When much of the country closed down over a year and a half ago city parks were among the only places that remained open, inspiring Canadians to find new uses for their public green spaces.
“I would say we’ve gone through a real renaissance,” says Todd Reichardt, the manager of parks, north and west region, for the City of Calgary.
Walking and cycling paths that track traffic numbers in Calgary have seen nearly a 100-per-cent increase in foot and wheeled traffic in the last 18 months, says Mr. Reichardt. Even the winter months saw huge spikes in visitors, when the city park offered residents safe outdoor activities, such as frozen paths for skating or riding ice-bikes, cross-country ski routes and fire pits. Calgary even loosened some alcohol policies in select parks.
“We’re trying to bring some fun into it, because heaven knows there were some dark days over the past 18 months,” says Mr. Reichardt. “Calgarians have responded overwhelmingly in favour and in support of these activities.”
Canadians have always cherished their public outdoor spaces, but during the pandemic, parks have taken on a bigger and more significant role in city life. In recent months they’ve become the preferred venue for outdoor birthday parties, graduation celebrations, family reunions, and small gatherings of all sorts.
City parks are also providing space for a wider range of outdoor sports, games and activities, including one of the most popular new outdoor games, Spikeball — a volleyball-like game that uses a smaller ball and a trampoline-shaped mesh net. The game involves two teams of two people. One team spikes the ball onto the net, then the other team has three hits to get it back onto the net. This rally goes on until one team misses the ball or can’t get it back to the net in three hits.
Mr. Reichardt adds that he’s noticed a significant increase in the diversity of outdoor sports in and around Calgary’s parks, ranging from river tubing to slack lining — where you walk or balance along a suspended length of webbing anchored between two trees.
“Disc golf is big, and some of those other temporary games like Boloball, bocce, Spikeball,” he says. Other big activities seeing a resurgence at Calgary’s parks that have a body of water include kayaking and canoeing, he adds.
Spikeball has taken off as it’s a small portable net and a game that anyone of any age can play, pretty much anywhere. Boloball, also called ladder ball, has also risen in popularity. Players throw the bolo – two rubber golf-ball sized balls attached by a string — at a portable three-rung ladder. You gain points based on where your bolo lands on the rungs.
Now that residents of all ages have gotten accustomed to going to city parks more frequently, Mr. Reichardt believes Canadians will maintain a greater appreciation for their public outdoor spaces. “Outdoor activity has really helped people stay grounded,” he says. “I think the aftereffects will be here for years in terms of changing behaviours.”
On a recent sunny long weekend day, Trinity Bellwoods Park looked nothing like the headline grabbing scenes of last year, as residents of all ages and walks of life engage in a diverse array of activities. Gone are the alcohol-fuelled hordes of young adults that made the park infamous during the height of last summer’s lockdown.
Today, they’re replaced by parents gently walking their children in strollers, friends kicking around a soccer ball or tossing a Frisbee, acoustic guitar players, slack liners, drum circles, sunbathers, yoga practitioners, and plenty of dog owners playing fetch with their furry friends. By the mid-afternoon there isn’t a single park bench, tennis court, or slack line left unoccupied.
Only weeks ago this park was also ground zero of the city’s controversial clearing of homeless encampments across the city. While the incidents left residents with a sour feeling regarding such public areas, they continue to flock to the city’s green spaces on sunny days.
The park “gave us an outlet to meet people and just go somewhere where it’s open, and where we can just not feel like we’re secluded, especially being home the majority of the day,” says 43-year-old Ralph Floro, lying on the grass next to his wife Kalynn Floro and their black lab Athena.
The Floros, like many downtown residents, don’t have a backyard of their own but do have access to a range of public outdoor spaces where they can walk their dog, play softball, or meet friends. “We’ve always appreciated parks, but we did a little more during the pandemic,” says Ms. Floro.
The increased utilizing of public outdoor spaces has also reached Canada’s West Coast, where city parks have been overflowing with patrons engaged in similar activities, as well as a few that are more regionally-specific.
“Spikeball is big out here as well, you see quite a bit of that in the parks,” says Karl Woll, the creator and editor of the Outdoor Vancouver blog. “Stand up paddle boarding seems to be catching on in increasing popularity because some of the parks here are on small beaches or lakes.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Mr. Woll says interest in local hiking trails reached unsustainable levels, with even lesser-known hikes seeing long lines of cars unable to find parking. “There were always lots of people on all the trails last year, and it’s continued into this year so far as well,” he adds.
Mr. Woll believes many Canadians developed a lasting appreciation for outdoor public spaces during the pandemic.
“They’re finding new places and discovering that it’s actually a lot of fun, and they enjoy being here,” he says. “Even though there [may be] a pullback, I think there’s still going to be those people who were introduced to it and continue to do it for a long time to come.”
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