THERE’S A PARK that stretches through the heart of downtown Toronto’s west side from the Lake Ontario shoreline to the congested corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets. You can’t really see it from that intersection, and its five kilometres don’t register as green space on Google maps.
THERE’S A PARK that stretches through the heart of downtown Toronto’s west side from the Lake Ontario shoreline to the congested corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets. You can’t really see it from that intersection, and its five kilometres don’t register as green space on Google maps. But the cracks and crevices and pockets of space it contains are being filled up with plants, flowers, trees, shrubs and eco-art installations. Even long neglected potholes are being used as planters.
This is not simply the work of guerrilla gardeners – well, maybe a few. This natural takeover is the world’s first Homegrown National Park, a program launched by the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) in January 2013.
“We were looking for a project in Toronto that would connect people with nature in their own backyards and also enhance the urban ecology,” says Jode Roberts, DSF’s project lead on the Homegrown National Park. “We were also looking at trying out this innovative model of engagement – crowdsourcing a green corridor.”
The goal is to get people that live or work in an interconnected urban area to creatively reclaim the space around them with public art projects and native species of plants and trees in their own front and backyards, on balconies and rooftops, in alleyways and around commercial spaces. Roberts says that you can effectively start conjuring the idea of a green corridor with all of those pieces of the urban fabric stitched together.
Their attempts to re-stitch Toronto’s urban fabric began in Ward 19, the Trinity-Spadina area on electoral maps. Before this swath of land was developed for homesteads in the late-1800s, a canoe could travel north from Lake Ontario up the Garrison Creek, a hot spot for salmon fishing, to where the Bathurst and Bloor subway station is today, and further inland. “We chose that geography because there is a lot of social infrastructure and a very active community that has invested in their neighbourhoods and parks,” explains Roberts. “We also chose this ward because the old Garrison Creek flows under it and we thought it would be a unique ecological spine for the corridor.”
In the 1800s, much of the land around the waterway was cleared for farms and estates. By the mid-1920s, settlement had polluted the creek and it was eventually completely covered with Victorian brickwork for a sewer system. The many parks found throughout Ward 19, such as Christie Pits, Dufferin Grove and Trinity Bellwoods, are where the creek bed once ran. “All of these parks are depressed or have a slight depression in the land. These are visual cues that they used to be part of the Garrison Creek,” says Roberts. “There are some buried bridges that you can still see the tops or the sides.There are a lot of neat archaeological and ecological artefacts that can be found if you look close enough.”
There are a lot of neat archaeological and ecological artefacts that can be found if you look close enough.
– Jode Roberts
A core aim of Homegrown National Park is to help people fill their built environment with even more opportunities for discovery. DSF’s team started by reaching out to various community groups that were already involved in rejuvenating and beautifying Ward 19 and the city as a whole, such as Evergreen, LEAF, Not Far From The Tree and the North American Native Plant Society (NANPS). Those 14 partner groups became part of a collaborative task force that also engaged residential associations, park groups and Ward 19 city councillor Mike Layton. The overarching strategy was not to duplicate efforts, but to amplify what local community builders were already doing.
Next they recruited 21 volunteer park rangers from the communities in the area to crowdsource community networks and organize events and projects. “We wanted to find people outside of those [partner group] circles that could provide more capacity to these groups that often need more help.”
The 21 recruits are an eclectic mix of artists, students, designers, real estate agents, landscapers and architects; others are connected with the partner groups during a two-day training session in April 2013. On the first day, the DSF team shared its vision for the project with the rangers and discussed elements such as hosting community meetings and dealing with local bureaucracy. The partner groups brought their expertise to the second day of training and helped the rangers with project planning. “It was a grand overview of how to become an awesome community organizer,” says Roberts. “This is one of the elegant parts of the model of distributed leadership that we’re using. Our ambition is to connect people with nature and bring more nature into the city. Those are very abstract goals. But we didn’t want to constrain what the rangers would do, just empower them to find projects that were appropriate to their skill set and communities.”
The Homegrown National Park network’s summer calendar quickly filled up with community events and green interventions. There was an outdoor screening of Lost Rivers at Toronto’s historic Fort York and a canoe portage parade through Stanley Park. There were picnics, yoga classes, nature workshops and tours in various parks. There was a community pizza party in Christie Pits, where 120 people turned up for hot, make-your-own pies baked in a public wood-fired oven. Schoolyards were transformed into butterfly friendly zones with plants and flowers; residential streets were “parkified” with front and backyard gardens, park benches and planter boxes for guerrilla gardeners.
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At Palmerston Square, which is actually slightly outside of the Homegrown National Park boundary, two rangers put out a chalkboard to get ideas from the community. “The art projects that resulted in the Square were totally awesome,” says Roberts. “Yes, the first request was for elephants. I’m not sure if those were native elephants, but that was the quirky nature of it.”
Throughout the summer months, art installations at Palmerston Square included chalk drawings by local artists on the street, a lantern festival in an alleyway and plenty of yarn bombing – a non-permanent form of knit and crochet art that adds pops of colour to just about anything. The rangers also created a fridge magnet-style poetry installation on a chain-link fence. The community was invited to paint words on cut-up pieces of pipe, hang them on the fence and move them around to form different phrases.
In Trinity Bellwoods Park, a two-hour Birds and the Bees Picnic engaged people with a workshop about local bird species and the importance of bees as pollinators. “Honey bees supplement farming across North America and wild bees are also an important part of our food culture,” says ranger Gillian Leitch, a landscape designer, member of the Toronto Bee Keepers Co-operative and a director with NANPS. “It’s really about getting people to look at the smallest thing [such as bees] and what a tremendous and important part they play in what we eat. Our relationship as species is really interconnected.”
