In Toronto, a group of volunteer "park rangers" have started turning local yards and public spaces into a giant urban park.
Inspired by an idea from Richard Louv—an author known for coining the phrase "nature deficit disorder"—the Homegrown National Park Project is spearheaded by the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental nonprofit based in Toronto.
"We were interested in crowdsourcing a green corridor through a city using people’s front yards, backyards, and balconies," says Jode Roberts from the Suzuki Foundation.
"We’re playing with the idea of an urban environment becoming a national park. It’s very unlikely that the city of Toronto will become a national park in the traditional sense, but part of the fun is that we’re imposing this very different frame on the city, and trying to get people to think differently about how green our city is."
The site runs along a "lost river" called Garrison Creek; like many cities, Toronto was built along streams that were eventually filled and paved once they became polluted. The Garrison, which used to be a place where people could fish for salmon or take a trip in a canoe, is still underground, but the group wanted to remind neighbors that it exists.
"We wanted to connect the people who lived throughout this corridor both with an ecological past and a potential future that might be much greener," Roberts explains.
After putting out a call for neighbors interested in volunteering to be community leaders, the group picked 21 park rangers to work on the project over the summer. They gave the volunteers some basic training in skills like fundraising, introduced them to local groups like the Toronto Beekeepers, and showed them a few examples of urban interventions, such as guerrilla gardening and moss graffiti.
"In the summer, we released the park rangers out into the world, not knowing exactly what would happen—we didn’t prescribe exactly what they should do," says Roberts.
In the end, the volunteers did everything from planting a network of flowers that would support pollinating insects to building park benches in front of their homes. Someone turned a persistent pothole in their street into a mini-garden. Others added rearrangeable words to a chain link fence. Not all of the projects were strictly environmental, since part of the plan was simply to help create a sense of community.
Though the interventions were small, Roberts says they’re all part of building a social infrastructure that can support natural space in the city. Next year, a new class of volunteers will continue adding more projects, and by 2015, the Suzuki Foundation hopes to have homegrown park rangers in each of the city’s 44 wards, helping stitch together green space that connects all 3 million residents.