Opinion Montrealers need new ways of looking at parks

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Earlier this month, I travelled to Calgary to attend a national conference titled Heart of the City: Shaping the Future of City Parks in Canada. The event was put on by Park People, a relatively new organization that has brought together more than 110 community groups active in Metro Toronto parks (and beyond) and provides them with resources — workshops, webinars and publications — to help them improve city parks in various ways, including programming. There were delegates from 36 cities and from all 10 provinces.

I came back with a better sense of what the City of Montreal and other municipalities on the island could do to improve our parks and increase the awareness of how important they are to our quality of life.

What was most striking to me was how attitudes toward parks in many other cities differed so greatly from those seen here, where a top-down approach prevails. 

In Calgary, there is a paid volunteer coordination staff that works with community groups to draw people to the parks and foster volunteerism. The city also has a Parks Foundation that builds capacity in these groups and funds their initiatives.

In Vancouver, the Board of Parks and Recreation is elected and autonomous from the city. And it has created a healthy-city strategy that aims to ensure that everyone should live no farther than five minutes from open space.

Throughout the rest of Canada, reconciliation with indigenous peoples seems to be the big thing, and indigenous principles are being integrated into many park projects.

I was particularly impressed by the Toronto & Region Conservation Authority’s re-naturalization of green spaces into meadow habitat along hydro corridors in Toronto. This will create east-west active transportation routes that complement the north-south pattern of the ravines. Hydro corridors occupy 4,200 acres throughout Toronto. Contrast this with the drawn-out battle in the Laurentians around a new hydro corridor or with the recently announced swath Hydro will cut at Mount Hereford in the Eastern Townships.

Inclusiveness was a recurring theme, with a focus on participatory urban planning, as promoted in Montreal by the Centre d’écologie urbaine. The Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee in R.V. Burgess Park in Toronto, for example, started out by placing trash cans in the park; over the following nine years, they have organized arts programs, community gardens, movie nights, a park café, a winter carnival and an Eid market, where immigrant entrepreneurs get a start in business. 

Parks are seen as much more than green spaces providing ecosystem services and health benefits — they also have economic value (studies show a 20-per-cent increase in real-estate value next to parks); attract tourists; and have social impacts, connecting different ethnic and age groups, welcoming new Canadians and developing community leadership through volunteerism.

Author Beverly Sandalack explained that throughout our history, parks have been an expression of our values, and that there is a disconnect right now between parks, our environmental values and the urgency of climate change; she stressed that we are still stuck in a 20th-century functionalist mentality that saw a standardization in parks.

Adrian Benepe of The Trust for Public Land in the United States pointed out many innovative parks. In addition to New York’s famous High Line park, there is also the Lowline underground. And in Miami, there is the Underline, below transportation lines. New York City has a goal of all residents being no farther than a 10-minute walk to a park; the city has also transformed 250 schoolyards into community parks to reduce the heat island effect and better manage storm water runoff.

Montrealers deserve excellent parks, and to have them, we need the public, elected officials and municipal civil servants to work together. If we can get everyone on the same page, much can be achieved. 

Louise Legault is co-director of Les Amis du Parc Meadowbrook.

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