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Launched by the BC Parks Foundation in November 2020, Canada’s PaRX program lets healthcare professionals prescribe nature to their patients as a way to improve their mental and physical health. Last month, the program — which has recently made its way to Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba — announced a new partnership that allows doctors to prescribe free passes to Canada’s national parks.

The initiative’s main idea — that nature is good for you — is the same sentiment that has driven biophilic design in our hospitals and healthcare institutions, and has long been supported by scientific studies and research theories.

The pandemic has brought new attention to the connection between nature and health, underlining the importance of creating accessible, safe, natural spaces in our cities. But it’s also cast a much-needed spotlight on the areas that may have gone overlooked. While parks may operate as a place of leisurely comfort and refuge for some, they often fail to afford that same peace of mind to all.

An upcoming DesignTO exhibition explores this idea, asking us what safety looks like in our public parks and outdoor green spaces. “During the pandemic, with the rise of anti-Asian attacks in Canada and the U.S., it was the first time I had ever felt unsafe in an Asian body. I was very aware of my surroundings when I was outside, even at 9 am on a Friday morning,” says Jennifer Chan, who’s part of the team that organized the show. The Bentway’s Safe in Public Space series, published in partnership with Azure last year, revealed many similar sentiments.

Finding ways to listen to Black, Indigenous and people of colour can reframe our understanding of where our parks are still falling short. It can also help guide decision-making when it comes to developing equity-based park policies.

Matthew Hickey, a principal at Indigenous-owned and operated firm Two Row Architect, is another vocal advocate for better understanding the nuanced links and connections between urban green spaces and the mental health of those who frequent them. In his view, once you recognize the critical role that green spaces play in the ongoing mental health crisis, the environmental crisis takes on even greater urgency. “We forget that we need these environments to exist — not the other way around,” he says. “We’re not trying to save the world here. We’re trying to save the human race.”

All of this to say, the momentum building behind this discussion raises some new questions. Namely, if parks and public trails are being recognized more and more as mental health infrastructure, how can we go about better designing them with this role in mind? And what factors need to be addressed to ensure they meet this role for everyone?

Ramsden Park in Toronto.
How Did the Pandemic Change Our Relationships to Parks?

When lockdowns limited indoor gatherings back in 2020, people flooded into parks as places to socialize, exercise, access essential services, and be closer to nature. According to a survey by non-profit organization Park People, 94 per cent of Canadian cities reported that park use had increased during the pandemic, and two-thirds of Canadians said they had spent more time in parks compared to pre-pandemic — with 39 per cent reporting their park use had doubled during COVID-19.

Countries like Denmark, Spain and the United States all recorded similarly significant increases in park usage patterns during and following initial lockdowns.

But beyond the numbers, there was a clear shift in the way people thought of and talked about urban green spaces. Throughout 2021, Toronto engaged more than 75,000 people through park-related consultations across the city, including youth, newcomers, and seniors. During consultation events for the new Toronto Island Park Master Plan, they heard a strong desire to respect and honour the natural significance of the park, acknowledge the land as a living being, and recognize the long-time role it has played as a site of escape, respite and healing.

Calls to restore the environment and implement stewardship programs have been heard on a number of other projects, regardless of their size and location in the city. When we reevaluate our relationship to the land, we begin to set fresh expectations for planning and design that draw insights from lived experiences.

Christie Pits Park in Toronto.
My sister on a winter hike.

Social media has also helped to capture personal experiences that data doesn’t always show. Instagram posts highlight the beauty of our urban parks, while tweets tell us how folks have been discovering and rediscovering the impact of nature on their own wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of their loved ones.

When I feel sad, anxious or need a reset, I go to the park or to a nearby trail. And a big part of my own forays into nature began because I had noticed friends posting about new trails they had explored on their weekends and time off. Weren’t we all sending the same “Where is this?” DM anytime we saw a friend somewhere outside that looked unfamiliar and fascinating?

St. James Town West Park in Toronto.
How Are Cities Promoting Deeper Engagement With Their Parks?

With a renewed spotlight on the connection between parks and public health, new partnerships, pilots and initiatives appeared across Canada. In Edmonton, the City opened 350 pop-up community gardens in fields, parking lots and other locations. In Toronto, specially trained volunteer “ravine champions” work to lead more people into the city’s vast ravine network through community events and outreach. The City of Halifax created a fact sheet on the benefits of nature to support their Green Network Plan, with the objective of promoting awareness of parks and wellbeing, urging locals to explore nature in the city through local organizations.

There’s a common thread across programs and pilots like these: they create more opportunities to connect to the outdoors, and reframe parks as healthcare environments in and of themselves. But while these initiatives are laudable for placing a focus on access, they don’t address the reality that spending time in the outdoors is often largely determined by how much leisure time you have.

Central Park in New York.

