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The Friends of Allen Gardens

How a park stewardship group makes space

Text by Matt Lundstrom

The “Friends of” phenomenon is a community-led initiative to steward public or heritage sites with the help of organized volunteers. “Friends of” organizations include the High Line in New York City, or Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit wilderness habitat. Community members band together to ensure these landscapes serve community and ecological needs. They dedicate their time and effort to maintain and develop these sites, often through organizing events, fundraising activities, and community engagement programs. These volunteers play a vital role in evolving the public space for future generations.

Botanical Garden cared for by Toronto Municipality gardeners. IMAGE/ Ryan de Jong

To dig into this subject, I started by visiting my friend Matt Canaran, project manager and volunteer co-ordinator at The Friends of Allan Gardens. My friend and photographer Ryan de Jong accompanied me from Guelph to Toronto.

Allan Gardens is an urban park with a botanical conservatory that dates back to George William Allan’s donation of the land to the Toronto Horticultural Society in 1858. He acquired the land 30 years after the Toronto Purchase in 1790. Before then, and recognized now, the land was part of the “Dish With One Spoon” Territory, a shared landscape. Since its donation, the urban park has been a public square for the community to gather, and even protest. All we knew at the time was our peer, a fellow MLA from the University of Guelph, was involved in managing the programs at the conservatory. I half expected it to be like most botanical gardens: a collection of plant specimens from across the world on display.

The Allan Gardens Conservatory greenhouse. IMAGE/ Ryan de Jong

First glance at Allan Gardens, we were both focused on the homeless encampments. Neither of us were used to seeing this reality up close. As we walked through, we observed each of the scattered tents, including a tipi, all under a canopy of beautifully matured trees. One tent had a tarp with Toronto’s skyline spray painted on it. Shifting attention, we turned to the other side of the path to see a more familiar lifestyle: an off-leash dog park full of dogs and owners enjoying the daylight. There was a lot of circulation on the paths as people were making their way home. The park was alive.

Planting pots at the Conservatory. IMAGE/ Ryan de Jong

Matt Canaran greeted us at the Children’s Conservatory, both a greenhouse and home base for their programming operations. Matt’s role at the Friends of Allan Gardens is to engage the community by bringing people together and sharing a sense of place. By collaborating with volunteers, governments, and surrounding organizations, Matt and the team at Friends of Allan Gardens are strengthening the community one relationship at a time. Matt is building relationships with the local Indigenous communities, new immigrants, families, students, social workers, the homeless—or park residents—and any passerby. Matt’s ability to recognize the power of connection in this complex cultural landscape is inspiring. 

The greenhouse. IMAGE/ Ryan de Jong

We asked him about the encampments. While homelessness is a humanitarian crisis, Matt does what he can to include people living in the park in programs and beautification efforts. Matt does not refer to people living in the parks as “homeless,” he refers to them as “park residents,” a term that offers due respect. Matt says he is collaborating with community partners to provide opportunities for unhoused people living in and around the park, such as supporting low-barrier work and training opportunities to build artistic bike racks. Raylah Moonais, an Anishinaabe artist, has designed three beautiful bike-racks that Phil Sarazen, a park resident and experienced fabricator, plans to create with others interested in acquiring welding and related skills. 

An encampment shelter in Allan Gardens park. IMAGE/ Ryan de Jong

Matt says Friends of Allan Gardens horticulture and community programs also serve park residents. “When we run an event, the door is open. Whether it’s a gardening session, litter pick-up, or seasonal activity like pumpkin carving or holiday crafts, everybody in the park is welcome, including people living in the park.” Matt also worked with Toronto Metropolitan University’s Office of Social Innovation to put on a concert series called Sounds Like A Park in Allan Gardens. “We’re doing this for everybody that loves and cares for Allan Gardens,” says Matt.

A tipi in Allan Gardens park. IMAGE/ Ryan de Jong

Toronto Parks does a fantastic job maintaining the grounds, and the gardeners in the botanical garden have maintained a magnificent collection of cacti and succulents. Unfortunately, that’s as much as we were able to see while the 112-year-old Palm House building is under reconstruction

The greenhouse. IMAGE/ Ryan de Jong

On our tour of the nursery, Matt took us all over the world, across many cultures, explaining why he sourced, grew, and cared for the collection of plants. In the nursery, you can find native, tropical, and cultural plants getting a protected start before their introduction to the big city. “Cultural plants?” I asked, and Matt’s response brought a smile to our faces. Cultural plants are those that evoke nostalgia or tradition for the globally diverse people that call Toronto home. Plants like papaya, Cuban oregano, dragon fruit, yuzu, and curry trees were all growing happily next to each other. It was a perfect metaphor for Toronto’s incredible diversity. It was also a sensory experience. We bruised leaves between our fingers and smelled their uniqueness, even tasting leaves I had never experienced. It was delightful. These plants are grown out to be sold to the community in fundraising attempts, and in hopes the plants can bring familiarity, or a sense of adventure. 

Starting seeds for the Friends of Allan Gardens plant sale. IMAGE/ Ryan de Jong

A nursery is a place for life to start and develop. It is no wonder the community has valued the Allan Gardens and kept it in shape to this day. As the Friends continue to support their growing community, let's think about how our own communities can get together to do wonderful things. 

Community led, community driven, and community supported. That is the power of the “Friends of” model. The Friends of Allan Gardens is growing, as they look to continue benefiting the community. Stay tuned for their events and consider hosting an event of your own at Allan Gardens. They offer a “pay what you can” event structure to make the site as accessible as possible to all interest groups.

Matt Canaran getting a close look at a “cultural plant.” IMAGE/ Ryan de Jong

To stay up to date with Allan Gardens, you can follow them on Instagram (@foallangardens) and visit their website to learn more, donate, and get involved.