This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.
When Abdul Rashid Athar was growing up in Pakistan, his father used to go on daily walks, rain or shine. Even sandstorms didn’t hold him back. Young Abdul would sometimes come along, clinging to his dad’s finger as they walked on a path beside a canal built in British colonial times.
Mr. Athar took up his father’s habit when he became an adult. He walked when he worked in Saudi Arabia and Dubai as a corporate banker. He walked after he emigrated to Canada with his family in 2000 and settled in Toronto. He is still walking.
A lean 67-year-old in runners and a ball cap, he puts in 14,000 to 15,000 steps a day, tracking his progress on his phone and his Fitbit. What troubles him is that, in his low-income Toronto neighbourhood, so few people seem to share his enthusiasm.
Many Canadians have rediscovered the pleasures of walking since COVID-19 transformed everyday life. In leafy neighbourhoods all over the country, you can see people out enjoying the outdoors and escaping their coronavirus-imposed cabin fever. Mr. Athar’s part of town is different.
He lives in Flemingdon Park, a sprawling residential complex next to the Don Valley where thousands of immigrants have settled. Many inhabit crowded high-rise buildings. During COVID-19, they have often been cooped up for hours or days on end in small apartments. Stepping out for a walk means waiting for a free elevator and negotiating the lobby. With busy lives and many obligations, residents often find it hard to fit in the time for a simple stroll. The result is isolation and inactivity. Both are obviously bad for their physical and mental health.
Mr. Athar is determined to change his neighbours' habits. Since retiring, he has dedicated himself to improving life in Flemingdon Park and nearby Thorncliffe Park. He belongs to several community groups and works on a variety of causes, including youth violence, relations with police and litter in the parks. Now, he wants to get Flemingdon Park out walking.
But how? Nobody likes being preached at. Most residents had lots on their plate already. Who would look at a poster or come to a meeting praising the joys of putting one foot in front of another?
Mr. Athar did what many good teachers do: He made a game of it. He put out the word that he was starting a walking challenge. Participants would track their steps and report back to the group on platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Those with the most steps in a week would get a $50 gift card, funded with a grant from the Balsam Foundation, a Toronto-based charity. Those with the most in a month would get a $100 card. Everyone would post pictures of their walks and comments on where they went so the rest could see.
The program ran for four weeks this summer. The results delighted Mr. Athar. He read out the numbers from a piece of paper as he took a visitor on a ravine walk one recent afternoon. One hundred thirty people signed up. One hundred eighteen people became active daily walkers. They took a collective total of 23.4 million steps and covered 17,900 kilometres.
“There was a time when not everybody was prepared to come out at all. And now we have such amazing figures just for four weeks,” says Mr. Athar, who is hoping to extend the program for another four.
Just as encouraging were the comments the walkers posted. Mr. Athar read those out, too. Many said the walks were making them feel much happier and healthier. Some even posted pictures of the hearty breakfasts they ate to fuel their steps.
One hundred or so walkers is not a huge number in a neighbourhood of 25,000, but it’s a start. The community organization Park People, which also supported Mr. Athar’s effort, says it hopes efforts such as his can help reduce the “nature deficit” in low-income areas, where COVID-19 rates tend to be high.
A recent report by Maximum City, consultants on urban life, found that, among people of colour and families with low incomes, children and youth were much less likely than others to go outside or have some kind of physical activity during the pandemic. Another report found that kids in high-density neighbourhoods tended to be particularly inactive.
To try to turn those numbers around, Park People chose five park "animators,” including Mr. Athar. Their job is to encourage people in needy communities to enjoy the city’s parks and other green spaces.
Those spaces are often right next door. In Toronto, many low-income high-rise neighbourhoods lie in the city’s inner suburbs, quite close to big parks and verdant valleys. Just a few minutes from the towers of Flemingdon Park lies a string of beautiful ravine parks: Wilket Creek, Serena Gundy, Edwards Gardens, Sunnybrook. As Mr. Athar took his walk the other day, crickets sang, goldfinches chirped and turtles sunned themselves in the stream.
People come from all over the city to run, walk or bike there, Mr. Athar observes. Why shouldn’t more of them come from Flemingdon Park?
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