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Building better urban parks

Posted on March 1, 2017 by Mark Cullen

Is he a country boy who loves the city or a city boy who loves the country? Dave Harvey asks this question openly of himself.
One thing for sure, he is no boy. After 25 years in public service, including a stint working in the premier’s office, he is a mature adult with the determination of a great salesman and the discipline of a seasoned academic.
Mr. Harvey is the founding executive director of Park People. We first met five years ago, to discuss how we could double the urban tree canopy. We were working with 12 other not-for-profit organizations who shared our ambition. I met Dave again when he was bestowed the Aster Award this past November. He received this award for his work and commitment to our urban parks. The event was a good chance for us to get caught up. Here is a portion of what I learned about his amazing work.
Mark: Park People, what is it?
Dave: It is an independent charity that builds stronger communities by animating and improving parks and placing them at the heart of life in the city. Our guiding principle: when communities get involved parks get better. Parks are “green connectors” that allow us to move through our dense cities in beautiful, inspiring ribbons of green. I am reminded of the Emerald Necklace in Boston. An expansive collection of green spaces that are connected by bike and walking paths that encircle the city. The Emerald Necklace is part of what makes Boston such an outstandingly livable city. And it has been around for almost 200 years.
Mark: When did you get Park People off the ground — and how?
Dave: After publishing a paper titled “Fertile Ground” (an outline of Dave’s ideas on improving parks, funded by the Metcalf Foundation) in 2010, many people bugged me to start an organization to implement the ideas in the paper. We started with the first ever Toronto Park Summit in 2011 and haven’t looked back. In 2011 we were a staff of one, now we are 10.
Mark: What excites you most about the future of parks in Toronto?
Dave: We are seeing a renaissance and it’s a renaissance for the whole city. Projects like the Bentway, Green Line, Rail Deck Park are exciting. But so are projects outside of downtown like the Scarborough Gatineau Butterfly Corridor and Black Creek Community Farm. The idea of Park People is to animate parks and make them hubs in many of our neighbourhoods across Toronto.
Mark: What transformed your organization after 2011? You have come a long way.
Dave: In late 2012, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation approached us as they wanted to bring funding for nature into the cities. We have seen almost $5 million invested in innovative, community building nature focused projects in Toronto parks and greenspaces since then. Their trust in our work took us to a new level.
Mark: And your greatest accomplishment at Park People?
Dave: We have inspired residents, city staff, business and funders to think of parks differently and creatively. New ways for people to be involved, to participate and experience their park. Park People have helped to inspire the renaissance in parks for the whole city.
Mark: Your greatest challenge, going forward?
Dave: Keeping up with the demand for our services. More importantly, meeting the need to ensure strong government funding and staffing to ensure proper maintenance of our park system. The current proposed budget calls for a cut in parks funding and that’s a step in the wrong direction.
Mark: What does the future hold for Park People?
Dave: We are the only urban parks partnership organization in Canada. With a lot of interest from cities across the country and support from TD Bank we are now going to start rolling out a National City Parks Network starting this year.
Mark: What is the big announcement for this year?
Dave: We are holding Canada’s first ever National City Parks Conference in Calgary in early March. The conference will be a transformative event for urban parks in Canada. In every city across Canada we are challenged to 1. Create parks and green spaces to adequately serve our growing population density; 2. Ensure parks in underserved neighbourhoods are funded with meaningful programs and amenities; and 3. Adequately resource our parks departments so they can maintain a growing parks system.
Mark: Last word to you.
Dave: I think Canadians are increasingly aware of the contributions a great park system makes to the environmental, social, economic and health well-being of our communities. There is a growing understanding that parks are crucial pieces of infrastructure in our cities. Both social infrastructure and green infrastructure can help our cities be more resilient in an era of climate change.
Mark: Forget “country vs. city.” Dave Harvey is committed to strengthening the connections of urban people to their natural surroundings and the enhancement of those green spaces for the benefit of all.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new bestseller, “The New Canadian Garden,” published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.

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