Catalyzing the power of parks for social connection

Last week, I wrote about parks and mental health, mentioning that some of the results of that research dove-tailed with what we heard researching Park People’s Sparking Change report. We’ve now released that report, which you can download here.

We know that parks are important drivers of improved physical and mental health, but our neighbourhood parks also play an important role in fostering a sense of belonging. They’re not simply green places of respite, but critical pieces of the social infrastructure of our cities.

At a time when increasing attention is being paid to the growing inequality of our cities and neighbourhood-based inequities, it’s critical that we examine how engaging in our parks and public spaces can create more inclusive, equitable places that are shaped by and for the people living there.

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Park People’s been involved in animating and improving parks to create strong communities since 2011. But we wanted to better understand the social impacts of this work, particularly in underserved neighbourhoods where people may be living on lower incomes or are newcomers. Residents in these neighbourhoods often experience barriers to engaging in parks related to time, resources, and sometimes language.

Our new report, Sparking Change: Catalyzing the Social Impacts of Parks in Underserved Neighbourhoods, tells the story of communities that have taken action in their local parks through spearheading improvements, building partnerships, engaging diverse community members, and organizing events and activities that draw people into the park.

Through speaking with resident volunteers, community organizers, and city staff in seven different North American cities, including Toronto, we identified five social impacts of park engagement and 10 strategies to support better this work.

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We heard about work being done to create a new park in a low-income, park deficient neighbourhood in Portland that now includes an inter-tribal garden that is co-managed by local Indigenous people and the City parks department. We heard about community members working with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust to design, build, and program a new park in an area that didn’t have a public space before.

We heard about groups that use gardening and food to spur social connections, tackle food insecurity, and provide places for people with disabilities to garden. We heard about community groups that create opportunities for local entrepreneurs and newcomers to sell homemade food, clothing, and crafts in parks, like Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Market. And we heard how employing a translator to work with Chinese-speaking residents in a north Toronto park helped engage residents through activities like movie nights and plantings.

These stories helped us define the strategies that can be used to create thriving social environments in parks. Our hope was that this report would be a useful tool for community members, non-profit staff, and city governments.

Here are a few of the key take-aways from the report:

Programming is key to creating social connections in parks. There is often a lot of focus on capital improvements (new playgrounds and benches) but locally-created programming is a critical component of creating parks where people actually connect with others in their neighbourhood. Investments in upgraded amenities should be paired with investments in programming and engagement.

Parks can be gateways to becoming civically involved. Park engagement can be a first step to becoming more civically engaged—such as volunteering for other organizations and advocacy campaigns—and also building skills around public speaking and community outreach.

Small actions and investments have big impacts. Small wins and milestones keep people excited, encourage others to get involved, and create a visible presence in the park. It might be as simple as organizing a group park clean-up, working to spruce up a garden, hosting a community picnic.

Parks can be important sites of local economic development. By providing start-up space to local entrepreneurs, cooks, and craftspeople, parks can create local economic opportunities and become important places to build skills and professional networks.

Communities where people are visibly engaged keep parks clean and well-maintained. Engaged community members with a visible presence—at events and clean-ups, for example—can help spur a sense of neighbourhood pride in a local park, which helps keep parks clean and amenities well-maintained and encourages others to get involved.

Park groups should be community-led, but partner support is often needed. While it’s important to ensure community members lead projects themselves, strong partnerships are critical. The support of a paid staff member in a partner organization is often helpful with tasks like organizing meetings, applying for permits, and funding applications.

Download a full copy of the report here.

If you’re in Toronto, please join us on Monday, February 13 for a discussion of the report with people working at different levels in their neighbourhood and park to make change. Register here.

Title photo courtesy of Toronto Arts Council. 

 

 

Understanding the intersection of parks, mental health, and equity

When I feel stressed at work, I get outside and walk to the nearest park. I lie on my back and watch the clouds go by or sit against the trunk of a tree and read. Breathe in, breathe out. Sometimes I’m only out there for 10 or 15 minutes, but I always feel better.

This past Wednesday was Bell’s annual Let’s Talk campaign to reduce the stigma around mental health issues, and so it seems an appropriate time to write a little something about the link between parks and mental health in cities. Do parks really make us feel better? If so, how? And, crucially, are those benefits available to all in a city?

There is a lot of research into these questions. In fact, if you printed out all the articles and scientific studies and stacked them on top of each other it would reach to the top of the CN Tower. (I don’t know if that’s true, but I always like when people write things like that).

CityLab compiled a pretty comprehensive list about the influence of parks on health, including mental health, which you can read here. But as a run-down, parks have been shown to reduce stress levels, improve mood and focus, and reduce depression and anxiety. Parks may also help us not to die. These links have been studied both for short-term exposure to green space—going for my 10 minute visit during a work break—and for long-term exposure—moving to a neighbourhood with more trees and parks nearby.

But these benefits are not distributed evenly in our city as they depend on things like access to green space (can you walk to a park?) and access to high-quality green spaces (when you get to that park is it full of garbage and broken benches?). This is where parks, mental health, and equity intersect.

It is a complicated area to tease out, which is why recently published work by Toronto-based researcher Nadha Hassen out of the Wellesley Institute is so important.

The two papers—a scoping review and a theoretical framework—consist of a review of academic literature related to the association between green space and mental health and a good discussion of how this intersects with neighbourhood-based inequities.

One of the most interesting findings from Nadha’s research was the emphasis on the quality of green space as a factor for positively influencing well-being. Often these studies look at access or quantity of green space, either by measuring distance between homes and parks or using satellite imagery to determine how much green space is in a neighbourhood. But it’s the more subjective, and harder to measure, quality of parks that really have an important influence on our well-being.

Quality measurements that Nadha found were things like: is the area species-rich and biodiverse? Is it aesthetically pleasing, clean, and well-maintained? Is it quiet, peaceful, and well-lit? Are there facilities and amenities that are useful? Are there water features and reflecting pools? Is it safe?

Additionally, social interactions in parks were also found to increase the positive impacts of parks on well-being—something that I also found when researching Sparking Change, a report Park People is releasing in February on the social impacts of parks in underserved neighbourhoods.

The reason Nadha’s research is important and worth emphasizing is that park maintenance is often first on the table in cities that find their operating budgets constrained and look year to year for areas to make cuts. In fact, just this year Toronto’s proposed 2017 operating budget included a reduction in maintenance for parks in high-use times and for gardens—something we spoke out strongly against. Luckily this cut has been reversed, but the final decision still must be made by City Council in February.

Investments in park quality are particularly important in our underserved neighbourhoods—those 31 areas that the City of Toronto has identified as Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. If well-maintained, clean, attractive, safe, and well-programmed parks can positively impact mental health and well-being, then investments in gardens, grass-cutting, park programming, and amenities like playgrounds and pathways should be made through the lens of public health and equity as much as through park operations and maintenance.

As Nadha writes: “To strive towards creating mental health-promoting green spaces, we need to ensure access to good quality green spaces that meet the needs of diverse populations. In urban settings, neighbourhoods with low-income, newcomer, and racialized populations tend to have lower access to available, good quality green spaces compared to other groups that are higher income and white.”

Having data to make these decisions about where to invest would be great. Which is why, as Nadha suggests, we should develop tools to evaluate park quality—using some of the indicators that Nadha uncovered like cleanliness, amenities, programming, natural environment, and safety—as a measure for public health and equity. It would be great to see this data collected with community members themselves—kind of like neighbourhood safety audit walks do currently.

This information would help us prioritize investments to ensure everyone has a beautiful, clean, and welcoming park nearby when they need to sit under a tree and de-stress.