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Park use in Canada soared during COVID, creating challenges for cities, survey finds

Cities report extra costs during the pandemic due to increased maintenance and staffing
People stay physically distanced as they take part in a outdoor dance class in a park in Montreal on June 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

A new survey has found that Canadians have flocked to their local parks during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating both challenges and opportunities for cities.

The survey by charity organization Park People found that two-thirds of the 3,500 respondents reported having spent more time in parks during the pandemic, while almost 40 per cent said their use of parks had doubled.

Cities noted the same trend, with 29 of 31 responding municipalities reporting that park use had increased during the past year.

“What we learned, very simply, is that people have been using parks way more, and that nearby nature has become more important,” Adri Stark, a project manager for Park People and one of the report’s co-authors, said Wednesday.

While the overwhelming majority of respondents said parks had a positive impact on their mental health during the pandemic, the increased use also presents challenges for cities, Stark said.

The survey authors say cities reported having incurred extra costs during the pandemic due to increased maintenance and staffing needs, at a time when they faced a funding crunch due to COVID-19.

Most cities also said they face other long-term challenges including aging infrastructure and more demand for programs and better designed spaces.

“Above all else, the biggest challenge that cities face is they’re being asked to do more with less,” Stark said.

Cities also face challenges when it comes to ensuring access to parks is equitable, she said.

The survey found that while 85 per cent of survey respondents said parks had a positive impact on their mental health during the pandemic, the number was significantly lower for those who identified as Black and Indigenous.

Stark says the discrepancy can be explained by several different factors, including that green space tends to be disproportionately located in higher-income areas, and that Black and Indigenous respondents were more likely to report experiencing harassment in parks.

She said the survey hints at some ways cities can make parks more welcoming. Respondents who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour showed a high level of interest in getting involved in stewardship activities, for example, suggesting that cities could reach out to get them involved with volunteer opportunities or on park boards.

Stark said cities can also provide services that are culturally sensitive. As an example, she cites a park in Mississauga, Ont., that has promised a space where Hindus and Sikhs can scatter funeral ashes in the river, which is a cultural practice that is not always permitted on city land.

Over 80 per cent of the respondents who reported using parks more often said they planned to continue their visits.

The majority also said they’d like to see increased funding for better maintenance, new amenities and more community programming.

All of this presents opportunities, Stark said.

Respondents’ main suggestions included winterized bathrooms, outdoor cafés and arts and culture events, suggesting people “are expecting their parks to support a greater range of activities,” she said.

Stark says the pandemic allowed people to rediscover their local parks at a time when most other activities were off limits.

Along the way, she believes many people have come to realize that they’re “super flexible spaces” with endless uses, from nature walks to picnics to outdoor gym workouts and social spaces, and she believes the demand will continue.

“Once people have been opened to those possibilities, it will be hard for them to go back to their old indoor routines,” she said.

—Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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