If you walked by almost any city park last summer, you might have forgotten that there was a pandemic devastating the world. You could see children kicking their feet into the air. You could see friends catching up on picnic blankets over iced coffees and snacks. You could see runners, outdoor yoga classes, parents with strollers, and students sheltering under trees. You might—even for a second—have thought everything was back to normal.

Despite that apparent normality, though, things were still anything but—and crowded parks were themselves a sign of that. With COVID-19 placing indoor gatherings somewhere on a spectrum between frowned upon and against the law, those kids, friends, and exercise groups could likely gather only outside. And many people, especially city dwellers, lack the personal outdoor space to gather anywhere but in public spaces. It’s not surprising, then, that a national report by Park People, a nonprofit that helps cities improve their outdoor spaces, found that almost three-quarters of Canadians surveyed said their appreciation for parks and green spaces had increased during the pandemic, or that 70 percent of cities reported increasing demand on their parks.

Like all the best functions of government, public parks act as a great leveller: they offer the same amenities to everyone, whether someone shares a dilapidated apartment with too many people or lays their head in a tony mansion with a waterfront view. While neighbourhoods are frequently stratified by class and race, there is still some degree of diversity in any area—and the public park is a space where people from all walks of life can bump up against one another, now more than ever. Parks also served another fundamental function last year: in some cities, they became refuges where unhoused people set up tent encampments. These “tent cities” were not new, but they became increasingly visible during COVID-19. And, as winter approached, concerns grew over what we would do with less access to these now-impossible-to-live-without spaces: it’s too cold to spread out a blanket for a good several months of the year, and sleeping outside when the temperature plunges is downright dangerous without the right equipment.

The pandemic has prompted many of us to cast a critical eye on how our society is structured and what aspects of it can change—the use of public spaces has been part of this reappraisal. In another recent Park People survey, 82 percent of respondents said parks have become more important to their mental health—just one sign that outdoor space needs to remain accessible even during the coldest months. That’s prompted academics, urban planners, and others to consider how—once basic needs such as shelter are met—they can encourage people to safely overcome what one epidemiologist describes as Canadians’ “tendency to hibernate” through the winter.

Many cities successfully retrofitted their outdoor spaces during the pandemic winter, and now, advocates see these changes as something we can build on for years to come—a way to make parks and outdoor spaces welcoming in subzero temperatures even when it’s finally safe to go inside. Rethinking public space in this way could have outsize effects on long-term issues ranging from the “cold-and-flu season” we tend to see as a natural, unchangeable element of our lives to the loneliness and disconnection many people feel during the darker months.

As one of the coldest major cities in Canada, Edmonton is no stranger to planning for the winter. Its WinterCity initiative, which has been underway in its current iteration for nine years, involves running festivals to rival the summer’s Edmonton Folk Music Festival. A number of winter festivals went forward as planned this winter, including the one Simon O’Byrne, an Edmonton-based urban planner and volunteer co-chair of WinterCity, highlighted as unique to the city: Flying Canoë Volant, which celebrates Métis and French Canadian culture.

“I think 90 percent of cities, when they think of winter, it’s, ‘Okay, what is our snow-clearing policy?’” said O’Byrne. “As opposed to saying, ‘How do we embrace winter life? What does it mean for everything from isolation, in terms of mental health? What does it mean in terms of people who are living rough, [with] greater need for permanent supportive housing? What does it mean in terms of equity—so, great, you’re an upper-middle-class family and you can afford to ski, but how can you make winter sports more accessible to everybody?’”

Planning that gets people to use parks in the winter requires intentionality, O’Byrne said. This year, events were more carefully structured: while O’Byrne touted the fact that, in years past, tourists came from around the world, festivals during the pandemic have limited the number of visitors through an online registration system. Other measures have included a large ice-climbing wall, constructed almost in the centre of the city, and more resources to make outdoor recreation financially accessible, O’Byrne said. Skate rentals at some rinks and drop-in activities for kids in city parks are two of the features that have been offered free to Edmontonians.

