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Metro Cities: Toronto parks need your help to make the grass greener for all

Nadha Hassen found that more green space translated to positive mental health for high-income neighbourhoods. The inverse was true for low-income areas of the city.

Nadha Hassen stands on the grounds of Lionel Chonacher Park on Cottingham St.. Hassen is a researcher who wrote a report about how the impact of green space on mental health depends on whether you live in a low-income or high-income neighbourhood.

Bernard Weil/Toronto Star

Nadha Hassen stands on the grounds of Lionel Chonacher Park on Cottingham St.. Hassen is a researcher who wrote a report about how the impact of green space on mental health depends on whether you live in a low-income or high-income neighbourhood.

When Nadha Hassen, 27, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer three years ago she found herself on leave from work, out of school and spending a lot of time in Toronto’s parks.

There was that one strip of green space crammed between some apartments south of Bloor and Yonge where families and members of the homeless population stood far apart in an unmaintained grassy field.

At the Kingston Galloway Orton Park, Hassen stood on a ledge overlooking the Highland Creek and a growing pile of discarded bottles, plastic and paper bags.

And then there were the parks that helped Hassen recover and feel better — parks with sports infrastructures, benches, and shades over the benches. They had “sight lines” — surrounding areas from which people can always keep an eye on the park. They had garbage bins and water fountains. And most of them were in Toronto’s high-income neighbourhoods.

Hassen, who has an architectural design background and a masters in public health, did a statistical analysis to look into the correlation between income, green spaces and mental health during her fellowship at The Wellesley Institute.

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Using publicly availability data on the quantity of green space and the percentage of those 20 years old and over reporting good or excellent mental health, Hassen found that more green space translated to positive mental health for high-income neighbourhoods. The inverse was true for low-income areas of the city.

“Just because you have lots of green space doesn’t mean that there’s anything happening there,” said Hassen. “It’s green and it’s space but it might not have any meaningful impact.”

Hassen notes that residents of low-income areas tend to be in survival mode.

“The priorities are food and rent. You’re not thinking about your green space and how it contributes to your community,” she said. “You may sort of walk past it, it may just feel like an unsafe space.”

This, however, is changing, as more and more local communities are moving to redefine the parks in their neighbourhoods. The success of community-led revitalization movements in and Dufferin Grove, for example, in the last few years have proven how neighbourhoods can thrive with functional and accessible outdoor spaces.

In her report, Hassen found that the only measure of the impact of Toronto’s parks is quantity. In fact, the report recommends that “quality of green space should be taken into account when assessing and planning green spaces in Toronto neighbourhoods.”

Representatives of Parks, Forestry and Recreation have taken note of this in their own work. This fall, they will be launching a new, long-term parklands strategy to look into the functionality and distribution of the city’s green spaces to accommodate Toronto’s growing population and changing demographics.

In the past, the City of Toronto has focused only on the amount of green space in the city, keeping it in check on a per capita basis. But there are 1,500 parks in the city, and “what we’re recognizing (is) that simply having parkland isn’t enough,” said Matthew Cutler, a manager with Toronto Parks. “It needs to have the right function and an engaged community.”

Toronto’s park system works as a network that has till now been managed through regular maintenance (cutting grass, collecting garbage) and initiatives like the Playground Program, which sees the city replace about 35 playgrounds annually.

“Not every park can have baseball diamonds, soccer fields, tandoor ovens and a nice naturalized area,” said Cutler.

Some of those things wouldn’t naturally be considered by Toronto Parks if the community didn’t help identify it was an important need in their neighbourhood. Improving the functionality of green spaces in this way will increase access to parks, said Cutler, which in turn will improve a community’s overall well-being.

Sabina Ali, a resident of Thorncliffe who led the movement to revitalize the local park, said it’s the responsibility of the community, as much as it is of Park staff, to take care of green spaces.

“The community creates the park,” said Ali. “We invited the park staff to see the bad condition of the park. We got children and adults to put their ideas on paper. And then we combined everything and made a wish list that we’re still going through.”

The result is a more engaged and well-functioning community: the immigrant women who were previously suffering from isolation and stress are now thriving, said Ali.

Cutler is working to be more responsive and enable such groups. Toronto Parks is undergoing a permit review to minimize bureaucracy and make it easier for communities to use their parks.

“We’re looking at how do we better support and engage with these groups,” Cutler said, “Or, where they don’t exist, facilitate the creation of these groups through a project, so that there is an existing network of people ready to take care of any park.”

“Every park doesn’t have a Sabina Ali,” said Hassen, “but we need to think about how to have conversations in our communities about quality of parks without pushing people who use those spaces out but rather integrating them all in.”

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