This article was originally published in different form on the Park People blog.

Last year was tough. But it was also illuminating.

We know from city staff and phone location data that park use has increased in cities all over Canada. In Park People’s survey of 51 Canadian cities this past June, more than half reported an increase in park use — a trend we know has continued through the winter.

In this respect, COVID-19 has shown how parks are a big part of community resilience by providing a place for people to stay active, de-stress and connect with others — safely. This shows in the numbers: 70 per cent of the 1,600 Canadians we surveyed in June said their appreciation of parks had increased during the pandemic.

But COVID-19 has also shown that we have work to do to address discrimination — particularly anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism — and ensure inclusive policies and equitable access to parks where people feel safe and welcome.

Take the enforcement of social distancing by-laws in parks and public spaces, for example. A report by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association showed that “Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia have issued nearly $13 million in COVID-related fines that have disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous and other marginalized groups.”

As we think about the place of parks and public spaces in the long recovery from COVID-19, we’ve reflected on the challenges and trends that we’re seeing in Canadian city parks. We hope these point a way toward more equitable and resilient parks.

We often speak about parks as being “for everyone,” but this obscures the racism, inequitable enforcement, historic underinvestment, unequal access to amenities and social judgment that exclude many in our cities from enjoying and benefiting from these spaces.

Leading with equity

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 this obscures the racism, inequitable enforcement, historic underinvestment, unequal access to amenities and social judgment that exclude many in our cities from enjoying and benefiting from these spaces.

Experts in Park People’s webinar on Urbanism’s Next Chapter 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 a start, we can look at who is in decision-making circles and who is not, and make sure that community engagement and consultation exercises are additive, not extractive, by working with communities to address core needs. As place-maker and author Jay Pitter noted in Park People’s Canadian City Parks Report: “If the community engagement process hasn’t served the larger purpose of building bridges across difference and fostering new relationships, then it hasn’t served the community.”

For example, Montreal-based Exeko engages with people experiencing homelessness in parks through artistic programming. Co-director of programs Dorothée de Collasson has said this helps create shared experiences and change perceptions between housed and unhoused park users — a particularly important point considering the increase in park encampments in many Canadian cities.

We also need to turn “engagement” inward. In a conversation between urbanists Tamika L. Butler and Justin Garrett Moore, Moore wondered whether those doing community engagement are also “doing self-engagement to actually create the space and opportunity for you to process and understand and receive something that is beyond your individual or your organizational experience?”

Finally, we can look toward new equity-based policy and planning frameworks, like Vancouver’s Initiative Zones in its new VanPlay parks master plan. This framework looks beyond population and development growth as an indicator of where new parks investments should flow to include socioeconomic and access metrics, such as tree canopy gaps and demand for low-barrier recreation services.

We can further strengthen these tools in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic by layering in public health data to ensure we’re investing in parks to address health inequities. For example, Katherine Howard, a planner with the Vancouver Park Board who worked on VanPlay, has said that having the Initiative Zones in place helped the Park Board quickly make equity-informed decisions about where to direct investments for COVID-19 response.

Improving local parks as resilient hubs

The pandemic has heightened the importance of our local parks as places of respite. Our survey revealed that people were more often choosing parks closer to home during the pandemic rather than travelling to other neighbourhoods.

But we know these parks are not distributed or enjoyed equally — and this has real impacts on people’s mental and physical health. The survey also showed that Canadians who said they didn’t have a park they liked within a 10-minute walk were five times more likely to not have visited a park at all between March and June 2020.

In 2021, we foresee a renewed focus on access to quality, nearby green spaces. This should include an emphasis on providing basic amenities like washrooms, drinking fountains, shade structures and plentiful seating that ensure parks are comfortable and accessible. Many parks have seen heavy use during the pandemic, so increased maintenance will also be key.

