Monday, December 7, 2009

Dufferin Grove Park - Saturday November 21st, 4:00 pm

Dufferin Grove Park is located two blocks south of Bloor and Dufferin St. At the west end of the park is a large playground, a wading pool, a composting station, and a set of sinks made of cob (a mixture of sand, clay and straw). At the northeast corner of the park are a basketball court, two wood burning stoves, and several long picnic tables and benches. There are two gardening projects, a vegetable and herb garden and a children’s garden. There are also two skating rinks. Next to these sits a building that houses a zamboni as well as a small organic café, a kitchen, a large change room and a performance space.

The weather is crisp, and it is starting to get dark but there are still many children playing on the jungle gym. Several teenagers and some adults play basketball. A few people are walking their dogs through the park. On the rink, two women who appear to be park volunteers test the ice, but it is still mostly water. Inside the building, a woman working at the café plays with her son and chats with another woman washing dishes in the kitchen. A hand-written menu says that the café serves organic juice, fair trade coffee, and home-made bread. In the bright and cozy change room a small wood stove burns in front of a couch and chairs; the walls are lined with photos and newspaper clippings about the park. It is very quiet – the cold weather seems to have kept many people indoors. Apart from the children playing, the only sounds are from the cars on Dufferin Street.

The sense of community here is very strong, and unlike anything I have experienced in my own neighbourhood. My immediate reaction was excitement, but then I began to wonder why more neighbourhoods do not have these types of facilities available. Members of the Dufferin Grove community created a volunteer organization called Friends of Dufferin Grove Park which oversees various activities, and runs the café. Clearly this group has a very strong commitment to sustainable living, and to the growth of the park itself. What I noticed immediately about the park was how self-sufficient it is, and how many activities can take place here. For example, the herb and vegetable garden grows toppings for the pizza that can be cooked in the wood stove. In warmer months, you can eat your food outside or bring it indoors to watch a local band perform. In previous years I have seen puppet shows performed here. One’s role in this space seems to be unlimited – Dufferin Grove has almost everything you could hope for in a park.

Ann Whiston Spirn’s discussion of the “Granite Garden” translates well to the activities happening at Dufferin Grove Park. She believes that many people forget that the same natural processes that take place in the wild also take place in the city. She claims that although the city is not entirely natural, it is not entirely constructed either. Rather, the city is an expression of our attempt to use nature to serve our needs. She also criticizes the well-intentioned idea of “introducing” nature to the city as though it is something foreign. The people of Dufferin Grove recognize that nature is an inherent part of the city and instead of “introducing” natural elements, they work with what they already have. Nowhere is the assertion that the city is an example of “nature serving our needs” more apparent than here. Dufferin Grove is a role model for using nature to serve a community’s needs in a sustainable way. Whiston Spirn notes that incremental changes are more feasible, and more easily adapted to suit the needs of different communities. The members of the Dufferin Grove community definitely understand how to harmoniously fuse “natural” activities like composting and gardening with urban living. Their activities also reflect the community’s needs and desires, because they were not imposed on the park; community members designed and carried out these environmental initiatives themselves.

Dufferin Grove Park is constitutive of a healthy, committed human/nature relationship. The concept of humans as stewards of the environment is reflected in the community’s efforts to care for the park, but also in their ability to use the park responsibly, and for the benefit of local people. So many “projects of modernity” are designed to separate human and nature, to sanitize the city and to keep nature from intruding on civilization. The initiatives being carried out at Dufferin Grove Park are quite the opposite. They reconnect people with nature and bring the environment back into people’s lives using a space that might otherwise have sat empty. So often people’s relationships with parks are purely aesthetic, but Dufferin Grove is a working relationship in every sense of the word. The community has put the park to work - growing vegetables, composting food, etc – and in return the community works to keep the park healthy. I would imagine that this is a very rewarding experience.

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