To the people of Toronto, city parks are not something that the city government simply provides. They are a passion that engages ordinary citizens acting as commoners. A great example is the Homegrown National Park, a new green corridor in the heart of Toronto that the David Suzuki Foundation is building with the help of 21 “Neighborhood Park Rangers” and 14 partner groups.
Taking inspiration from authors Richard Louv and Douglas Tallamy, who have written about our extreme alienation from nature and its negative effects on our well-being, the Homegrown National Park is building green space along the path of a “lost river” in Toronto, Garrison Creek, that was built over many years ago. The project also wants to connect all the “islands of green” in the city into an interconnected ecological space.
What makes the Homegrown National Park so unusual is its mobilization of citizens. The idea is not just to build another park – which would be a fine and welcome mission -- but to re-connect people to nature. It aims to help people step up to the responsibilities and pleasures of acting as stewards of their own urban spaces. Volunteers are invited to plant native trees and shrubs, cultivate spaces for birds and butterflies, and help people grow food in their backyards and balconies. You can watch a video of the project here. (Thanks for the alert on this project, Paul Baines!)
Nature is a guide in more ways than one, because no single group can take on a project of this scale. It requires a rather developed social ecosystem. The Public Commons website acts as something of a clearinghouse and champion for the “good use and good stewardship of the public commons.” Its website helpfully alerts people to the many urban commons available to Toronto residents – playgrounds, public bake ovens, community centers, outdoor skating rinks, campfires, community gardens, Toronto street festivals – and invites direct involvement in supporting them.
I also like a related website, Park Commons, which acts as a free webhosting service for community groups that don’t have their own websites, helping people connect with their local park commons. I followed one link to the “unofficial newsletter” of Dufferton Park Organic Farmers’ Market, which is managed by friends of Dufferton Park. The webpage provides all sorts of details about the market along with a monthly listing of news. Through Park, Commons, you can also catch up on the news of the Christie skating rink and of other parks in the city, as well as links to other websites supporting city parks, such as Park People.
In a time when we see huge problems needing grand solutions, it is easy to discount such efforts as small, local and "not that significant." But it is precisely such localism that enlivens our daily life (or not). A well-loved, well-managed urban commons that elicits so much zesty social energy is far more than a patch of ground -- something that even the best city government cannot provide. That is surely one of the important differences between a "public service" and a commons.