But we can go further. Integrating urban agriculture and even markets for locally produced goods and food can help parks become resilient hubs — and aid in local economic development, which will be an important part of COVID-19 recovery. Some cities, such as Toronto, have also raised the idea of public Wi-Fi in parks, which recognizes the increased barriers for people who don’t have reliable internet at home as other community facilities, such as community centres and libraries, have shut their doors.

This kind of planning will allow us to depend on our local parks during times of future crisis, knowing they will be there to provide accessible spaces and services.

The connection between human wellbeing and spending time in nature has long been established in science. But not everyone enjoys access to nature.

Growing access to nearby nature

As our stress levels rocketed in 2020 and Canadians’ mental health declined, many began spending more time outdoors. Our survey found that 82 per cent of Canadians said parks had become more important to their mental health during the pandemic.

The connection between human wellbeing and spending time in nature has long been established in science. But not everyone enjoys access to nature. Racist acts and exclusionary programs and policies can make people feel unsafe and unwelcome in natural spaces — a point Jacqueline L. Scott has made on her excellent blog Black Outdoors.

In 2021, we hope to see more focus on neighbourhood greening projects that insert naturalized gardens into the places 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. We should also review existing stewardship programs and local granting initiatives to understand who is participating in these programs and where these investments are being made in our cities.

Local greening projects are key to increasing the climate resiliency of our communities, mitigating climate change impacts by reducing flooding and cooling the air. Let’s build on the heightened awareness of the connection between mental health, climate resilience and nature through new programs and stewardship opportunities, particularly in areas of the city that are underserved.

This also includes, as Earth Worker Joce Two Crows Tremblay has said, understanding how colonial thinking is enacted through our management of land and ensuring we are setting aside space for, and educating park staff and management on, Indigenous land stewardship practices in parks.

Expanding parks beyond their boundaries

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. Our research found that people wanted more of this. However, many of these interventions were focused in downtown neighbourhoods.

In 2021, let’s continue creative rethinking about the space in our cities to make it more people-friendly, but let’s also expand it so that more neighbourhoods can benefit from slower streets, expanded public spaces and safer walking and cycling connections. For example, can we expand beyond curbside patios to accessible and non-commercial uses that provide public seating, Wi-Fi, gardens, bike repair and more?

We can learn a lot from projects like plazaPOPS, which provided community green space and a performance area in a suburban strip mall parking lot, and projects that animate the green spaces around the base of high-rise tower communities. Many of these projects are taken down during the winter, but let’s look for ways to continue these spaces year-round to encourage people to get outside.

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 are continuing to turn to parks and trails this winter to get outside, keep active and lessen the winter blues.

Supporting community-based programming

Many grassroots park 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, more than 40 per cent of park groups we surveyed said they had provided support to those in need in their communities during the pandemic. Some even pivoted to activities like sewing face masks.

We hope to see greater support for park programming from cities. The top two areas park groups said they will need help with are re-engaging community members in participating in park gatherings, and funding.

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.

Celebrating winter

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 are continuing to turn to parks and trails this winter to get outside, keep active and lessen the winter blues.

Some Canadian cities certainly do winter in parks better than others (we’re looking at you Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal), but in many, park infrastructure and maintenance practices don’t reflect the winter reality, including non-winterized washrooms and trails that aren’t plowed regularly.

There’s still time in winter 2021 to make parks and trails accessible to more people by keeping washroom access open and clearing snow and ice for safe use. 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.

And to keep people connected and active, we want to see more support for local communities to provide safe and engaging winter programming. It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated — it could be as simple as bringing your Christmas tree to the park for others to enjoy.

As we continue our pandemic recovery and look to the years ahead, we can move forward together by thinking through policies and programs in our city parks that recognize and support parks as critical social and health infrastructure.

Thank you to Park People staff Adri Stark, Brianna Aspinall, Jodi Lastman, Minaz Asani-Kanji and Molly Connor for their guidance on this article.

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Jake Tobin Garrett is the manager of policy and planning for Park People, a national Canadian charity that helps activate the power of parks, and a co-author of the organization’s annual Canadian City Parks Report.