Unfortunately, this equity-based lens is not common in park system master plans, which often simply prioritize areas of population growth rather than social or economic factors. The creation of such tools, layered with public health and demographic data, could be a way for cities to begin to address systemic underinvestment in parks and some of the attendant health disparities that result.
Asima Jansveld is the Vice President at the High Line Network—a non-profit based in New York City that provides tools and networking to promote equitable park development. The group has two Canadian member parks: The Bentway and The Meadoway.
Like Asani-Kanji, Jansveld sees a correlation between neighbourhoods most affected by COVID-19 and those impacted by lower access to quality parks. In New York City, for many lower income communities the only access to public space are playgrounds or basketball courts, she said, many of which were closed down during COVID-19.
“I think it’s opening up some interesting conversations about how people prioritize development in new open space. It’s making an even stronger case for the importance of quality open space to support public health,” Jansveld said. “Open space is falling across racial lines in a lot of communities. Are Black and brown communities the ones that are served with quality open space?”
“My guess is that with limited resources in the next few years you’re going to see a trend towards more neighbourhood community spaces as opposed to the large mega parks,” she added.
“Mega parks are to me borne out of thinking about economics as metrics of success—economic development, real estate value—which is going to be important too, frankly,” she said. But shifting to more of a public health-related metric as Jay Pitter has called for, she said, could help to prioritize parks investment where it’s really needed to address critical urban inequities that often disproportionately affect Black and brown communities of colour.
For Sundance, the issue of park funding is connected with the growing call for defunding police in Toronto and many communities across Canada. Police budgets are often the single largest line item in a city’s budget and there have been increasing calls to shift that funding to more community-based programming and social services.
Sundance argued the police should be defunded 50% with the funds redistributed to address underlying systemic urban issues like adequate housing and jobs for people. “Crime often comes out of poverty,” she said. “What are preventative measures that can be used outdoors in parks for community groups?”
The answer for Sundance is not funneling this money to improvements for playgrounds and more benches, but towards programming, specifically food programming, that can provide social and economic benefits to local communities by providing opportunities for skill-building, wealth generation, and increasing food security.
“I truly do think it’s having urban farms in parks,” she said, “and people given the opportunity to make a livelihood.”