How Ontario’s parks became pandemic lifesavers
BY MORGAN LIGHTLE
APRIL 18, 2021
It’s Saturday, March 20. It’s not only the first day of spring, but the first warm sunny day after a long pandemic winter.
Cullum McConnell and his nephews, Ray, 8, and Frank, 6, enjoy the day skateboarding at Toronto’s Cedarvale Park. Beginners Ray and Frank happily skate around the dry splash pad as Cullum demonstrates some basic flips.
“It’s a nice park to have close by,” said Cullum, a teacher.
Located in Toronto’s west end between St. Clair Avenue and Eglinton Avenue, Cedarvale Park has extensive green space, along with athletic fields, a dog park, a splash pad, and deep cricket pitch. A trail also crosses through the forested ravine.
“I go running here,” said Cullum. “Sometimes, the kids ride their bikes through here, they like to watch dogs at the dog park, play baseball in the field, or go tobogganing in the winter. It’s got lots of facilities that we all make use of, and the park’s been used much more during the pandemic.”
He’s right about Cedarvale Park’s busyness. Several passerby on the paved pathway, a father and son play at a nearby tennis table, and friends and families grouped together on the distant grass.
Parks have offered people a relief from the COVID-19 pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. They have become essential and popular spaces for activity, entertainment and social connection. Park use is up — and it’s up a lot.
Adri Stark of Park People explains the increased use of Toronto’s parks:
Google has maintained a COVID-19 Mobility Report since Feb. 17 of last year, collecting mobility data from the location history of people’s phones and comparing it to pre-pandemic numbers. On the weekend of March 20, Google reported that park use was 30 per cent above pre-pandemic numbers in Canada. And last summer, Canadian park visits regularly got over 100 per cent above pre-pandemic levels peaking at 179 per cent.
Park People also conducted a COVID-19 parks survey that found 55 per cent of Canadian cities recorded increased park usage; coinciding with Toronto’s increase. The organization, which supports and mobilizes local groups and cities to realize the power of parks, acquired this data from 1,600 questionnaire responses distributed to park staff, city officials, and park visitors last June.
“The pandemic has led people to parks, trails, and natural spaces like never before,” Terri LeRoux, a senior manager in PARCS (Property, Assets, Recreation and Conservation Areas) at the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, said in an email. “There remains a sense of normalcy and calmness at our parks and conservation areas.”
This growth in visiting parks and conservation areas is matched by an increase in gratitude for green space. Park People’s survey found that 70 per cent of people had developed a greater appreciation of parks during the pandemic.
“I find I appreciate park space more in light of the pandemic and utilize it more than I otherwise would,” said Mike Burekas as he and his partner Anastasya Kurivean waited in line to use Cedarvale Park’s tennis courts.
They don’t ordinarily play tennis but decided to try it out because of the nice spring weather.
“It’s a beautiful park,” Burekas said. “It’s green space and nice to escape to. She lives in a condo and I live in an apartment, we don’t have yards and this is a nice open space.”
The closure of indoor recreation centres and gyms means outdoor spaces are a great venue for activities. The lockdown led some people to discover and learn new outdoor hobbies. For instance, Annette and David Carnucci tried cross country skiing.
“We usually downhill ski, but Blue Mountain was closed,” said Annette in a Zoom interview from her and David’s home in Collingwood, Ont. “I had the opportunity to borrow my friend’s skate skis and take advantage of it at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park.”
Closed recreation stores meant David couldn’t invest in new skiing equipment, so he borrowed skis, going so far as to wear extra socks so the boots could fit.
“We improvised, but we’re having fun learning something different.”—David Cornucci
On a sunny March 21, a group of music students from Humber College played jazz for a large, well-spaced audience at Christie Pits Park, near the intersection of Bloor Street West and Christie Street.
“This specific thing is mostly thrown together,” said Nick Marshall, the group’s trombonist. “It’s whoever can come. We mostly call tunes, we don’t rehearse, and we play tunes we all know and work out on the bandstand.”