Meanwhile, in Yellowknife, the Snowking’s Winter Festival has been running for twenty-three years. The month-long celebration includes the opening of a winter garden and snow castle with a children’s play area and an art exhibit. This year, the event also made some adjustments to reduce crowding, such as decreased capacity and online reservations.

But it’s perhaps at the basic infrastructural level that cities took the greatest strides this winter. Toronto had instituted a Walk Fit program before the stay-at-home order put an end to any organized recreational meetings, but a new disc-golf course and dozens of tennis courts with nets for winter play remained open. In Saskatoon, city councillors approved a pilot project that would keep some park washrooms open through the winter. In Vancouver, the city set up washroom trailers—as well as showers and a warming tent—near one encampment. And, in Calgary, in addition to being able to reserve firepits in parks, residents can also bring their own propane pits.

Still, none of these initiatives address many people’s basic need for the shelter that parks often provide in the warmer months. “The shelter system is not working,” said Domenico Saxida, who goes by Bubbles and lives in downtown Toronto’s Alexandra Park. “They’re underfunded, they’re understaffed, the food is disgusting, they’re filthy, they’re unsanitary, they’re unsafe. . . . And people just get kicked out of one shelter, they move on to the next, it’s one big revolving train.” Bubbles said many people prefer to try to make their way through the winter outdoors rather than stay in shelters. But encampments are regularly targeted by police, who often cause more harm than they prevent, and surviving the bitter cold in a tent or small trailer is no easy feat. Still, residents are able to keep one another safe, and they can do what few shelters allow them to: set up a life with some permanence—at least, as long as police or city officials don’t bring that to an end. As long as COVID-19 is an ongoing concern, Bubbles said, he would prefer for the city to provide equipment so that people can survive comfortably outdoors.

The issues raised by COVID-19 may be with us even after our lives return to “normal.” There is always the chance that we will experience another pandemic in our lifetimes. Yet, despite overwhelming public support for increased park funding during the pandemic, more than half of Canadian cities anticipated that they would have their park budgets cut this year because of the pandemic, according to another Park People report.

Ashleigh Tuite, a University of Toronto epidemiologist, emphasized one cost-friendly approach even when we’re dealing with an outbreak: simply keeping parks open. It seems like a strange suggestion, she said, but “as the pandemic has worsened, some people have advocated for shutting things down or reducing access.” This was a common response during the first wave, when playgrounds and other spaces where people could gather outside were closed. The rationale for closing playgrounds, Tuite said, was that, early on, amid uncertainty about how COVID-19 is transmitted, it was believed that viral particles on surfaces (also known as “fomites”) were a significant cause of infection. This was the logic that led to some people washing their groceries or leaving their mail outside for days on end to air out. This is no longer the predominant understanding of how COVID-19 spreads, and scientists now believe the virus is primarily transmitted via airborne particles.

Some governments, however, are still taking actions that appear to be informed by the surface-transmission theory. For instance, in November, Winnipeg closed playgrounds, skate parks, and other “outdoor recreation amenities” as Manitoba grappled with a spike in case counts. Tuite said she sees this tendency as an equity issue but also as counterproductive for disease prevention.

O’Byrne points to Edmonton’s ice-climbing wall as an example of how to think of the way forward. The project was a city resident’s idea, not the brainchild of a professional. “I think what cities need to do is, unless it’s going to cause obvious harm and unless it’s an obviously ridiculous idea, we have to start with saying yes and we have to be open-minded to things and not let all the lawyers come up with a thousand reasons why you can’t do something from a risk-and-liability perspective.” In unprecedented times, cities have to be more open and creative with public space.

Tannara Yelland
Tannara Yelland is a Toronto-based writer and editor.
Rachel Joan Wallis
Rachel Joan Wallis is an Ottawa-based illustrator.