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Naan in the Park: Re-imagining Public Space

Thorncliffe Park Women's Committee

February 26, 2014

From reclaiming public space to opening up economic opportunities, a local women’s group re-imagines what their neighbourhood can and should be.

largeThorncliffe Park is unlike any other place in Toronto. This densely populated neighourhood in Canada’s largest city is seen by some as its version of Hong Kong. More than 30,000 people live in 34 high-rise buildings compactly organized into an area of approximately two square kilometres. Apart from its density, it is also very diverse – the kind of “arrival city” that new immigrants are often attracted to.

Immigrants like Sabina Ali and her husband, who came to Canada in 2008 “to check out the country as place to settle down and raise our four kids.”

Thorncliffe was their first stop. Having worked and lived in Saudi Arabia, the family felt immediately acomfortable within the predominantly South Asian and Middle Eastern mix of the local population,  helping them feel settled and ready before venturing into the wider community. “Being a newcomer, the transition stage is really a big one,” says Sabina who is quick to dismiss any notion of insularity in choosing the area to set up home. “You also need to come out and meet people to break unseen barriers.”

Being a gregarious person from cosmopolitan Hyderabad, India, Sabina felt at home in multicultural Canada from day one. On day two she made friends with a group of women in R.V. Burgess Park – a public park in the Thorncliffe neighbourhood. The rundown condition of the park, which is located in one of the richest cities on earth, struck Sabina’s “new eyes” as incongruous. Given her education in human resources and social work, she was quick to rally the group of six women to form the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee (TPWC).

Warming fire

Sabina’s forceful drive to create the committee was very much in evidence this February 2014 at the 6th Annual Winter Carnival held in the park . A warming fire, soup and hot chocolate were all that were needed to get the neighbours out and animate the park. Thrown in for good measure was fun and games for the children. One of the carefully selected prizes were tickets to the Ontario Science Centre. The world-class public education and entertainment centre is a neighbourhood landmark but its admission fees are beyond the reach of many Thorncliffe residents. For Sabina, the smiles on the faces of children made coming out on a cold Saturday afternoon worth the effort. “Doing my little bit for positive change in their lives gives me satisfaction,” says Sabina as she trundles the gear used for the carnival into a small shed painted with bright art by the neighbourhood children.

“When we started as a group, we were just doing the clean-ups and trying to make the park a better place for everyone. Then we introduced the recreational programs. Soon we were asking ourselves how we could help women in the area, many of whom come from countries where English is a second language, develop self-esteem and gain confidence,” explains Sabina on how TPWC made itself relevant in a neighbourhood designed in the 1970s to serve 12,000 people. Today Thorncliffe Park’s vibrant community boasts the largest public elementary school in North America, with 900 children enrolled in kindergarten alone.

From opening up public space for community participation to exploring opportunities for work and civic engagement, the TPWC has facilitated  an active role for women and local residents in community life in every sense of the word. But it has not always been easy for this pioneering group of women. The weekly summer bazaar, for example, has presented repeated challenges. “Every season I have to convince the City that these are not businesses. We have to tell them that we are building communities and supporting local entreprise.  If we don’t give them opportunities, how will these newcomers feel confident and integrate?” The market provides a platform for women to participate in public life.

“At the next level I take them to other markets in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] so they can gain exposure to the broader community. It’s a different experience for them. It’s one step at a time to self-employment and being part of the local business community,” says Sabina. The TPWC also runs a catering group made of local women that has gained business through the different connections and partners it has made in the city.

‘Money well spent’

Early on, the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office (TNO), a community-based non-profit agency, was quick to notice the initiative and entuisiasm of the women’s group and helped TPWC with an initial grant of $1,000. Jehad Aliweiwi, the former TNO executive director, sees these women as social entrepreneurs and their projects as good models for micro-economic development. He says the grants to TPWC are money well spent.  It was not long before others followed, including the province’s Ontario Trillium Foundation, recognizing the transformative power of local action.

When the Maytree Foundation looked to partner with community-based organizations in the GTA to deliver a civic literacy program, Jehad’s office was quick to identify Sabina as a local leader with experience in connecting residents to each other and capable of facilitating discussions about developing and implementing community projects.

“Sabina’s forceful drive to create the women’s committee and then mobilize the group to create opportunities for women’s participation made her a perfect match for our program,” says Alejandra Bravo, Manager of Leadership Programs at Maytree. “It has been a privilege for me to have in a small way contributed to her development, putting into her hands tools to train others on how governments, especially local ones, make decisions to identify the key pressure points for community.”

Success

The women’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Sabina was one of the two winners of the 2014 Jane Jacobs Prize. The prize is awarded to Torontonians who embody Jane Jacobs’ passion for creative and intelligent city building.

Last fall, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne visited their pop-up container garden. “It was a great event and a wonderful opportunity for the garden volunteers to showcase their good work. This garden is one way of engaging women to grow local and culturally diverse food in urban areas,” says Sabina. There are drop-in classes during spring, summer and fall. A small area is reserved for children, and teachers in neighbourhood schools incorporate it as part of their curriculum. One such class was about diversity. The teacher matched learning about plants to explain diversity among people.

The TPWC is also credited with opening North America’s first tandoor oven in a park. “The idea came when we were discussing types of cooking fires within the community members from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. The most common thing was the tandoor. As other parks have pizza ovens, we thought being a predominantly South Asian community, it would be good to have a tandoor that others in the city could learn about,” says Sabina. “We believe that food brings everyone together.”

Efforts like this has propelled R.V. Burgess to become the first park in Canada to be named a “Frontline Park” by City Parks Alliance, an independent group of urban parks administrators and advocates across America. The group says the park was selected “because it exemplifies the power of partnerships to create and maintain urban parks that build community and make our cities sustainable and vibrant.”

Making it Work for You:

  • It doesn’t take much to animate community places and spaces to bring people together. A warming fire, food, fun and games for children are sometimes all that is needed.
  • Community-based recreational programs can lead to opening up economic opportunities for local residents, including immigrant women
  •  Help your community reclaim and re-imagine public spaces by supporting local entreprise development.
  • Empowering local women to identify key pressure points in the community helps develop grassroots leadership.

Maytree