As a parent and a Torontonian, I feel attacked on all sides right now. Schools are open, then closed, open, then closed. City council has 44 councillors, then 25, and now the mayor can pass bylaws with the support of only 8 of them. The Greenbelt is under attack, wetlands are being developed, and affordable housing projects that were supposed to start construction in 2020 have yet to break ground.
In this context, parks may seem like a minor issue. But this could not be further from the truth. According to Statistics Canada, two-thirds of Canada’s major cities saw a decline in the amount of green space per person over the past twenty years. The proposed changes to city park planning rules in Bill 23 will make this trend far worse, resulting in less access to quality green spaces for generations to come, including:
This threat to parks is actually a threat to people, communities, and nature, and could not come at a worse time. Population growth and the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change are already threatening to make cities unlivable, for humans and other species. Urban parks sustain critical biodiversity and make our cities more resilient to extreme heat and flooding. We not only need the parks we have, we need to build more of them, and fast. What will make Toronto a livable place for my daughter in 2050 or 2070? Yes, housing is vital. But so is a city where she can walk outdoors, find a patch of shade and build relationships with the natural world.
There are myriad practical, human-centred arguments for investing in city parks, but let’s think beyond ourselves for a moment. The vast majority of our urban infrastructure serves just humans – but we are only one of about 30 mammals that live in Toronto. Parks provide space for all of them, as well as for the other species that make up the ecosystems critical to our collective survival. We live in the Carolinian zone, one of Canada’s most important ecosystems. While only 1 per cent of Canada’s land mass, Ontario’s Carolinian forests support an estimated one-third of Canada’s species at risk. They need parks.
Reducing park space in a bid to boost housing supply sounds logical at first. But city-building is not a zero-sum game. We can find ways to densify and green our cities at the same time. Increasing housing supply must be part of comprehensive efforts to build sustainable and liveable communities.
There are two pieces of good news.
One, this problem is easy for the provincial government to fix. Repeal Bill 23. Allow municipalities to set parkland dedication rates that will make liveable future cities possible.
Second, I am one of thousands of Ontarians who will keep working to build cities where people and the rest of nature can thrive.
Natalie Brown is the Director of Programs at Park People.