want to spend even more time in their parks.

It’s a trend visible in Harvey’s beloved Riverdale Park East. « It’s my escape, » he says of the expanse of grass and trees that is a gateway into the Don Valley ravines where he walks, bikes, jogs and, in winter , cross country skiing. « You can be 100 miles out of town in seconds. »

During the pandemic, the park, with its stadium-like slope overlooking downtown, has become a destination where people gather (in socially distanced groups) and watch the sunset. Harvey speaks fondly of how he and his big, aging brown rescue dog, Clarence, just love to sit together in the middle of that evening crowd.

Further east, Cassels Avenue Playground near Gerrard and Woodbine is the local park frequented by Erika Nikolai, who recently became co-executive director of Park People. That’s where she takes Ruby, her poodle-Boston terrier mix (who is listed on the Park People website as « Happiness Manager »). Nikolai established the organization’s charitable status to put it on a sustainable footing, then led its expansion from a local Toronto focus to a national organization.

“The advantage of things being local, small-scale for us in a city like Toronto is really essential,” says Nikolai. For many people in the city, she notes, it is not easy to access the wilderness parks Canada is known for.

Bringing people and parks together is why Harvey put « People » in the organization’s name. There are lots of landscape architects, climate experts and park managers, he says, but no association has focused on getting people into parks. And, he adds, « in town, if people aren’t using the park, there’s something wrong with the park. » It may not have the proper facilities for the community – lacking, say, a playground in an area with lots of children. Or he may not feel safe due to ramshackle paths or overgrown foliage. Park People helps local communities identify and resolve such issues.

One of the main goals that Harvey and Nikolai are working toward is, in Harvey’s words, « to make sure all parks in Toronto share equally. » While most underserved communities in Toronto benefit from nearby green spaces, the pandemic has underscored how these spaces may not be well resourced, compared to those in more affluent neighborhoods.

Nikolai mentions one of his favorite projects, MABELLEarts. With the support of Park People, over the past few years the organization has transformed a patch of grass in the middle of a Toronto community housing complex in Etobicoke into a vibrant community center with trees, seating, a fire pit and a brightly decorated trailer that serves as a mobile café. During the pandemic, it became a free farmer’s market for residents in need.

Over the next decade, Harvey and Nikolai plan to intensify their focus on equality. Part of the impetus for this momentum lies in the threat of climate change, which, Harvey notes, « has disproportionate impacts on communities that lack tree cover and green space. » He cites the Jane-Finch area, which has much less forest cover than the Toronto average.

Between the pandemic, climate change and all the other stresses facing cities, Harvey says, parks have gone « from a nice to have to a need to have. »


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