Ask a city planner or designer to name some popular amenities for a park, and they'll rattle off a list: children's play area, water feature, shade, seating. "Tandoor oven" will not be on it—unless you're in Toronto, where residents of the Thorncliffe Park neighborhood worked with the city to install a new bread-baking oven in their local park. It's the first public tandoor oven in North America.
The Thorncliffe Park Women's Committee (TPWC) proposed the idea back in 2011, and the answer from officials was an immediate yes. But the city didn't have regulations that applied to tandoor ovens. It took two years to figure them out, and now TPWC fires up the oven to bake naan during community events.
The oven is just the latest initiative of TPWC and its coordinator, Sabina Ali. A mother of four from India who only moved to Toronto in 2008, Ali quickly set about organizing fellow Thorncliffe Park residents, chiefly fellow mothers, to revive the neglected public spaces in their dense neighborhood of 1950s and '60s apartment towers. It all started where so many interactions among parents do: at the park, a place Ali found depressing.
"It was the most neglected park, I think, in the city of Toronto," Ali says. "I couldn't believe that I was in North America." The park had more garbage and dirt than grass. There were swings, but no other playground equipment for the children; previous equipment had been declared unsafe and removed a couple of years earlier. Ali huddled with a few other mothers, and TPWC was born.
Today, R.V. Burgess Park has a playground again, plus a basketball court, a community garden, and a splash pad. (Not to mention the oven.) TPWC lobbied for the improvements and helps the city run and maintain the new park; the group is responsible for the community garden—including a small children's garden—and organizing a raft of neighborhood events.
In 2009, even before the park had been fixed up, TPWC started a regular Friday bazaar on the site, with kids' entertainment and vendors selling food, clothing, and jewelry. It could have worked anywhere, but the idea perfectly suited Thorncliffe Park, whose 30,000 residents are predominantly South Asian, hailing from countries with a tradition of street markets. The neighborhood also has the highest proportion of children of any in Toronto, but few options outside the home for keeping them entertained.
Not surprisingly, the bazaar was a hit. It now takes place most Fridays from May through September, and can draw 500 people.
"We came to know that there are many women entrepreneurs who are working as a quiet operative from home," Ali says, supporting their families with supplemental income. If they're new immigrants, they may be hesitant to practice their English. "So we thought markets would be a platform for them to overcome these barriers, to bring them out—and to have some time for themselves. And the response was amazing."
Ali has since secured places at another farmers' market for some of the vendors, and TPWC has added an Arts in the Park program for local kids.
The success of Ali and TPWC shows what a few grassroots activists can accomplish in a relatively short time—especially when they have the patience to do the no-fun work like applying for permits, one of Ali's specialties. It also reveals the organizing power of mothers in a neighborhood that's full of young families.
The Toronto Food Policy Council, an arm of the city's health department that promotes local foods, urban agriculture, and nutrition, helped the TPWC get the oven approved and recently named Ali one of its members. "Her strength is that she has a real vision about how she can change and impact her community, and really perseveres to get it done," says the council's Lauren Baker.
Earlier this year, Ali won Toronto's Jane Jacobs Prize for her activism. She's not resting on her laurels: Once market season ends, there's a winter carnival to organize and further park enhancements to consider, like painting the splash pad. Ali also hopes TPWC can move into an office as its operations expand. "The biggest challenge is space. We don't have any office space; we are here and there," she says.
Wherever the organization finds a home, she hopes it's close to the park that used to disappoint her so much—given that she spends most of her time there now.