Parks and Recreation – More of ‘em

As a child, I took my first steps in an apartment in Tehran. It was a big apartment – over 180 square metres – but an apartment nonetheless. We lived in that apartment until we left Tehran, initially for London, and eventually settling in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto, Canada. I remember quite clearly that as a child I felt deprived of green space, of not being able to climb trees or to run around without being scolded that I might break something. Even in the schoolyard, which was almost entirely covered by concrete slabs, save for a few trees, we were reprimanded for running or chasing each other due to the risk of falling and injuring ourselves. I was quite lucky because my best friend in primary school, Mandana, lived in a two-story house with terraces overlooking a beautiful garden. We’d spend many afternoons both during the school year and in the summer, playing in the yard or the attic or the storage room in the basement of this house. It was a great outlet for an apartment-dwelling kid especially since the closest public green space, the Melat Park, was a good two miles (3.5 kilometres) away and we seldom went to it. That garden was a treasure in a concrete jungle of several million residents.

Now that I have my own little girl, we too live in an apartment and although she’s too small to run around and play hide and seek or climb trees, I think about things like raising children in big cities, green space, and human-nature interaction. Arguably London with its several million residents is one of the original mega-cities. Yet amazingly it doesn’t feel like a concrete jungle. For one thing, the prevalence of low-rise buildings even in the very centre of the city allows one to always catch a glimpse of the sky. More importantly, the UK capital is exceptionally green. We live in Chiswick in the West of London and within a 20-minute walking radius, we’ve got an impressive array of parks to choose from. From the stately Chiswick House and Garden (a mere five-minute walk) and magnificent Kew to the more modest Grove Park, Turnham Green, Chiswick Common, and Acton Green Common, there is no shortage of greenery in this area. If I were more active and motivated I could easily reach Osterley or Richmond Park by public transit, bicycle, or car. In fact 47% of London is composed of green space. This is a figure one should not take for granted. I know I certainly don’t.

When I lived in Canada too, I was grateful for the conscious integration of public parks and nature trails in urban areas, which I assumed was somehow linked to the legacy of Anglo-Canadian pioneers and their city planning efforts. In Richmond Hill, where I grew up as the township began to increase in size and turn from farmlands to subdivisions in the early 1970s, an impressive 166 parks were planned for. A few of these are undeveloped natural areas similar to the valley around the Don River in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) but most are urban parks, small in size and usually containing playgrounds, ice arenas, and baseball pitches. Their purpose is to provide recreation and activity space, not so much conserving nature. Since the early nineties, Richmond Hill’s population has more than tripled from 60,000 to over 185,000 as development has increased at an explosive rate. In fact, all over the GTA and surrounding suburbs in an increasingly competitive and capitalist climate, every bit of land is being turned into private property. Among this sea of new homes, the public sphere, is sadly becoming a string of spaces of consumption. Shopping malls, plazas, plazas, and more plazas. Even public washrooms exist only in the realm of shopping malls, cafes, and restaurants and can no longer be called “public” since they serve the consumer rather than the ordinary citizen.

In 2008, when the last remaining wooded area surrounding the David Dunlap Observatory was sold by the University of Toronto to developers, Richmond Hillians took a stand. The story is chronicled in detail in the university’s student paper. In short, the observatory and 76 hectares of land around it, was endowed according to the wishes of David Dunlap by his family to the university in the 1920s. The deed indicated, however, that – should the university ever “use the land for purposes other than research” – it should revert to Dunlap’s heirs. So when the university decided to sell the land in 2008 as light pollution in Richmond Hill rendered research in the observatory impossible, it spent four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a war of attrition to get the three descendants of David Dunlap to capitulate to an alteration in the deed. Eventually in 2007 the university sold the land to the highest bidder, the housing developer Corsico, for 70 million dollars. The Town of Richmond Hill, together with David Dunlap Observatory Defenders (DDOD), a lobby group, and another group of advocates, the Richmond Hill Naturalists fought for complete conservation but finally settled with Corsica in 2010 to turn 40 out of the 76 hectares to parkland. The media hailed this as a victory for all parties.

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When I went back to Richmond Hill this past spring, seeing the sight of the clear-cut site, an area that used to home to coyotes, foxes, and numerous birds was painful. Looking at the Richmond Hill Parks and Trails map where the rectangle representing the 76 hectares of land around David Dunlap Observatory encompasses a bigger area than Richmond Green Park and Mill Pond Park combined, the top two biggest parks in Richmond Hill, is even more painful. What a lost opportunity. And to think that half of this land, the last naturally green area with a diverse wildlife is being turned to not a museum, not a public library, not even a public secondary school, but townhomes, banal suburban cheaply made townhomes, is painful. I applaud the efforts of the Richmond Hill council, DDOD, and Richmond Hill Naturalists for saving even half of this estate. Yet I still cannot get over what a lost opportunity this was. I have nothing against home ownership. It’s the first step toward wealth creation for ordinary families on top of providing decent homes. Yet this level of suburban sprawl devoid of public green space – public anything – will turn places like Richmond Hill into an asphalt and concrete hell. We need communities. A sea of subdivisions interspersed with shopping malls and plazas with the occasional denominational or ethnocentric places of worship won’t do. In an increasingly multi-cultural secular society they have to take shape around all-inclusive public spaces like parks that are open to all citizens independent of their shopping habits, home ownership, religion or lack thereof.