One of the rangers at the picnic also used birdcalls to attract a peregrine falcon that landed in a nearby tree.
To pay homage to Garrison Creek, ranger Aidan Dahlin Nolan organized a network of community gardens planted in old canoes along the waterway route. Dahlin Nolan, who is a PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies and an Environmental Studies teacher at York University, originally joined the volunteer group with the idea of creating a system of BIXI canoes that people could rent to explore the city’s rivers and waterways. “But I also had to have a planting project, so I thought we could arrange canoes to tell the story of the creek and plant native species to create a pollinator corridor,” he says.
“The first canoe garden was installed at Fort York, which used to be the mouth of the creek. Others can be found in Little Norway Park, Trinity Bellwoods, Roxton Road Parkette and Christie Pits. When we planted the canoe at Little Norway, kids from the community centre helped us. It was a real joy watching them plant something for the first or second time and learning how to do it, and do it gently,” laughs Dahlin Nolan. “We had to replant half of the canoe because they were so enthusiastic.”
Dahlin Nolan admits that finding old canoes was surprisingly challenging. “We needed canoes with a metal rim on the top to hold the weight of the soil. And the city and gardeners [at the parks] wanted a say in how clean the project looked as well. We got a couple of canoes from individuals that donated old ones they had at their cottages. We talked to NANPS, Lost Rivers and Evergreen, [whom] made donations of either plants or cash.” He also received a $1,000 grant from the Centre for Social Innovation’s Awesome CSI fund.
Leitch explains that some of the native species planted in the canoes and throughout Ward 19 included black-eyed susans, milkweeds and serviceberry trees. “We planted a couple of species of milkweed, which are very fragrant and beautiful, and a life source for monarch butterflies. They derive nutrients from the plant, and even bees would live in the stalk of the milkweed,” she says. “Lobelia is a suitable plant for most gardens in Toronto. And the serviceberry tree produces a small blue berry. You usually won’t get any from the tree because the birds love them and will eat them all.”
LEAF, a partner group that runs a backyard tree planting program and provides native and edible gardening kits to people interested in greening their outdoor spaces, helped train the Homegrown National Park rangers and co-hosted a tree tour in Christie Pits in July. “We had about 65 people come out to learn about tree species and their cultural significance,” says Janet McKay, executive director of LEAF. “On the tour we saw this amazing Native American elm at the north end of the park. The Dutch elm disease destroyed most of these trees and you don’t see a lot of them in the city any more. This huge elm is a magnificent specimen and I’m sure a lot of people never know what a special tree it is. People like to learn things that they can take away and remember.”
People like to learn things that they can take away and remember.
– Janet McKay
LEAF’s 10 stops included discussion of unique leaf shapes and sharing little tricks to be able to identify, for example, the difference between a Norway, silver and red maple tree.
Other pockets of the Homegrown park are coming together gradually, and not without challenges. Roberts recalls one particular idea that he thought was off to a running start. The project was focused on adding greenery around the edge of a Green P parking lot in Liberty Village. The rangers had to take a step back and re-imagine this project after dealing with the Toronto Parking Authority and discovering that the soil wasn’t suitable, nor was a guerrilla garden considered to be sustainable in the long term.
Roberts cautions that road blocks just require patience. “There are ways of dealing with these bureaucracies, but it’s just a matter of finding people that want to help you navigate through the process,” he says. “We worked very closely with [Councillor] Mike Layton and he was instrumental in connecting us to the right parts of the bureaucracy to deal with any issues that were coming up.”
While the project’s footprint was modest, what did evolve during Homegrown National Park’s first year was a great sense of community. Rangers communicated using an internal Facebook page, supporting each other through obstacles and supplying help or volunteers.
To celebrate Homegrown National Park’s first season, on September 29 the rangers, members of partner groups, volunteers and residents gathered for a park crawl – which turned into more of a culinary musical parade. Lemon Bucket Orkestra, a 16-piece gypsy-party band, and Choir! Choir! Choir!, a choral pop group, led the parade of people through the streets, hitting each park along the way, where thousands gathered to enjoy tasty food samples from local restaurants and food vendors. “Lemon Bucket even stopped on one of the residential streets to play Happy Birthday for a little girl having a party on her family’s front porch, and the whole parade sang along. Everyone cheered and the parade carried on,” says Roberts. “It was one of those magical moments that wasn’t intended.”
This year the park is expanding into what Roberts refers to as the Greater Garrison Area, which includes adjacent Wards 17, 18, 20 and 21. More volunteer rangers have already been recruited and their training was bumped up to March to give them more time to prepare and get started on their projects. About half of the 2013 projects will continue on – Dahlin Nolan is already scoping out locations for more canoe planters – and Roberts’ team is working with architecture and design firms to develop a Homegrown Design Challenge.
This is just the start of the DSF’s grand ambition to expand the program citywide, eventually with rangers in all of Toronto’s 44 wards. The success of this first Homegrown National Park has also spilled well beyond the city, attracting attention from European countries, Australia and the US. The project’s potential is extraordinary, as the model can be applied to virtually any community. All it needs to get off the ground is unadorned cracks, crevices and pockets in the urban fabric, and locals willing to fill them with acts of creativity.
Noelle Stapinsky is a Toronto-based business writer, editor and photographer.