Seeding Nature Connections: The Proven Benefits of Park Stewardship in Diverse City Spaces

juillet 5, 2024
Park People

When it comes to the health benefits of parks, what’s in a name? Can different types of parks – with varying sizes, histories, descriptions, and designs – offer the same benefits as Canada’s historic “destination parks?” Through Cornerstone Parks’ latest research, the answer is clear. Yes, and the key is making space for stewardship. 

Cornerstone Parks launched in 2021 as the only national network maximizing the impact and influence of Canada’s large urban parks through direct funding for community stewardship, capacity-building within and between park groups, and measuring the impact of our collective work. In 2023, Park People analyzed two years’ worth of surveys from park users and volunteers at our founding three Cornerstone Parks – Stanley Park in Vancouver; High Park in Toronto; and Mount Royal Park in Montreal – to better understand the relationship between those parks and community health and well-being. 

Our initial Cornerstone Parks Reports show that park use is associated with better health and well-being, and that these benefits are dependent on park users feeling nature-connected. People who engage in park stewardship (nature-based programs that invite volunteers to care for the land) versus other park activities report powerful environmental and social connections that make them happier and healthier. The results also show that some communities are unfortunately less engaged in park stewardship than others. The good news is that park stewardship – and its resulting health benefits – can often be accessed in unexpected places.

Photo: Students and teachers from St Johns high school planting wildflower seeds in area 4 in Everett Crowley Park. Taken by: Damian (ECPC Chair), May 5, 2023.

Our Methods

Understanding that most city residents do not live close to historic destination parks like Stanley Park, High Park, and Mount Royal, we wondered whether different types of large urban parks – from newer adaptive reuse projects to undeveloped arteries like river valleys – likewise boost community health. 

To find out, we conducted voluntary, online and in-person surveys with 86 stewards participating in programs at four new Cornerstone Parks partners, Free the Fern Stewardship Society and the Everett Crowley Park Committee in South Vancouver, the Meewasin Valley Authority in Saskatoon, and the Darlington Ecological Corridor in Montreal. Between August and November 2023, survey respondents shared how stewardship impacts different aspects of their well-being and their engagement in pro-environmental behaviours.

2023 Cornerstone Parks Reports Findings  

Our 2023 Cornerstone Parks Reports echo the trends seen in our 2022 reports. From surveys with volunteer stewards at the new Cornerstone Parks, we found that: 

  • 82% of stewards surveyed in 2023 strongly agree that stewardship contributes to their connection to nature, whereas only 62% feel strongly that park recreation contributes to their connection to nature

Due to those nature connections, we found that:

  • 93% agree that participating in park stewardship contributes to their mental well-being (98% felt this way in 2022)
  • 96% agree that their participation contributes to feeling happy and satisfied (99% felt this way in 2022)
  • 86% agree that their participation contributes to a sense of belonging to a community (92% felt this way in 2022)
  • Again, those who volunteer on a regular basis rate their mental health higher than those who only participated once!

These results are similar to what we heard from park stewards volunteering in long-standing destination parks in 2022.

Photo: Stewardship Event in Darlington Ecological Corridor. Taken by: Darlington Ecological Corridor.

Further, we investigated which park elements best support nature connections and thus have the greatest impact on health. Volunteer stewards in 2023 say that the places that best promote wellness-boosting nature connections are trails (25%); natural areas that include wildlife, forests, and native plants (30%); and around water (15%).   

Volunteer stewards also say that the following places inhibit feelings of nature connectedness: grey/paved spaces (33%); crowded spaces (16%); recreation facilities including sports facilities, playgrounds, and other structures (21%); manicured lawns and non-native plants (17%); and areas with litter (12%). 

The results demonstrate that naturalized spaces are essential to building strong connections to our environments. However, creating naturalized spaces in urbanized areas is not an easy feat. Our new Cornerstone Parks have found their own innovative ways to ensure diverse urban neighbourhoods enjoy nature nearby. 


Infographic of our findings


Vancouver – From city trash to neighbourhood treasure

Free the Fern and the Everett Crowley Park Committee work in Everett Crowley Park and the adjoining Champlain Heights Trail system in South Vancouver, BC. Champlain Heights contains a former city landfill as well as hundreds of low-income, co-op, strata, and seniors’ housing units. The area now boasts the fifth largest park in Vancouver, Everett Crowley Park. The park and trails are part of the only 4% of native forest remaining in Vancouver, making them a refuge for residents.

Photo: ECPC members Dave and Sue Day planting native species in area 4.

Over half of park stewards (55%) tell us that when they are in Everett Crowley Park, they feel calm, peaceful or happy. Damian Assadi, Chair of the Everett Crowley Park Committee and Director at Large of Free the Fern, echoes this: 

“Our greatest success [is] that these ecological improvements reflect positively on the mental and physical health of individuals, especially those who live in the Champlain Heights community.” 

