Growing Great Places Together

Well the year 2020 will be a year we will remember for a very long time. It feels like we went to bed and woke up to a completely different world. This new world we woke up to significantly changed how we managed our daily life. It didn’t just change our lives in Canada but around the whole world. What became clearly evident very early in the pandemic was how people would react to what would be the new normal for months to come.

Initially you would think that food, communication, and finances would be front and centre, however there was an unexplained infatuation to hoard, of all things, toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper or lack of, caused what we would consider normal balanced citizens to engage in unprecedented line ups, arguments, price gouging and even unethical reselling at inflated prices.

Thankfully this wave of misguided panic slowly subsided and very quickly the real issues began to emerge. As the positive cases of Covid 19 increased including major sickness and deaths, reality had set in and now there were a whole new set of rules. One of those new normal rules to come into effect was initially called Social Distancing, later to be referred to as Physical Distancing which better articulated the intent of the rule. This one new rule, or mandated behaviour would change the way we communicated, recreated and moved within our communities. Not only did this new Physical Distancing mandate effect our personal lives, it spilled over into every business and service area in Canada including our Parks and Trails Sector.

Our Parks and Trails professionals are no strangers to challenging situations whether they are in the form of ice storms, SARS, flooding, snowstorms, power outages and tornadoes to name a few. With all that in mind no previous event posed as many challenges to our Parks and Trails sector as the Covid 19 Pandemic.

What made things initially challenging was the speed at which it was spreading, and how quickly strategies and decision making was occurring as it related to how we were to manage our Parks and Trails. What became increasingly clear from the outset was the interpretation of the direction from our senior public officials was being interpreted differently and inconsistently across the country. It started with playgrounds and the hope was to see physical distancing being practiced in each community. For many reasons this did not work as adults and children continued to use the playgrounds and park amenities in their usual manner. The same result was seen on trails where physical distancing was not working and parking lots, playgrounds, benches, beaches and various park amenities were being heavily used. This became especially apparent when the weather began to warm up and people needed to get out for some respite from being asked to stay inside.

These actions necessitated more drastic measure be taken in the form of closing off playgrounds, parks amenities, beaches and in some cases Parks and Trails. Unfortunately, these closures were not done on a consistent basis and became a sore spot with communities who desperately needed to escape from their safe place and get out for some fresh air and healthy exercise. Standing in line for food shopping and following the in-store arrows was hard enough but not being able to get out for a walk in the park, or a sit down on a bench was a harder pill to swallow. Not to mention what to do with the children who were now not going to school and in much need of letting off steam.

I must commend our leaders across the country who, on a daily basis, after much consultation and strategizing with public health officials, were trying to make the best decisions they could to flatten the curve and beat this virus. That task, however, was proving to be harder than expected. As a result a more aggressive approach was required, mostly because of the behaviour of many citizens of all ages who just didn’t get the physical distancing message.

We were now faced with park closures, trail closures, playground closures, washroom closures, and even restrictions on how many people could come together at one time which eventually ended up being restricted to family members living in the same house. Failure to comply resulted in fines ranging from 750 dollars to 10 thousand dollars depending on the situation. Yes, because of human behaviour desperate times had called for desperate measures. These decisions did not sit well with many citizens who needed their daily dose of fresh air, and physical activity. Walking around the block was just not doing it for them, not to mention the children.

The fact is these actions had a positive impact of flattening the curve and getting the community spread under control. As I write this article Dr. Tam is advising us to stay the course as we come down the good side of the curve so that we reduce the impact of a second wave.  Premier Ford has just announced that in the coming days there will be good news for garden centres, and yet at the same time we have the Cherry Blossom tour in High Park in Toronto closed off to the public.

As I keep in regular contact with our Municipal Parks and Trails professionals, and as I monitor our Ontario Parks Association daily live information Forum, it is abundantly clear that we need to greatly enhance our ability to share policies and procedures with our sector, whether they are from a small rural community or a booming metropolis. Large or small the expectation of our park patrons is the same wherever you go.  So, as our Parks and Trails professionals tweak their signage, limit their seasonal call backs, reduce the number of student hires, scramble access online training, they will still be able to deliver enough services to protect the assets from excessive deterioration at this time. This includes our trees, flower beds, sport fields, community gardens, beaches and naturalized areas because to abandon them entirely would result in very costly rebuilding and in some cases complete loss of the asset due to erosion, invasive infestations or out of control growth.

At this time a very careful balance must be achieved whereby our parks professionals must maintain and preserve the green infrastructure assets and amenities, albeit  to a minimum, while still allowing for our citizens to be able to find creative ways to get out and get their much needed nature and healthy activity fix. This is where we may see changes in what could become the new normal in parks, trails and outdoor recreation.

The following bullet points represent areas of current discussion in the Parks and Trail sector which have been impacted by the Covid 19 experience.

  • As an alternative to full closure of parks and trail amenities there needs to be a more wholesome discussion about the obvious physical and mental health benefits of controlled and monitored outdoor activity in order to reduce stress, violence and less pressure on police and healthcare resources.
  • Adjustments to Park and Trail design to accommodate more efficient distancing goals such as wider trails, one-way paths or trails with an alternative one-way loop or return.
  • LED or manual Park gateway and Trailhead signs or information boards highlighting physical distancing and social grouping protocols.
  • Live Webcam in hot spots or areas of concern where allowed, in order to monitor non-compliance.
  • Greater use of Parks and Trail apps where distancing and park and trail etiquette is clearly articulated.
  • Pre-set park and or trail capacities to avoid over-crowding combined with on-site monitoring in high use areas.
  • Establish Parks and Trails Ambassadors to have a presence in high density areas. Could be a student or volunteer program depending on the community.
  • Handwash or sanitizing stations on sites of high touch surfaces such as playgrounds and exercise equipment.
  • Educational information on Parks and Trail safe use policies as part of the school curriculum.
  • In park or on trail prompts or makers to simplify or remind users to practice distancing.
  • Proactive education and media communication vs issuing tickets unless in extreme non-compliance.
  • Smaller or single seat benches.
  • More emphasis on online training models where the bulk of training can be done online and then backed up with practical demonstrated ability.
  • Crew sizes including transportation in vehicles may be restricted going forward to continue physical distancing compliance.

These are some of the potential changes or enhancements we may expect in the delivery of our Parks, Trail and Outdoor Recreation services, and I expect there will be more to come.

Something that will have a significant impact on future events like this pandemic is how we position our Parks, Trails and Outdoor Recreation amenities within our Strategic Plans. A solid argument can be made if we incorporate organizations like Eco Health Ontario, Green Infrastructure Ontario, and other like organizations across the country to provide the science-based data on the value of our living green infrastructure to the physical and mental health and well-being of our citizens. I firmly believe that there is more than enough data available to make the argument that our Parks and Trails are essential services, and in order to safely negotiate these challenges provided they are properly managed and monitored.

In closing I would like to thank all the Parks, Trails and Outdoor Recreation professionals out there who keep our connection to physical and mental health a positive one. In addition I commend the political leadership at all levels for doing their best under adverse conditions, and I appeal to them to take an in depth look at the Biophilic connection we have with nature and how maintaining access to these spaces, when properly managed, are part of the solution and not part of the family.

Congratulations to Canadian Nursery and Landscape Association who have joined forces with the National Communities in Bloom organization in providing leadership and the facilitation of the cultural and horticultural beautification of bringing Canadian Communities Alive

Be kind and stay safe.

Paul Ronan
Executive Director
Ontario Parks Association

Cell: 647-991-9444