– By Lisa Kowalchuk – 

An article in our June edition focused on the health benefits of exploring urban nature, and ways in which Park People (the group working to use parks to increase people’s quality of life) works to overcome inequalities in people’s access to green spaces in cities across Canada.

In this edition, we take a closer look at factors that can discourage people’s use and enjoyment of urban nature in downtown Toronto. This is especially important in a neighbourhood like St. James Town where green space is minimal, and where people face a variety of barriers to using parks and other kinds of natural areas close to, but outside, the neighbourhood.

Ambika Tenneti, a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Forestry, has been doing research on recent immigrants’ recreation and volunteering in Toronto’s urban forest. We spoke with her about what hinders this group’s exploration and enjoyment of urban nature, and her suggestions for solutions.

Tenneti notes that many immigrants living in apartments during these nearly 18 months of the pandemic are seeking outdoor places where they can picnic and socialize, and that are child and family-friendly. 

This limits the appeal of the St. James Town cemetery, a popular walking route for many. For South Asian and other immigrant cultures, a cemetery is not regarded as a place to stroll for recreation, much less to sit down and eat, she explains.

Although there are other green spaces near St. James Town, there are social, perceptual, and informational barriers to accessing them. For example, the closest park to St. James Town with tables, benches and places to put down a blanket, is Riverdale Park West — but some immigrants feel a kind of “invisible barrier” walking through Cabbagetown to get there.

People feel a similar perceptual block in some routes for accessing the nearby ravine. Tenneti observed this while guiding a group of visiting students of colour on a walk across Glen Road Bridge from St. James Town. As they approached the Rosedale side, the students asked, “Can we be here? Is it okay for us to be here? If this was America, they would be calling 9-1-1 on us right now”.” 

A further problem is that the paths and walkways to the ravines from main thoroughfares are not immediately visible. Some of these walkways are misperceived as private property. For example, Tenneti says, “In Rosedale you have the Craigleigh Gardens. The access is through these beautiful gates. If you don’t know that it’s not private,” you might question your right to be there. 

In other parts of the ravine, newcomers “towing kids” see that “people wearing running gear and, on their bikes,” feel that they aren’t dressed appropriately for an outing, and they have not been told by anyone that it’s okay for them to go and stroll. 

Other hindrances include the time demands of juggling jobs with education, and concerns about availability of washrooms, benches, and places to use strollers. People unaccustomed to exploring the ravines also have safety concerns especially in areas that are not asphalted, since they associate this absence with municipal neglect and danger.

Because of these challenges, newcomers and others are deprived of the many benefits of urban nature. 

However, Tenneti believes these obstacles can be overcome through mentoring programs that show people the access routes and teach safe walking practises. In her view, groups within St. James Town could organize for that purpose. She envisions for example, the training of high-school youth to be group walk leaders, as a community service volunteering opportunity.

Once people are shown how and where to get out into these verdant public spaces, they can feel more confident to start enjoying them in groups, pairs, or on their own. It is, after all, their city too.