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Vital People: Youth project will see new community park in Victoria

Thirty-one young people were tasked with the design of a community park for Quadra Village.
Taylor Koel was one of the participants in the Youth Leadership Labs pilot project. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A group of young people in Victoria are helping to bring plans for a community park to life.

The group, ages 14 to 29, were the first cohort of Youth Leadership Labs, a pilot project developed by The Starfish Canada, a non-profit focused on connecting youth interested in environmental issues, and Aryze Developments, a home-building and urban-planning company.

The pilot project ran from February through March with funding provided in part by the Victoria Foundation.

Thirty-one young people were tasked with the design of a community park for Quadra Village.

For eight weeks, they attended virtual workshops and held collaborative sessions, meeting with Victoria council, the city-planning department, Aryze Developments and decision-makers across the capital region. They learned about sustainable urban planning and how a placemaking project can bring a community together.

“Young people are not only the leaders of tomorrow, they are the leaders of today,” said Kyle Empringham, co-founder of The Starfish Canada.

“With the program, we wanted to expose them and involve them by getting them to share their ideas on a community initiative. We wanted to engage them to be part of the conversation, to make them part of the conversation and to help them make connections and learn from each other.”

The main theme of the community park is sustainability. It will have three main areas — a public gathering section, a play area and one with raised beds for plant cultivation. There will be educational signage throughout.

The group was split up into teams of five or six, with each team given a theme to work on. Themes included joyful/playful, disability, art or biodiversity.

Participant Taylor Koel worked on the joyful/playful theme for the park. Her team came up with a design that included criss-cross pathways with a dome in the middle. The dome, which they envisioned covered with climbing plants, such as sweet pea, would have an entrance so that children could go inside and play.

“What was nice was that the organizers were open to ideas. They just wanted to hear each team’s pitches and pick and choose the best ideas,” said Koel, 24, who recently graduated in environmental science.

“It was a great opportunity to get involved and network. I learned that rather than being isolated, I was part of a collective of other like-minded people with a collective interest in environmentalism.”

The park is expected to be completed in the summer of 2023. Its final design has yet to be unveiled.

Each young person in the program was given a $200 honorarium for their participation.

“Targeted workshops like this allow youth to imagine the future of a community and gain experience,” said Koel, who hopes to work in urban design.

Participants came up with ideas such as Our Roots, with a path that has edible plants along the way, a seed library, reflective prompts in English and braille and community seating; a chalkboard or wipeable mural on which people can add their thoughts; a building with a butterfly-shaped roof that can collect rainwater for use in the garden; and a fairy-themed children’s garden with twinkling lights and mushroom-shaped stools to inspire whimsical and magical thinking.

“The ideas these young folks came up with were diverse, inclusive and imaginative, yet realistic. I’m pretty inspired by what they came up with,” said Empringham.

Organizers were so happy with the results that they hope to replicate the project in the future on other community-based projects and partnerships across Canada.

Other programs offered by The Starfish Canada include the Top Environmentalists Under 25, an annual celebration that showcases the best in Canadian youth environmentalism. The organization also offers workshops targeted toward elementary and high school students, a youth advisory board made up of students from Grades 6 to 11 who meet monthly and a speaker’s bureau, at which youth share stories on 13 subjects, including youth engagement and climate change.

One of its strengths is its Journal, a platform that allows more than 50 writers to make their voices heard on the various environmental issues that matter to them.

“Last year was a record year for engagement and growth in our existence,” said Empringham, who is based in Victoria.

“More than 10,000 youth connected with us — mostly online — leading to a 400 per cent increase in our staff.”

The Starfish Canada was founded in 2010 and became a charity in 2018.