Two years of social distancing during a pandemic has highlighted how important relationships are in our lives—relationships to our friends and family, but also to the natural world and our wider community. And yet all around us are examples of relationships that need repairing and nurturing, evidenced by persistent systemic inequities, social division, climate change, and mental health challenges.
As the common spaces in our cities, parks play an important role in relationship-building. They are where we go to take time for ourselves, but also to meet people we know, and to bask in a shared moment with those we don’t. Sometimes this is uncomfortable, but from discomfort often comes growth. City parks are an exercise in learning to share—and sometimes give up—space.
This year’s report starts to move beyond the impacts of the pandemic to understand how the lessons we’ve learned over the last two years can point a way forward to more equitable and creative ways of planning, designing, and programming parks.
In researching the stories in this year’s Canadian City Parks Report, we saw countless examples of how this is being done across Canada. We heard stories from community members, non-profits, and cities who are leading innovative park programs that bring people together across difference, recognize and repair wrongs, and highlight the joy that comes from feeling truly connected to nature and each other.
This year you’ll find stories on nature connection, decolonization, community collaborations, creative funding, and parks as sites of community care.
Strong relationships are built on reciprocity. As Carolynne Crawley, interviewed in this year’s report for our story on nature connectedness, pointed out: “as people we have an individual and collective responsibility to be in a good relationship with the Earth, just as well as being in a good relationship with ourselves and each other.” This notion of reciprocity, grounded in Indigenous teachings, is built on a practice of gratitude, on being aware of and responsive to the gifts that our environment and others provide for us.
We think parks are the perfect place to model reciprocity and gratitude. We hope that through the stories in this year’s report you find both the inspiration and the challenge to do so in your own communities. After two years apart, it’s time to come together again.
Below we provide a brief overview of what we learned this year through our research, interviews, and surveys of both participating cities and the Canadian public. We encourage you to read the stories found in each section to learn more and visit the City Data page to find relevant statistics and specific data from each participating city.
The popularity of parks
Canadian cities continued to see an increase in the amount of time people spend in parks—and new statistics from our survey of over 3,000 Canadian city residents show this heightened use may just be the beginning.
While 55% of city residents said they spent more time in parks in the last year than the year before, 58% also said that they would like to spend even more time in parks. The benefit that city dwellers get from parks is also rising. This year, survey respondents who said parks benefited their mental health increased from 85% last year to 94% this year, and from 81% to 91% for physical health.
This desire to spend more time in parks and increased self-reported benefits may stem from the new activities that people discovered they liked doing during the pandemic. From more frequent walks along trails, to eating outdoors, to spending more time in naturalized areas, city residents are using their parks more than ever for things they were not doing before the pandemic.
Giving back to nature
It’s no surprise that people continued to seek out urban nature as a place to decompress during the pandemic. But all of that extra time spent outdoors has translated into interest in giving back, including participating in nature stewardship. This isn’t surprising since research shows that people who feel more connected to nature tend to exhibit greater interest in environmentally sustainable behaviours.
Overall, 87% of city residents said they felt connected to nature, while only 4% said they felt disconnected—a finding that was fairly stable across race and income. However, nature connectedness levels grew with age, starting with 83% for 18-29 year olds and rising to 94% for those 65 and older. Many sought this connection close to home, with 71% of respondents saying that naturalized spaces within a 10-minute walk were most helpful.
Cities are also responding to this heightened interest in natural areas with 59% saying they have, or are planning to, expand nature stewardship programming to meet demand.
We heard it’s important to recognize and honour the role of Indigenous Peoples as the inherent caretakers of the lands at the core of nature education and stewardship activities. This includes centring the work of Indigenous organizations by supporting their programming and building meaningful relationships.
Address barriers to accessing urban nature such as lack of time, inadequate access to nearby natural areas, and accessibility challenges. Prioritize investment in naturalized spaces in neighbourhood parks as well as providing tips for experiencing nature from home, free transit passes to larger parks, and the ability to call in to an audio-guided outdoor nature walk.
Promote reciprocity in nature programming and education by relaying both the benefits of nature connection for personal wellness and the ways in which we can give back through participating in stewardship activities, being mindful of our personal impact, or simply picking up trash along our favourite trail.
Centring Indigenous leadership
Decolonization and Indigenous representation and leadership in city parks continues to grow as a priority for cities with some recent initiatives pointing to a new way. However, as our stories in this year’s report point out, there is still a long way to go and much to learn as we move forward by addressing past and current wrongs, including examining how city parks could take part in the Land Back movement.
This year’s report features stories that look at new park projects planned with Indigenous communities, such as kihciy askiy in Edmonton, renaming projects that were sparked and driven by sustained Indigenous-led advocacy, and the cultural and natural importance of Indigenous plants.
Indeed, 76% of cities said that embedding a reconciliation/decolonization lens in park planning and policy became a greater priority in the last year, with 57% indicating they had started or completed a process to rename parks to honour Indigenous histories and continued presence.
