This is the fourth story in a 4-part Great Lakes Echo series on environmental equity and access to the outdoors s in the region.
By Borjana Alia
For communities to thrive and feel like home, a number of factors must be in place, working together. One factor that many people don’t realize is green spaces.
Green space refers to “land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs or other vegetation.” In other words, areas such as parks, gardens and forests.
When communities lack green spaces, adverse effects can occur. They range from no access to recreation areas such as parks, less tree canopy that means hotter pavements in the summer and even mental health problems.
Green space is a necessity in urban planning of cities.
“People need access to nature, and they need access within reaching distance of their homes, whether it’s a walk or a bike because that helps with mental health and connection to community,” says Tenille Bonoguore, a former city councillor in Waterloo, Ontario.
If the importance of adequate access to green spaces is recognized, why do some communities struggle with providing it?
Studies show that, statistically, low-income communities in urban areas across Canada lack green spaces.
Nature Canada released a report that provides a map of tree coverage in cities. The map shows strong evidence of inequity in tree coverage, especially in low-income racialized communities.
A racialized community is composed of residents who are “affected by racism or discrimination.”
There are a number of reasons that could explain why such communities lack sufficient green space, Bonoguore says.
It might be because when those cities developed, there could “probably have been bigger gaps in their green network,” she says.
It’s up to city planning departments to decide where green spaces need to be placed. “They would map out where all the parks are and then go looking for gaps, looking for places that are underserved.” Bonoguore says.
In Waterloo’s Ward 7, a parks strategy has identified areas to focus on more. Another focus is to protect trees and the canopy they provide on the streets, not just in parks.
The Parkland strategy is one of the city’s current projects to provide more tree equity in areas that are more accessible and inclusive for residents.
An example is plans to update “policies, capital works and operations.”
Another major goal of the strategy is to include more access to parks, along with ensuring that members of Indigenous communities feel welcome as well.
That process isn’t necessarily driven by residents, but they do have some say about what goes into their communities, says Bonoguore.
One organization that advocates for a more green province is Green Infrastructure Ontario, which is composed of a number of groups aiming for economically, socially and environmentally greener infrastructure.
The steering committee is composed of 11 organizations, including the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.
Noah Gaetz, the senior manager of ecosystem and climate science at the authority, says there is a process to battling tree canopy disparities.
To do so requires developing urban forest studies in partnership with municipalities. Those studies consist of getting basic information on the amount of trees in an area, the health and condition of those trees and even their species.
“That provides a lot of information for municipalities on how to manage those forests,” Gaetz says. Those studies also include ways to “look at the canopy cover. We can do that through interpreting satellite imagery or aerial photographs to get an understanding of how much canopy cover there is and where it’s distributed within the landscape.”