How Ontario’s parks became pandemic lifesavers

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.

Cullum McConnell and his nephews Ray, 8, and Frankie, 6, enjoy skateboarding at Cedarvale Park in Toronto on March 20, 2021. MORGAN LIGHTLE/TORONTO OBSERVER

“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.

People gathering and enjoying spring weather at the Christie Pits Park in Toronto on March 21, 2021. MORGAN LIGHTLE/TORONTO OBSERVER

“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.

According to Park People, 70 per cent of Canadians report their appreciation of parks and green spaces has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. GRAPHIC BY MORGAN LIGHTLE.

“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 Carlucci and David Morrison tried cross country skiing. 

Annette Carlucci & David Morrison cross-country skiing at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park in winter 2021. PHOTO COURTESY ANNETTE CARLUCCI.

“We usually downhill ski, but Blue Mountain was closed,” said Carlucci in a Zoom interview from the couple’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 Morrison 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 Morrison

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.”

Nick and trumpeter Marcus Thompson are housemates, while everyone else is a friend or acquaintance from Humber College who lives nearby. The pandemic has shuttered indoor venues, so the group plays in parks to safely practice, entertain visitors, and earn some money. The group tries to maintain social distancing and wipes down any cash.

“Where else could you have live music safely, except a place like this?” said Marshall. 

Friends Angel, Sumaya, and Jasmine brought a picnic to Christie Pits and enjoyed the jazz.

“Music brings people together,” said Jasmine. It’s very calming and relaxing. It’s the perfect setting.”

(From left to right) Jasmine, Sumaya, and Angel enjoying a picnic and listening to jazz music at Christie Pits, March 21, 2021. MORGAN LIGHTLE/TORONTO OBSERVER

Sumaya works at a store that’s a two minute walk from Christie Pits, which led her to take frequent visits. 

“I come to the park more, because of the pandemic,” said Sumaya. “In the summer, after work, I’d get some food and hang out.”

The health benefits of parks

Scientific research has revealed spending time outdoors has health benefits, such as lower stress decreased blood pressure and stress hormones, plus increased self-esteem, reduced anxiety, and an improved mood. 

In his bestselling 2018 book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find and Happiness, Dr. Qing Li noted that spending two hours in nature can provide physical and mental rejuvenation. 

As lifelong nature lovers, Morrison and Carlucci attested to nature’s benefits. After finishing their day’s work from home in graphic design and accounting, they go outdoors for activities such as hiking and biking.

Annette Carlucci cross-country skiing at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park in Winter, 2021. PHOTO COURTESY ANNETTE CARLUCCI.

“Nature gives you energy,” Carlucci said. “It eases the mind. There’s nothing for you to upset over.”

According to Park People’s survey, 82 per cent of Canadians reported that parks are important to their mental health and 70 per cent to their physical health. Clearly, time outdoors is a relief when the pandemic has restricted Canadians to their homes.  

However, Adri Stark of Park People warned that not all Canadians feel comfortable or welcome in outdoor spaces. 

“For some people, parks are places where they have to be on high alert,” said Stark. “Because they’re scrutinized by their peers and experiencing social judgement. Then there’s people experiencing homelessness, for which ticketing and policing is a huge concern.”

As spring and summer approach, Cullum and his nephews know what’s best from their local parks.

“It’s the closest park —

“Second closest,” interjected Ray, stopping his uncle’s description of Cedarvale Park.

“Second closest,” agreed Cullum. “Except the first one is very small.”

“This is the closest park that’s good for skateboarding,” Ray concluded after a short pause.  

About this article

Posted: Apr 18 2021 2:29 pm
Filed under: News