Parks are canvases that communities can paint on

Guest post by Minaz Asani-Kanji, the outreach manager for Park People, originally posted here.

I recently took my son, Kahzmir, to Alexmuir Park where the Toronto Arts Foundation brought Shadowland Theatre to the park as part of their Arts in the Parks program. Shadowland was presenting ‘The Spirit of Our Park:’ a week of workshops with music, puppet-making, performers and aboriginal teachings–all culminating in a final glorious parade.

I was there representing Park People (we helped guide the project and connected The Toronto Arts Foundation to underserved park groups in our network), but mostly I was also there as a mom.

While I was busy chatting with Shawn, Shadowland’s fabric designer, my 10 year old son, who is normally quite shy, started becoming curious about a pair of stilts.

The next time I looked over, Kahzmir was proudly stilt walking on his own, around the park.  He refused to take the stilts off until we finally headed home.

IMG_6348Kahzmir was hooked. As luck would have it, I hadn’t signed him up for any camps that week, so every day my in-laws and son headed to Alexmuir Park to practice stilt walking. Kahzmir improved at a rapid pace, eventually jumping, crouching and kicking a ball.

Shadowland Theatre ended the week with a phenomenal parade to celebrate the park. Kahzmir was a Blue Jay, proudly circling the park in his homemade costume.

I learned several lessons about parks and from watching my son strut around on stilts. Here are a few:

1. Parks are canvases

We all know parks are places where soccer, monkey bars, and picnics happen. But when a whimsical parade marches through your park, it serves as a reminder that parks are places where anything can happen (well, most anything.). All it takes is an idea, some people and a park to create a circus big top, a stage or a festival. Parks are canvases that communities can paint on.

2. Park pride is contagious

My son’s pride not only came from learning to stilt walk. Kahzmir was also proud of his community and his park for being part of something utterly magical. That pride spread to the parents who ran with backpacks slung over their shoulders to catch the parade they’d heard about all week. Pride is what it takes to make parks the heart of communities. When it comes to pride, a little goes a long way toward transforming a patch of grass into a valued community gathering place

3. Community groups set the stage

Right from our first meeting with Rosewood Taxpayers Association, it was clear that like our Park Friends Groups, good community groups see possibilities where others might see challenges. When Shadowland said they needed storage for their items each evening, the Association’s VP,  Alura raised her hand and said she’d have no problem sharing her garage for the week. Alura may not have been one of the performers, but the show couldn’t have gone on without her.

4. Pokemon Go isn’t the 0nly game in town

Yes, it’s great that Pokemon Go is getting people off their couches and into public spaces, but Arts in the Parks does the same thing without a digital interface. My son was eager to rush out to the local park every morning because he was learning a new skill, meeting new people and working toward a goal. Sorry, but Pokemon’s got nothing on that!

Guest post by Minaz Asani-Kanji, the outreach manager for Park People, originally posted here.

Do people actually use exercise equipment in parks?

I walk by Sally Bird Parkette often, probably about once a week for the last six years. It’s a small sliver of green space on a single skinny lot between two houses. There’s a flower garden. There’s a bench. Even a water fountain. And there’s also what appears to be three forest-green torture devices.

Well, it depends on your definition of torture.

When this parkette was redone in 2010, three outdoor exercise stations were included. I’ve heard this was based on community feedback that said people would rather have something for adults to do than children, since there was a number of playgrounds already nearby.

Only problem is, as far as I can tell, no one uses these things except for teenagers who sometimes hang out there to smoke. I mean, at least they’re getting used.

It got me thinking: do people actually use exercise equipment in parks, or is it like the equivalent of a gym membership. We like having the option. We say we’re going to use it. But then we decide to eat ice cream and watch Stranger Things on Netflix instead (guys, that show is really good–stop reading this and go watch it.)

Turns out I’m not the only one wondering this. A team of researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta did a study looking at the use of exercise equipment in parks. They observed people in the parks and spoke with people about their use of the park.

What did they find?

They found the exercise equipment was used by only 2.7% of park goers (this follows with other studies that found between 1.9% and 5.5% use).

The interesting thing though is that when they spoke to people to ask them about their use, 22% of people said they used the equipment monthly. It’s our tendency as humans to want to appear a little bit more virtuous than we really are. “Oh, how often do I go to the gym? Oh about three times a week usually.” Uh huh, sure you do, Jim. Sure.

The other interesting part is that people just liked knowing the equipment was there. They “perceived” the equipment to be beneficial to health, but as the researchers wrote, there was a difference between “potential benefits as opposed to actual benefits.”

This is like the equivalent of having broccoli on the menu at a restaurant that serves fatty hamburgers and then looking at the menu and saying “Oh, it’s good they serve broccoli. That’s healthy. I’ll have two hamburgers, please.”

So how to turn those perceived benefits into actual benefits?

Turns out the whole Field of Dreams if-you-build-it-they-will-come scenario doesn’t really work out to well with exercise equipment. What does work then? Well for one: programming. Trainers provided on-site to show people how to use the equipment. Classes and lessons. This is what many of the people interviewed in the study requested.

Because, as we all know, a gym opening up down the street from us doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to use it. Sometimes we need that extra external push of a trainer yelling into our face to turn that potential benefit, into an actual benefit.