The park and trail system balance the much-needed features of the neighbourhood – including the busy Champlain Heights Community Centre, and sports and recreation facilities – with assets proven to promote nature connectedness. Free the Fern’s many projects include a Healing Forest, recognized by the David Suzuki Foundation as dedicated to the land’s first inhabitants and their descendants. They also include a Native Food Forest whose fruits, berries, and other edibles benefit both food-insecure humans and wildlife, birds, and insects. 


Photo: Grace at work in the Douglas Fir Teaching Garden. Taken by: Free the Fern.

Free the Fern report

Everett Crowley Park Committee report


Montreal – Putting residents on the “right track”

The Darlington Ecological Corridor in Montreal is also an adaptive reuse project. It includes a former railway that connects to the biodiversity of Mount Royal through a series of interventions within the Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough. This densely-populated, lower-income area contains many elements that inhibit nature connections, including paved spaces, crowds from the nearby universities, numerous sports facilities, and litter generated by local shops and restaurants. 

Photo: Darlington Ecological Corridor Team. Taken by: Darlington Ecological Corridor.

Alexandre Beaudoin, Founder of the Darlington Ecological Corridor, acknowledges:

“The city is an ecosystem, but a very disturbed ecosystem where we can create a habitat for species to thrive. But the ecosystem is also full of people with connections to the places they live. A socio-ecological approach balances people’s attachment to the places they live with the needs of ecosystems and creates new connections between both, for the benefit of both.” 

Darlington achieves this balance of biodiversity, food security, and climate resilience by re-introducing nature connections into the urban fabric. They do this through giant gardening pots placed along the corridor where neighbours can reserve a pot, take free gardening courses, and plant their choice of edibles and flowers. Darlington maintains a nourishing forest and community gardens along the route, enabling residents to access fruits, berries, and plant medicines. A third of Darlington stewards (33%) say that these food forests are their favourite places to connect to nature. Knowing the well-being impacts of water, Darlington is also revitalizing a healing pond for patients of a local rehabilitation institute whose sensory, language, hearing, and motor abilities are impaired. 

Rendering: Gingras-Lindsay Rehabilitation Institute pond revitalization. Suplied by: Darlington Ecological Corridor.

Darlington Ecological Corridor report


Saskatoon – A river runs through it

The Meewasin Valley Authority operates in the Meewasin Valley, a 6,700-hectare park that spans the South Saskatchewan River for 75 kilometres through and beyond the city of Saskatoon. Meewasin’s central location and massive trail system enable over 2 million visitors annually to explore its nationally unique ecosystems without leaving the city. Stewards could not contain their love for Meewasin, with almost 50% providing additional programming feedback and telling us they want more opportunities to volunteer! 

Photo: Sheep grazing in Meewasin Valley. Taken by: Meewasin Valley Authority

Andrea Lafond, CEO of Meewasin suggests there are multiple methods of engagement:

“Meewasin aims to transform visitors through meaningful experiences: teaching about sustainability, how to be a good steward to our natural environment in our everyday life, and ways to stay involved through volunteering, donating, or sharing information.” 

The Meewasin Valley is linear and uninterrupted by development; therefore, it extends the benefits of nature to a wide variety of communities. Upgrades to the Meewasin Trail mean that residents from North, South and core Saskatoon neighbourhoods have access to the park and its programs. Access isn’t limited to those with the physical ability to travel there; Meewasin’s work exists in the digital space as well. The Meewasin App highlights traditional uses for the region’s land, river, and medicinal plants to showcase the intersection between traditional Indigenous and ecological knowledge.

Photo: Multiuse Paths. Taken by: Meewasin Valley Authority.

Meewasin Valley Authority report


A Park By Any Other Name 

Large urban parks aren’t bound by any one definition. Whether they’re 100+-year-old destinations like Stanley Park, High Park, and Mount Royal Park, or take other innovative forms, they offer proven health and well-being benefits to their communities. The 2022 and 2023 Cornerstone Parks Reports prove that the most important predictor of health and well-being is nature-connectedness. While Canadian cities continue to densify, there is a lot that they can do to reclaim their “in-between” spaces and create meaningful connections for the diverse communities that surround them.    

Free the Fern and the Everett Crowley Park Committee, the Meewasin Valley Authority, and the Darlington Ecological Corridor reach out along neighbourhood trail systems, river valleys, and rail corridors – sites that resist urban development – to nourish their communities. They offer wellness-boosting programs and volunteer opportunities alongside access to food, healing, knowledge-sharing, and other points of connection. They thereby sustain and enrich both their own organizations’ capacities and the lives of residents around them.  

It doesn’t matter what a park is called so much as it matters that communities feel called to it. Communities hear that call via the many nature-connected features, programs, and stewardship opportunities offered again and again by Cornerstone Parks. Hear the call and experience what park stewardship can do for you! 


Download our 2023 Reports on Park Stewardship:

Download our 2021-2022 Reports on Park Use & Stewardship:

Made possible by the generous support of an anonymous donor, the Hilary and Galen Weston Foundation and

TD Ready Comitment
Parks Canada