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People are seen in a field with circles painted as markers to maintain safe social distance at Mahuida park, after lockdown measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19 were eased in La Reina, Santiago on July 30, 2020.MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

As Canadian society copes with COVID-19, a series of problems are coming to light: physical and mental health; economic inequality and homelessness; a lack of public resources.

And they’re all coming together in parks. That’s the conclusion of a new report from not-for-profit group Park People on the state of Canada’s urban parks.

But will our governments take notice?

Released this week, the Canadian City Parks Report examines what is happening in parks in 27 Canadian cities and found that COVID-19 has created some real pressures on those places – as well as given them new life and attention.

During the pandemic, “parks have become much more important to people’s daily lives,” said Jake Tobin Garrett, policy and planning manager for Park People. In a national survey conducted by the group, 80 per cent of respondents said parks had been important to their mental health during the pandemic. “For people who are grappling with isolation, with anxiety, I think we’ve seen many people discover different ways to use parks,” he said.

“I think that will have a lasting impact on how people use parks in the future.”

Anecdotally, this seems entirely correct. The Toronto parks that I have visited in the past few months have been consistently and significantly busier than usual; it’s an experience that has been reported by people across the country. Mr. Garrett has observed certain kinds of activity – such as picnicking – becoming more common. “A new park culture is growing up,” he suggests.

The problem: Municipalities, which run most urban parks, are broke. The study finds that a majority of Canadian cities, unsurprisingly, are facing serious financial pressures on their parks budgets.

But another fact of a COVID-19 world is that parks have an important role in sheltering society’s most vulnerable. Encampments have sprung up in urban parks across the country, as people try to stay out of overcrowded shelters.

“Experts are telling us that we’re going to see a significant rise of homelessness, because of the effects of COVID on our economy and our shelter system,” said Park People project manager Adri Stark, who co-authored the report with Mr. Garrett.

“We’re going to need to have some uncomfortable conversations and rethink the approaches that we have.” Policies of displacing the homeless, and parks with defensive design – such as benches constructed so that they cannot be slept on – “are not going to solve the root causes of homelessness.”

A better alternative: bringing social services into parks. The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal has begun providing services in Cabot Square, with a social worker in the park full-time. An Aboriginal Fridays program has been helping, Ms. Stark suggests, to “bring together neighbours to build a shared understanding,” allowing them to meet the people living in the park. And, perhaps, to become less likely to call police and bring about their displacement.

This is a noble idea: to make parks truly civic places, spaces of cultural and personal exchange, as well as recreation and contact with nature.

How to do it? Mr. Garrett and Ms. Stark suggest that local neighbourhood parks deserve more attention, and more types of activity and programming – which could address other issues. For instance: In neighbourhoods that lack access to healthy food, parks can be sites for agriculture and for farmers markets.

And making parks fully inclusive means changing some basics. Public washrooms. Seating. Protection from the elements. “These are all things that make a park more comfortable for people who are relying on it” to live, “but they make the park more accessible to everyone.”

That’s a simple and powerful idea that deserves to grow.

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