Canada’s PaRX initiative, which views nature as a form of medical treatment, effectively reconciles this by underlining the importance of incorporating nature experiences into the busyness of our everyday life with a nature prescription. The initiative is built around an understanding that more people adhere to healthy advice when that advice is written down by a healthcare authority. In other words, if your doctor is prescribing you 30 minutes a day in nature, you’re more likely to make more time for it.

According to Laurel Christie, a landscape architect at the City of Toronto, landscape architecture as a practice is expanding its approach to designing local green spaces with therapeutic benefits. “To make park design more inclusive, we’re thinking about using all five senses to create a better park experience that lets you escape the noise of the city,” she says. “Even small features — putting in plants that have certain fragrances, for instance, or wind chimes and water features to encourage new soundscapes — can have an impact.”

These components coincide with other design strategies that position parks to support society in a broader sense by addressing the looming threat of climate change. “There’s a large move right now towards green infrastructure approaches,” Christie says. “[That might include] permeable paving that might allow for better control of stormwater runoff, or bioswales that use vegetation to slow down and filter stormwater.”

Two years into the pandemic, we’re reflecting on the meaningful opportunities offered by our parks and considering ways that new approaches to parks can inform long-term strategies. And we’re also thinking about what’s missing in our approach. “Design can really only go so far in creating a connection to the outdoors. Knowing that you’re allowed to be there, or seeing people that look like you in those spaces…that’s a much more difficult challenge,” says Christie.

Me and my family after a summer hike in Ontario’s Niagara Region.
Are parks for everyone? Where do they fall short?

In April 2021, five racialized women seated in Jeanne-Mance Park in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood were surrounded by police officers for breaking the province’s rules on small outdoor gatherings. One of these women, Fatima Keita, pointed out to officers during the encounter that the park was filled with others (mostly non-racialized individuals) engaging in similar activity, who were not being spoken to. Witnesses also filmed the incident showing this was the case. Keita was fined more than $1,500.

It’s one story of many that contributes to what we’ve seen throughout the pandemic: a disproportionate impact on specific communities when it comes to the enforcement of physical distancing and other by-laws that govern the public realm.

In major cities across the world, we’ve seen more policing of green spaces and increased violence towards the unhoused. Instances of anti-Black and anti-Asian racism in public spaces have also risen: in April of last year, Canadian Placemaker Jay Pitter wrote about a time her Asian partner was the target of anti-Asian hate speech in Toronto’s Kensington Market. According to the Canadian City Park Report, individuals who identified as Black, Indigenous, or as a person of colour were more likely to report experiencing barriers to park use during the pandemic, such as fear of ticketing (24 per cent) and harassment (22 per cent).

Jennifer Chan is part of the team behind an upcoming DesignTO exhibition (postponed until spring 2022) that shares stories of how people have been experiencing parks before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The in-person installation weaves together written and audio stories, photographs and artwork to zero in on prompts like, “What if parks were made safe for everyone? What would that feel like?” The exhibition is a continuation of A Tale of Two Parks, a youth-led storytelling project that sought to elevate the stories and experiences of BIPOC communities at parks.

Reflections from the project team (most of which is made up of BIPOC youth) are a key part of the installation, and played a large role in the design process. Many of their stories point towards the idea that for teens and older youth in particular, safety in a park is often something understood to be conditional. “Safety within parks was often tied to the time of day when they’d be visiting, or even the location of the park,” says Chan. “When they were younger, parks were used as pass-throughs on their way to school — but there were many times they didn’t feel safe going to parks at all.”

During consultations, we often hear from teens and youth that they lack a sense of ownership over parks and public spaces. If they find themselves in a park for too long, in too large of a crowd, or after the sun has gone down, they might be told that they’re “loitering” rather than enjoying a public asset. Sentiments and stories shared by youth also begin to reflect a bigger idea explored in Chan’s group’s exhibition: in the (important) pursuit of safety, is there a larger focus on surveillance and policing rather than teaching and support?

Ramsden Park in Toronto.

Cities across Canada continue to promote the idea that “parks are for everyone,” but I worry that this obscures the violence, racism, and inequitable enforcement that excludes racialized communities from getting outside. Does it ignore inequities when it comes to park amenities and features, even when they do exist in a neighbourhood? In a U of T School of Cities publication, Park People’s Minaz Asani-Kanji asks “Why are (underserved) communities also the ones with parks that have fewer amenities?” She notes that parks in non-downtown neighbourhoods — while large —  usually lack up-to-date playgrounds, shade trees and even basic seating.

City documents like Toronto’s Parkland Strategy have unearthed data that has done well to formally acknowledge this gap, and is being used to guide the next 20 years of parks planning with an eye towards “addressing inequities across the city.” It’s a great step forward — but on its own, it can’t erase the fact that for many, the impacts of these inequities are long-lasting. 