As a laywoman interested in urban planning, I won’t pretend to know the master plan of the town of Richmond Hill or its by-laws. I am just hoping aloud that as city-dwellers in whichever city we dwell, we can shift focus from building homes to building communities. I hope we can do this for our next generation. Whenever I think about moving back to Toronto or surrounding suburbs, one of the main considerations aside from employment is the availability of public green space, right up there with public transit and public education. Things that make a community, not just a home.

As a woman and an immigrant I stand with the women on this one

I am an immigrant. In fact twice-an-immigrant. The first time I migrated with my family from Iran to Canada was in the early nineties. The second was from Canada to Europe – first to Spain, then to the UK a year ago. As such, I am a big advocate of immigration and multiculturalism. Growing up in Canada provided me with the opportunity to live harmoniously within a mosaic of diverse cultures. Studying in an international institute in Spain allowed me to make friends from all over the world. More importantly the West afforded me opportunities as a woman that my country of birth would not have.

Last September, after pictures of the four-year-old Aylan Kurdi were published, I, an ordinary citizen, pleaded with friends on social media – the only medium to which I had easy access – to write letters to their elected officials in the Canadian House of Commons urging them to take in more asylum seekers from war-torn Syria arguing that Canada has a responsibility to lighten the burden of European countries in dealing with this mass exodus.

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Yet I was shocked, like so many others, when we started 2016 with reports of women in the hundreds being attacked and robbed during the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne and Hamburg by groups of men – allegedly from North African and Middle Eastern origin. We now have confirmation that the vast majority of the detained are migrants with a considerable portion being asylum seekers.

 

The common thread running through these incidents is that the police and other authorities are being accused of making light of the attacks, even covering them up, at least initially, in order to refrain from racial profiling and in all likelihood to prevent a backlash against immigration. This thread goes backwards to last summer where at a music festival in Stockholm numerous teenaged girls made complaints about being harassed allegedly by newly arrived Afghan refugees but were ignored by the police and media. And the thread runs even further back to the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal, which came to light last year. In Rotherham too, it was revealed British officials had downplayed or ignored complaints from a large number of vulnerable girls who had been sexually abused at the hands of a gang of Pakistani origin “for fear of being thought as racists”.

As an immigrant and a woman, I find this outrageous. As uncomfortable as it is we cannot shy away from stating the obvious. Different cultures have different attitudes toward women. Street harassment in Iran and Egypt, to name just two, is pandemic. In Iran sexual harassment both verbal and physical is a daily reality for women. The authorities do not pursue perpetrators but they have endless advice for women. Everything from maintaining eye contact for more than two seconds to smiling to wearing “provocative” clothing has been blamed for unwanted attention. Everything except rampant misogynistic attitudes in the culture itself.

In the West, some Islamic leaders have put the responsibility of unwanted sexual advances on the shoulders of women. I personally heard a lecture by prominent Islamic scholar Zakir Naik during the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto where he decreed that observing the Islamic dress code or hijab protects women from unwanted sexual advances. He went as far as stating that between a girl in a miniskirt and a girl in hijab, the former is more likely to be raped. Yet we know that at least in Egypt hijabi women, constituting a significant portion of the populace, are as likely to be harassed as non-hijabis. A survey in 2014 showed that 99.3% of Egyptian women reported being harassed verbally or physically. Zakir Naik is not alone in dispensing this kind of advice; the mayor of Cologne also stirred controversy by sharing a code of conduct with women to help them avoid sexual harassment.

We have to stop laying the blame on women for these attitudes but instead critique the patriarchal attitudes that exist in some communities among us. To offer real solutions and tackle these issues we need to have a discourse. These recent developments have remained rather under-reported by media outlets on the left. Harping on about “a few bad apples” is naïve at best, disingenuous at worst. Hundreds of perpetrators hardly qualify as a few. The left is so preoccupied with being labelled racist and xenophobic that it is doing a great disservice to women’s rights and society as a whole. If the left does not engage in the discussion, the resulting vacuum will let the right highjack the debate for its own political gain.

Integrating millions of refugees economically and socially into the fabric of Western society will be a challenge. It will not happen automatically or rapidly. However, brushing problems arising from culture shock under the carpet helps no one in the long run. Numerous things can be done to alleviate these problems. Here are some solutions we can employ.

First of all, precedence should be given to families seeking asylum over single men. Canada is employing such a policy already arguing that this policy will curtail security risks. Secondly, lessons in how the new host society works can be provided along side language and job training for newcomers. Perhaps even more specifically, lessons on the history of women’s struggle for equality as well as acceptable social norms when it comes to the opposite gender can be beneficial. This may appear colonialist at face value; however, we know such educational campaigns can be highly successful. When I was a student at the University of Toronto, the administration undertook a campaign to educate students as to what constitutes consent in a sexual encounter. In the eighties and nineties most Western governments undertook extensive campaigns to educate the public about safe sex in order to stop the spread of the AIDS pandemic. And if having mandatory training for refugees may stigmatize them, then let us educate all men over the age of 15 as to what constitutes appropriate behaviour towards women in our societies. Finally, once a newcomer has been well informed about the laws and the accepted code of conduct in his host nation, should he still break the law, he should get deported.

Bottom line is that we cannot regress on hard-fought women’s rights and freedoms (right to free movement, to dancing and celebrating in public, to owning one’s own body, to being in charge of one’s sexuality) for the sake of political correctness.