by Tom McKay
It is fair to say that Sabina Ali is a local legend in her Toronto neighbourhood of Thornecliffe Park. This is an amazing accomplishment given that Sabina Ali first set eyes on this neighbourhood in June 2008 after arriving in this country from her native India via Saudi Arabia.
So who is Sabina Ali and how did a newcomer to a foreign land make such an impression on her neighbours in such a short period of time? Well anyone who was fortunate enough to have taken in Sabina’s presentation at the October 2013 CPTED Ontario conference held at York University likely knows the answer.
Sabina began her life in Canada with a visit to her local park. It was there, at R. V. Burgess Park, that it’s dilapidated condition—“only garbage, no grass and a couple of swings”–left her with the stark impression “Can I be in North America”? Sabina, not one to shrink from a challenge or, perhaps more appropriately in this case, let the grass grow beneath her feet, immediately took it upon herself to start talking with the other women she met in the park while spending time there. They talked about how to make the park a place for women and children, given that it was the only facility of its kind in a two square mile area that was home to 30,000 people, one third of whom were children–fourteen years or younger.
The first order of business was to arrange a tour of the park with local residents and city officials. It was there that a wish list consisting of garbage bins, new swings, a splash pad, benches and picnic tables was shared and the residents, in turn, learned of the safety concerns that prompted the swing’s removal in 2005 and the 2015 replacement timetable. Not content with the city’s ten year replacement schedule, Sabina pushed for the installation of used playground equipment which served as a stopgap measure.
Sabina also recognized that it was important that the community become directly involved in the park’s clean-up and revitalization for the sake of developing feelings of ownership, encouraging responsibility and “giving something back”. With Sabina’s encouragement, this would eventually result in over 500 people per week, getting involved with the park.
Some of these stakeholders were women who Sabina recognized as having a hobby business. This included women who dabbled in food, jewelry, and clothing. Sabina encouraged these women to develop their talents by creating a very popular, South Asian Community Bazaar in 2008 which gave them a platform to show off their wares while developing self-confidence and language skills at the same time.
Sabina’s “can do” attitude also resulted in the development of a number of other programs not typically associated with parks. These included a Fresh Produce Market in partnership with Foodshare, an Arts in the Park program held twice a week, the introduction of board games, sports, and fitness classes along with a community garden, tandoor oven a Winter Carnival featuring hockey, art, twenty-five cent hot chocolate, vegetable and lentil soup and a warming fire.
Needless to say both Sabina and the City of Toronto would experience many growing pains along the way. Many of these centered around a myriad of obstacles including permits, policies and bureaucracy. Sabina learned to manage these pains with the help of members of the Thornecliffe Park Women’s Committee (or TPWC, as it is now known), which she helped found and Chairs. The Committee has since established strong working relations with many of Toronto’s signature organizations including Doors Open Toronto, Community Festival and the Winter Fest at Evergreen Brick Works, Toronto Mela, YIMBY Festival, Halal Food Fest and Scotiabank Nuit Blanche.
The exposure has helped Sabina and her organization get the recognition they so richly deserve. Their efforts have transformed the park into the thriving, heart of the community it was intended to be. In addition to the Jacob’s award, the R.V. Burgess Park was named a “Frontline Park” by the U.S. advocacy group City Parks Alliance, the first time this honour had ever been bestowed outside the United States. Sabina was also named the recipient of the Elizabeth Coke award, an honour bestowed in recognition of leadership
The park has also garnered attention from the Weston Family Parks Challenge which awarded TPWC $125,000 to extend their activities into the adjoining ravine to help connect residents with nature while offering health and environmental education.
So who is Sabina Ali? Give her enough challenges and time, and we are all likely to know. For more information about Sabina’s latest award check out Spacing magazine.