With all the attention paid to road maintenance, waste management and other municipal priorities, it's easy to overlook the importance of urban parks and greenspace. And yet they are crucial to maintaining our mental and physical wellbeing, and to strengthening the social fabric of a thriving city.
Studies have shown that encounters with the natural world are beneficial, whether it's a walk in the woods, a few moments sitting in the shade of a large tree, or taking your children to watch ducks dabble in the river.
Time spent enjoying the outdoors leads to measurable decreases in depression and stress among people of all ages. Educators believe it promotes children's intellectual and emotional development, fosters imagination and creativity, and helps them build social relationships. It has also been shown to reduce symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
In dementia patients, spending time in a garden improves cognitive function and reduces agitation and aggressive behaviour. Speaking of gardens, community plots provide not only nutritious produce, but also opportunities for social interaction — two health benefits in one!
In short, parks and other open public spaces offer opportunities to rest, relax, play, get some exercise and make friends, all of which deliver physical and psychological benefits. That's good for everyone, regardless of your economic or social status, level of education, or stage of life.
Considering the many positive effects, it's unfortunate that parks and natural areas are thought of by many as good, but not essential; nice, but perhaps less important than filling potholes — especially if that pothole is on your street and you already have a spacious backyard in which to putter around.
We are lucky here in Capital Ward to enjoy parks and greenspaces accessible to many residents, including the landscaped and natural areas along the Rideau Canal and Rideau River, Brewer Park, Brown's Inlet, Central Park and its Exploration Garden, Commissioners Park, and the Arboretum and Experimental Farm.
Yet a frank assessment shows that we have the National Capital Commission, rather than the City of Ottawa, to thank for much of that. Yes, Lansdowne Park offers some new public spaces and a play area, and many are looking forward to the Ottawa Farmer's Market moving outside to Aberdeen Square in May, but there is little that is natural about the site. Replacing asphalt with urban park and plaza spaces is a gain for the city, but the loss of the original Sylvia Holden Park with its grove of mature trees along Holmwood Avenue was a notable loss.
The truth is that many parks and greenspaces are deteriorating for lack of maintenance and capital investment. Throughout Capital Ward, staircases and pathways are in serious need of repair, lights need to be replaced and facilities need to be upgraded. But recent budgets have failed to allocate sufficient funds for this. The park infrastructure deficit is large, and growing.
Meanwhile, the City struggles to replace tens of thousands trees lost to the Emerald Ash Borer, sidewalk trees wither and die in their confined quarters along busy streets, and existing private open spaces continue to disappear due to infill.
It is a challenge with no easy solutions. As a city, we need to allocate more of the annual budget to parks and other public spaces, especially in the older, dense urban areas where the neglect is most apparent. Currently, the only significant source of available money, the Cash-in-lieu of Parkland Fund, can only be used to develop new public parks or to expand the capacity of existing ones. It cannot be used for maintenance, to buy equipment, for lifecycle replacement or to upgrade existing infrastructure unless the project also increases the park's capacity.
A recent motion passed by Council allows us to borrow against this money and make capital upgrades as a form of "bridge financing" while awaiting the capital budget allocation needed. But if the annual pot of money dedicated to park infrastructure renewal is not increased, I cannot see how we will ever catch up.
I will continue working with my colleagues on Council to increase Ottawa's investment in maintaining, protecting, expanding and restoring our greenspaces and public spaces. It's no easy task when roads and bridges so often trump health and happiness in the list of priorities.
By this summer, we will be working on the 2016 Budget. Where do you see parks and greenspace in your list of priorities? Should more money be allocated? If so, is there anything you would swap out from the budget? Or are you prepared to support a budget increase closer to 2.5% or 3% next year, as opposed to the current 2% target?