The Unexpected Rewards of Community Organizing

Park People Toronto seedy Saturday

When I decided to become proactively involved in my community in my retirement years, I didn’t give much thought to the outcomes. I had a general notion to use my newfound free time to do something I wasn’t able to do before: get to know the place that I lived and the people who lived there. This was not just to increase my own sense of belonging, but because I believe that an engaged community is a healthier community, with improved quality of life.

Park People Toronto seedy Saturday
Friends of Cedarbrook & Thomson Memorial Parks gather for Seedy Saturday

I was also interested in environmental causes, and had joined a local group dedicated to keeping the creek that runs through our local parks clean. With encouragement and support from the local municipal councillor, we evolved into a “Friends of the Park” group with myself as its self-styled Convenor. Our focus broadened from a strictly environmental one to one which included people.

There are numerous Friends of the Park on the continent. Some are incorporated non-profits with paid staff working alongside volunteers. Some are so well-structured that they actually form public-private partnerships to manage and fund public parks. Many more are loosely organized, informal groups like ours that welcome all volunteers with whatever they can contribute in terms of time and talent. In Canada, we receive guidance (but not governance) and support in the form of training, forums, and occasionally grants from an umbrella non-profit organization called Park People.

It has been almost five years since our small group formed. We currently number a core group of 10 people who meet regularly to plan park activities, and a larger circle of about 50 hangers-on. We aim to have fun organizing activities that we hope will attract the community into the park and thus help them to gain a better appreciation of our good fortune in having these beautiful green spaces. We host guided theme walks (local history, nature, geology, health & exercise) bicycle rides, and miscellaneous park doings such as amateur music serenades and outdoor movies. We also coattail onto wider initiatives (i.e. city clean-up days and tree plantings, Jane’s Walks, and World Wide Knit in Public Day).

This is work, but it’s fun. And there have been rewards that I did not anticipate.

I have found it warmly gratifying to see our park event attendees who are close neighbours meet each other for the first time. They exchange personal histories and addresses and share experiences, usually with exclamations of “how have we not met before”?

Similarly, on our guided walks we hear statements like, “I didn’t know this place had such an interesting history” or “I understand better what I’m looking at when I come to the park now”. This makes me believe that we are deepening their appreciation of their parks and community.

Our own core members have also benefitted. Some have become friends who socialize frequently. One of our members provided my name as a job reference (I was never called, but he got the job). And yet another member with limited mobility can’t participate in most park activities. But she still attends meetings and contributes by persuading local businesses to make small donations of money or products.

This year we experienced a highly tangible measurement of success. Thanks to a member of our group who also volunteers at the Zoo, this summer we have been holding sunset Bat Monitoring Walks with borrowed equipment to hear and record the bats’ echolocation signals. On each walk we map the bat activity. People new to the walk have the privilege of carrying the devices, thrilled to hear bats for the first time! Much to our surprise, the Zoo’s bat researchers have informed us that the data we have been collecting is valuable, and that they will be including it in an academic conference presentation. We feel fully entitled to call ourselves Citizen Scientists!

We also work with local artists in the park. In one case, an artist had applied for a grant to decorate hydro poles in the park with images of park flora and fauna. But there was more to it than that: he was to assist seniors at a retirement residence next to the park in creating the artwork that he would transpose. In aid of this I agreed to lead a limited mobility walk through the park with the seniors, highlighting the native plants, the creek, and animals. Unfortunately, the weather was bad and the walk was cancelled. But I made an indoor presentation to the residents on what we would have seen on our walk, after which the artist proceeded with his participative art activity. Ultimately, permission to paint the hydro poles was refused. I had thought that was the sad end of it. But several months later, I was invited to the unveiling of a mural on the external wall of the parking garage of the retirement residence. Facing the park, it is a colourful depiction of some local park creatures (blue jay, cardinal, salmon) which, I was informed, were created by the residents after my presentation and transposed by our artist. Now I have the strong satisfaction of seeing a work of art with a personal connection whenever I visit the park.

But the reward that I appreciate the most is that, because our efforts to bring the community into the parks, I am compelled to be outside more than I am normally inclined to be. Having done some background research for our health walks in the park, I have learned that the benefits are greater than just the walking exercise. Getting outdoor light into one’s eyes is critical for good health and good mood, and no SAD lamps can match it. Even going outside on grey winter days (and we do) confers benefits. And if you are looking at the subtle designs and movements of trees and water while getting the light, so much the better. As it turns out, parks are an antidote to one’s screen-addled eyes and brains. Another gift from parks to the communities that visit them!