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How Torontonians can get their hands dirty and improve their own parks

This spring, an empty 2.4-hectare lot on the north side of Gerrard, east of Parliament Street, will start to become Regent Park's first proper park.

It will include a 5,000-square-foot community garden, a bake oven and a 400-square-foot greenhouse. While the city's parks department agreed to pay to build Regent Park's "agricultural hub" as part of the larger park construction, it insisted that the ongoing operation of the facilities would not be a recurring item in its budget. The hub will be run by the newly formed Regent Park Food Partnership.

The effort is in line with the vision of Dave Harvey, who sees this as the perfect opportunity for park users in Toronto to get their hands dirty. Mr. Harvey founded Park People two years ago, with the aim of making local parks more lively, thriving places. The key, he says, is for residents to play a role in day-to-day park life – to organize, and perhaps run, the sorts of events and programs that should be animating their patches of ground.

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Four weeks ago, this do-it-yourself model got a big boost when the W. Garfield Weston Foundation announced a grant of $5-million over three years to spur grassroots initiatives improving Toronto parks. The money bolsters an effort that has already been a runaway success. In those two years, the number of organized citizens groups – "Friends of" this or that park – has doubled from 40 to roughly 80.

In an era when all levels of government are pleading poverty and reducing services, Mr. Harvey's Park People has hit upon a working method of do-it-yourself community activism: engaged volunteers seeking permission to do things on their own. This approach of co-operating with bureaucracy to get results could serve as a model for the future of advocacy in Toronto.

Mr. Harvey's park-animating model holds that residents who want improved parks should expect to do some of the work themselves. That means organizing a group and getting involved to run programs and events that aren't in city staff's job description. "They might want to plant a community vegetable garden, organize a winter festival, see that hot chocolate is available during ice skating hours, or establish a cricket pitch," he says.

It's not lost on anyone that programs like this will live or die by the relationship between those running the programs and the city staff and managers.

The city says it's ready to meet local groups like this halfway. Jim Hart, general manager of parks, forestry and recreation, spoke at Park People's third summit earlier this month and admitted that the sometimes reluctant city staff would have to rise to the challenge of having more local groups wanting a say in how parks are run.

"I want to begin a culture of saying 'Yes,' " Mr. Hart told a receptive crowd. "Generally, there are ways to get things done."

Hands-on locals have been influencing the city bureaucracy for some time, but such efforts are on an upswing right now. In 2000, the parks department opened a partnership development unit to help incorporate third-party initiatives and donations into park plans. It has seen steady increases in proposals since 2008. Manager Rob Richardson says there are 70 approved projects currently in the works. "New projects come forward on almost a weekly basis now, often driven by community groups," he says.

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That community-driven model is catching on outside of parkland. The East Scarborough Storefront has been providing neighbourhood-oriented social services since 2007. In 2009 they opened their Action for Neighbourhood Change office, with the goal of engaging residents on local issues and helping them become community leaders.

Director Anne Gloger says residents run their own projects like soccer clubs, choirs, markets and arts programs, and are involved with the city in bids to improve transit. Ms. Gloger says that while social services need to be provided by professionals, that doesn't mean people should have "transactional" relationships with their neighbourhoods. "People value what they contribute to – they feel a sense of ownership," Ms. Gloger said. "Participating in community initiatives fosters the idea that a healthy community is everyone's responsibility, not something someone else will do for us."

If Mr. Harvey is having particular success at bringing politics and activism together, it may be because he's been on both sides of the barricades. He spent 13 years as a political adviser to Dalton McGuinty.

Alan Broadbent, the author of Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to Cities to Make Canada Strong , thinks that Mr. Harvey's political experience fostered a pragmatic, informed and ultimately positive approach toward working alongside government. "Quite often, advocacy groups spend more time trying to assign blame or victimize the government," says Mr. Broadbent, who is also the chairman of the Maytree Foundation, which works with government and social agencies to counter poverty.

"Park People works more side by side, instead of just lecturing and finding fault. They are not afraid to point out what needs fixing, but will do that with a solution in mind."

Solutions were top of mind at Park People's third Park Summit, held in a packed auditorium in Regent Park. Eight city councilors joined more than 350 people at the sold-out summit, across Gerrard Street from the new park.

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Julia Howell, a member of the Park People steering committee who has 20 years of experience working in the wider non-profit sector, says the co-operative approach has become the right way to motivate people, and can become an end in itself, every bit as important as the program or event that the newly engaged volunteers are organizing.

Ms. Howell says the Park People model of engaged volunteers asking the government for permission to do things on their own isn't without precedent, of course, but is one that will be increasingly effective now, when tightening budgets are choking government services, even as the need for them increases.

She says the model works best in areas like community arts and environmental stewardship, pointing to groups like Artscape, which uses cultural initiatives to spur neighbourhood regeneration, and the numerous volunteer groups that do the heavy lifting during waterway or trail restoration projects.

"People want to make things better," says Ms. Howell. "So if you can give them a way to do this – directly – then you will succeed."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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