I grew up near Rexdale, on the outskirts of Toronto. My family later moved to a new, larger Brampton suburb. Even so, my understanding of what a ‘park’ could be was pretty limited until I went to university downtown. The nearest park to me was a flat, grassy expanse with a few benches and walkways. Of the paths that were there, few had been maintained. Even if parks really were for everyone, there were certainly better parks, parks that were more fun and enjoyable, that could be available to you — if you lived in a wealthier (and whiter) neighbourhood.

As someone working in public engagement and parks today, I wonder if language like “parks are for everyone” prevents Black, Indigenous and people of colour from bringing their lived realities to the foreground. What if we framed the sentiment as a question, rather than a statement? During my own park consultations, I try to reframe it:

How should we make our parks feel like they’re for everyone?”

“What does joy look like to you while in a park?”

Architect Matthew Hickey, who is a Mohawk from the Six Nations First Nation, sees a similar disconnect. “Parks are a colonial construct,” he says. In turn, any shift towards viewing parks as a mental health tool must first be grounded in the truth that they have played a role in generations of dispossession, displacement and the other harrowing effects of post-colonial capitalism.

Specifically, park creation has often disregarded Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land in order to construct parks as a parcel of land for settlers. Eli Enns, president of the IISAAK OLAM Foundation, describes parks as a tool to separate “humanity from nature to trick ourselves into believing the world is disconnected.” “But it’s not disconnected,” says Hickey.

Community comments from a park engagement session.
Where Do We Go From Here?

To restore a stronger sense of connection between a city’s green spaces, then, Hickey argues for a system-level approach to rethinking parks and other urban sites of wellbeing as part of a connected network of greenspace. “Most landscape architects are — or should be — aware of the fact that trees speak to each other,” Hickey says. “We need to think about how to give back our natural systems their own sense of place,” The way he describes it, this involves softer guidance from urban planners and designers, letting natural ecosystems take their own shape while remaining mindful of key factors like safety and access.

To move forward, we also need to acknowledge that we’re playing catch-up to Indigenous knowledge and worldviews. For instance, while cautiously optimistic about the PaRx prescription model, anti-racism educator Larissa Crawford makes a point to note that “it is still a prime example of Indigenous knowledge not being good enough until Western scientists prove its validity.”

Cities across Canada are making a big push to have Indigenous perspectives inform upcoming park projects. But Hickey mentions that cities, in doing this important work with First Nations and other Indigenous communities, should be cautious about token iconography as a way to signal Indigenous presence in our public spaces, including parks. In Dr. Lillian McGregor Park, a medicine wheel takes up the park’s central gathering space. St. James Town West Park has earmarked space for an Indigenous medicinal garden, with the intention for it to be Indigenous-led.

In my work engaging with Indigenous communities and First Nations, I’ve heard similar ideas about embedding Indigenous presence in our parks. The conversation is being expanded beyond just the question of “What Indigenous design elements can be incorporated?” to also address “What are you doing to make sure Indigenous people feel safe in expressing their Indigeneity in this space?” And more importantly, what are we doing to respect the land?

These larger questions can also be formalized into multi-layered, system-wide efforts — in 2020, Vancouver asked staff to begin developing a decolonization strategy to be used across the Board of Parks and Recreation, as a way of setting specific directions for actionable change and ensuring reconciliation goals are prioritized.

If we’re to understand the role that parks play as one part of the healthcare infrastructure that makes up our cities, we must also realize that design can only go so far. How do we reconcile making our parks safe and welcoming in a city that is still working towards addressing equity gaps in cycling infrastructure for low-income cyclists, and is in the midst of a severe housing crisis?

St. James Town West Park in Toronto.

Pushing for policy change is one way forward — if we designated parks and trails as an essential piece of our healthcare system, could we unlock better funding models? Accessing health-based funding might help address tight budgets around parks and maintenance. We could also look to increasing programming in parks that provides folks with meaningful opportunities to interact with nature.

Continuing in the spirit of Ontario’s declaration of community gardens as “essential,” a push for increased space and funding for these programs can go a long way in strengthening food security in neighbourhoods and creating more places for folks to connect. Building upon existing equitable planning and engagement tools, like those used to create Toronto’s Facilities Master Plan, we can look to demographic data and neighbourhood assessments to help better address a community’s needs.

And of course, community engagement has a significant part in all of this. If we don’t engage the voices of those who have been left out of traditional public consultation practices — which have historically catered to the schedules and whims of homeowners — we can’t expect our parks to act as mental health infrastructure for a diversity of people.

Designing engagement processes must first start with all parties recognizing where power already exists in communities — something my own team is trying to scale across all our consultations. Conversations around whose voices are reflected and welcomed in our parks and public spaces must be facilitated. All of our actions — whether policy, design, or engagement — must reflect the truth that our natural environments are fundamental to our well-being. 

Rajesh Sankat is based in Toronto, where he leads community engagement programs for the planning and design of parks and public spaces.

It’s Time to Design City Parks As Mental Health Infrastructure for Everyone

For the past two years, nature has been celebrated for its psychological benefits. How should this perspective inform our approach to public space?

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