Behind the scenes of Arts in the Parks: the importance of building relationships

Park People staff at an Arts in the Parks event

Park People staff at an Arts in the Parks event. Left is Clemence Marcastel, Marketing and Communications Manager, and right is Cindy Hashie, Project Manager. 

July 2022

Imagine a bright, sunny, summer day in Toronto. Wind is lightly blowing the leaves of trees, birds are chirping and you can hear children laughing and playing in the distance. You’re in your local neighbourhood park, in Etobicoke, gathered with neighbours and strangers to participate in a free dance workshop. You knew about this event from posters you saw taped to street poles. You trust in this event because it has the support of your community; your local community organizer told you about it last week.  

This event didn’t happen overnight. Presenting Arts in the Parks events takes months of planning, and years of relationship-building. When Toronto Arts Foundation first developed the Arts in the Parks initiative in 2015 - with the mandate to bring free, high-quality arts programming to parks across Toronto - we knew that community connection would be key to its success. Instead of parachuting artists into parks to present their art, we worked to provide an opportunity for meaningful dialogue between artists and local organizers to ensure that communities are involved well before the event takes place. We quickly looked to Park People to help us with this integral work. 

Initially a Toronto-based organization, Park People has expanded to be national in scope. “Parks are too often seen as ‘nice to haves.’ Our goal is to ensure that city parks are  recognized as core urban infrastructure for healthy and resilient communities and ecosystems- particularly in equity deserving communities,” explains Jodi Lastman, Director of Marketing at Park People. 

Directly connected to local-grassroots organizations, Park People has helped introduce Toronto Arts Foundation, as well as the artists and organizations participating in Arts in the Parks, to community stewards. In addition to facilitating these key connections, Park People helps the Arts in the Parks initiative with outreach, translation for promotional materials and event support through its own volunteers. All of this work is done for the success of each event, leading to community support and full audiences.       

Our partnership isn’t one-sided. The work we’re doing through Arts in the Parks directly aligns with Park People’s key values. “City parks are put to best use when they serve their communities. Bringing high quality and engaging performances to communities that face barriers to attending live performances is exactly the kind of innovation we want to inspire in more parks,” says Jodi. She continues: “Performances like those hosted by Arts in the Parks connect community members, build a deep sense of belonging in communities and enrich people’s lives. The work that Arts in the Parks has done to directly engage communities through arts related programming is literally second to none. It’s a model we want other cities to replicate.”

Many grassroots leaders acknowledge the benefits of parks and work hard to build a community of supporters for their local greenspace, often referred to as “park friends groups” or “park groups.” Working with a deep knowledge of their communities’ needs, these groups organize park events and opportunities, advocate for park improvements and manage areas of parks, such as community gardens, for the benefit of the neighbourhood.

“The artists who participate in Arts in the Parks are much more than performers. They are committed to working with the community… When community park groups work together with artists, they create programs that are embedded in an understanding of the community. Watching the magic happen between these two groups is one of the best “behind the scenes” aspects of Arts in the Parks,” notes Jodi.  

Often referred to as a “City within a park,” Toronto’s success as a city cannot be separated from its greenspace. Jodi agrees: “What makes Toronto parks so special is their potential as sites for creative collaboration. Arts in the Parks is one important example of how different groups can come together to reimagine what’s possible in Toronto parks and how our parks really can foster the health and resilience of our communities.”

Toronto Arts Foundation’s work wouldn’t be possible without the great relationships and partnerships we’ve formed with respected organizations and institutions. Park People is no exception, and has helped us grow our Arts in the Parks initiative through the strength of relationships. 

Learn more: 

Want to know more about what Park People is up to? The recently launched the fourth edition of the Canadian City Parks Report which features artists from Arts in the Parks, including Jennifer Chan from The Department of Imaginary Affairs. She’s launching her game, What if Parks Were Designed by Us at Park People’s virtual Conference in September

Since it’s prime time for parks, all of the programs Park People supports through training and grants, like InTO the Ravines, Sparking Change and TD Park People Grants are in full swing. Through these programs, “we get to see the creativity of our communities on display in the most vibrant way,” says Jodi. 

Arts in the Parks is a Toronto Arts Foundation initiative that is supported by our great donors and sponsors. Much of the funding is raised through our Mayor’s Evening for the Arts event, happening this year on November 14. For more information on how to support this and other Toronto Arts Foundation initiatives, please visit our website