City residents are also supportive of these measures. 59% said they supported the renaming of parks, while 87% wanted to see more Indigenous plants in parks and 68% were in favour of more representation of Indigenous culture in park designs.
Ensure Indigenous consultation is at the forefront of park improvement initiatives. Indigenous Peoples must be engaged as rights-holders, whose territories city parks are built on. This means learning Indigenous processes and cultures in the territory your city is in.
Returning to and conserving native plant species must be a priority and this work must be done in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples who hold knowledge about these plants and how they fit into a larger kinship network of species.
Paying for it
Even before the pandemic, park budgets were perennially strained. In fact, if you’ve read the past three years of the Canadian City Parks Report, this point may start to sound like a broken record. 86% of cities reported insufficient operating budgets and 97% said aging infrastructure was a challenge.
While budgets remained stable, cities were asked to do more—sometimes much more—as parks departments took on the sanitizing and monitoring of parks for public health.
Two-thirds of city residents consider their parks well cared for, although 87% said they wanted more public funding to be invested in them, particularly for maintenance and higher quality designs.
Planning for the future is both a challenge and an opportunity coming out of the pandemic. 93% of cities said the pandemic delayed or raised the cost of park development projects, making park renewals more expensive—a challenge that will have longer term ramifications.
However, many are now ramping up equity-focused planning efforts that will direct investments to the communities that need them most and that have been historically underserved. And new investments from the federal government, such as funding for a network of urban national parks through Parks Canada, will bring additional resources.
Embed equity within park investment by layering data such as demographics, historical investment patterns, and environmental measures like tree canopy coverage into park planning. This allows cities to prioritize investment in parks beyond just measures of development growth, which may leave communities that don’t see as much development behind over time.
Consider more participatory funding options for public spaces, allowing community members to actively collaborate through participatory budgeting or flexible grants. Plan adequate staff time, however, for community engagement and internal discussions in order to move ahead projects that may not fit within the city’s typical approach.
Making engagement meaningful
The pandemic changed the landscape of park engagement, disrupting traditional in-person methods like town halls and challenging cities to find creative approaches to involving community members. Cities rose to the challenge, with 92% reporting the pandemic had changed how they engaged communities.
However, many city residents still don’t feel like they have a say. Just 22% said they felt they have a voice or the ability to influence what goes on in their local parks, listing as the main barriers: not being sure how to get involved, unsure whether their participation would make a difference, and a lack of time to participate. These barriers were more prominent among respondents who identified as BIPOC, highlighting the need for deeper relationship-building with equity-deserving groups.
This is a need that some cities are beginning to address through ongoing engagement with communities, outside of project-based consultation processes. 44% of community park groups said they have a strong relationship with their municipality, and 83% said they’d be interested in deepening that relationship, highlighting that communities are eager to collaborate on shaping their parks.
Take a proactive and neighbourhood-based approach to ongoing relationship-building with local groups to stay on the pulse of emerging needs and ensure there is a strong foundation of trust when formal engagement processes happen.
Evaluate internal policies and practices to ensure there are protocols to meaningfully address barriers to participation, provide appropriate compensation to community partners, sustain relationships in the event of staff turnover, and formalize sharing back outcomes with engagement participants.
Resetting the approach to houselessness
The visibility and rising challenge of houselessness in parks is top of mind for both cities and urban residents, but there is also a lot of empathy in the public and creative initiatives from community organizations and cities that model new approaches.
After a wave of violent and widely critiqued encampment evictions during the summer of 2021, there has been a move driven by community advocacy toward rethinking the role of parks departments in responding to houselessness. This has resulted in some cities beginning to embrace a human rights-based approach to encampments by providing amenities and services in parks and deepening engagement with unhoused residents.
However, there is still much work to be done. 90% of cities listed houselessness in parks as a challenge this year, the same percentage as in 2021. Park staff often feel they are not well equipped to deal with this challenge, with 56% of cities listing a lack of knowledge about houselessness and 48% noting a lack of overall strategic direction beyond managing day-to-day realities as obstacles in this work. The top strategies cities reported using were bylaw enforcement (76%) and designing parks with a crime prevention lens (66%) with approaches involving direct engagement with unhoused communities being far less common (10%).
While narratives on encampments often focus on conflict, we found that 62% of city residents who reported noticing encampment(s) in their local parks did not feel that it impacted their use of parks negatively. This shows there is an opportunity to reset this conversation towards more just and inclusive approaches that centre building relationships, sharing space, and supporting the well-being of unhoused residents in parks.
Invest in both the material and social well-being of unhoused communities by ensuring basic amenities and services are in place in parks, but also designing park programming that taps into people’s skills, interests, and creativity. Co-design programs with unhoused neighbours to ensure the activities will not result in displacement or discomfort.
Approach encampments through a human-centred rather than operational lens, leaning into the strengths of park professionals as connectors and convenors. Build relationships with unhoused residents and community partners, while fostering an organizational culture of openness, reflection and learning throughout the process.