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February 8, 2014

Never Underestimate the Impact of Neighbors and Food

How a Toronto neighborhood came together to reclaim a city park

Jutta Mason, a young mother in Toronto, faced a dilemma. She lived near Dufferin Grove Park a number of years ago but was afraid to go there with her children because it had become a hangout for kids who were viewed as the “local toughs.” Still, she didn’t want to stay home stuck in her house. Mason debated whether to endure boredom or confront fear? She chose to overcome her fear, and in the process made a great difference in her community.

Her approach was simple. She struck up a conversation with neighbors about the park and how it could be improved. Together they started talking with the “tough” kids, who, as it turned out, also thought the park needed improving. They all worked to make the indoor skating rink in the park safer. Then the launched initiatives to plant flower beds, resurface the basketball courts and renovate the playground—projects that were all based on ideas from local residents.

One of their most inspired improvements was the creation of a large Portuguese-style bread oven, which members of the neighborhood use to cook community dinners and throw pizza parties. This outdoor kitchen became a center of social activity in the neighborhood. Dufferin Grove Park has been turned around, in large part due to the community effort launched by Mason; a school has even been established next to the park.

Adapted from the Great Neighborhood Book: A D-I-Y Guide to Placemaking written in collaboration with Project for Public Spaces and published by New Society Publishers. Ben Fried is now editor of Streetsblog, a leading website covering urban transportation and public space.

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