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A Breath of Fresh Air: Canada's Urban Parks

Whether they are large or small, urban parks provide solace and fresh air to Canadians living in cities.  These oases of green first appeared during the 19th century, when town planners decided to incorporate public squares into the urban grid to counteract the disappearance of open spaces due to industrial growth, and then later, urban sprawl. Memorial to Joseph Brant in Victoria Park Square, Department of Planning, City of Brantford, 2005 / Monument de Joseph Brant au Victoria Park Square, ville de Brantford 2005

One of the oldest of these urban parks in Canada is Victoria Park Square in Brantford, Ontario.  It was created in 1830, landscaped in 1861, and designed to be the focal point of the town.  One of the finer public squares in Canada, it is laid out to look like the British Union Jack flag, has an elaborate drinking foundation made of granite, and the diagonal pathways lead the visitor in to the monument at the centre of the park.   In 1886, this monument was erected to commemorate First Nations leader Joseph Brant (Thayendanega), for whom the town is named.  The monument is not just dedicated to Brant's memory, but includes a group of life-sized statues representing the First Nations communities that were once part of the Six Nations Alliance. Brant and the Alliance played an important role in the American Revolutionary War during the 1770s, helping to change the course of history in North America. It is worth noting that Victoria Park Square is part of a heritage conservation district, a district which emphasizes the important relationship the park has with the historic buildings surrounding it.

Statue of a Boer War soldier in Riverview Memorial Park, City of Saint John / Une statue d'un soldat de la Guerre des Boers, ville de Saint JohnAnother historic urban park is Riverview Memorial Park in Saint John, New Brunswick.   The park was originally constructed in 1902 as a memorial to soldiers from New Brunswick who participated in the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. This memorial function is still upheld as soldiers still re-enact the 1900 battle of Paardeberg each February 27th, in honour of the soldiers from Saint John who died in battle. But the park is not just a memorial to soldiers, it is also a lasting tribute to the growing influence of women in Canada in the early years of the 20th century.  So the park exists because a group of local women belonging to the Women's Christian Temperance Union of Saint John began a campaign to create a memorial park, and collected funds from the community to do so.  The end result for an urban visitor is a place of contemplation, with a statue of a lone soldier atop a monument with columns topped with Corinthian capitals, landscaped pathways, and views of the St. John River. Totem poles at Lewis Park, City of Courtenay, 2009 / Les mâts totémiques du parc Lewis, ville de Courtenay, 2009

Parks can draw people together, they can have memorials to important people or events, or they have also been used as training grounds for soldiers. This latter use is what happened in historic Lewis Park in Courtenay, British Columbia. While Lewis Park has functioned since 1893 as a community gathering place and the spot for the annual Fall Fair, and has totem poles at its entrance to marks the spiritual significance of the local First Nations people, the park took on another role during the Second World War. This was where the temporary barracks for the "Fisherman's Reserve" were located. The reserve was a group of men in the Canadian army who prepared for the possible expansion of the war then raging in the eastern Pacific, and for the possible invasion of the West Coast by the Japanese.  The reservists never had to deal with this reality, but they still trained on assault craft kept in the nearby Courtenay River Slough.  This is also a picturesque place, sited to facilitate views of three different rivers as well as to protect a variety of mature West Coast trees.

By looking at a few of Canada's historic urban parks, we can see how integral they are to their local communities, and how they are much needed open spaces for cities. They are places to see and to be seen, places to escape to and also to meet others, and they are places with multiple uses and intentions.  Both separate from and intertwined with the cities that surround them, these historic public spots are unique for the following reasons: they are free and they are green, and you can probably walk to them.  In our busy world, that's a breath of fresh air!