The Story of R.V. Burgess Park & Its Revitalization

The Beginning

 Founded in 2008, the Thorncliffe Park Women Committee (TPWC) was established through the connections of Thorncliffe Park. Thorncliffe Park was built in the 1960s and designed for 12,000 people, from young singles to couples. However, the neighbourhood’s demographic has changed throughout the years and the aging buildings surrounding it became an “arrival city” for newcomer families. Few in the low-income neighbourhood had cars, and there was no square or commercial main street where residents could meet and socialize. What it did have was a tiny park, albeit quite rundown. But because of the strong desire to strengthen their neighbourhood and their community, a group of women came together to launch the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee (TPWC).  Despite having no money, no political clout and no business connections, the group preserved their willingness to forge partnerships, commitment to volunteering and their ability to harness their collective power to achieve results had helped improve the quality of green space in the park and increased accessibility to recreational opportunities. With 14 years of efforts, TPWC has implemented: park infrastructure (including playground equipment, picnic shelter, water bottle filling station and seating). The power of civic action tells a story about how this empowered Women’s Committee inspired change for themselves and their community by overcoming numerous obstacles to revitalize their park, neighbourhood, and in turn, changed practice and policy across the city. R.V. Burgess is the first Canadian park to earn a “Frontline Park” designation from the Washington-based City Parks Alliance. The urban park advocacy group praised the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee and its partners for transforming the space.


The story started during the summer of 2008 when 15 to 20 women would gather regularly around the park benches to bond over language, culture and religion. They shared the same concern for the condition of the park and together, four leaders emerged to create the initiative to revitalize the park. Zakie Rahime, Asiya Sohail, Amy Sutherland and Sabina Ali are the four main leaders of this initiative that shared the same sentiment towards the lack of grass, broken lighting, water fountains and missing playground equipment in the RV Burgess park. Meeting with the local city councillor at the time, John Parker, voiced the group’s concerns to the City of Toronto’s Department of Parks, Forestry and Recreation. This led to meetings with the city staff and councillor in the park where they discussed and developed a wish list with the help of the residents (park users) for the park improvements. Together, they surveyed local residents about what they wanted and as more entered the conversation, the park began taking on greater meaning as a critical community hub for the neighbourhood.


 As an example of their get-things-done approach, the Women’s Committee launched its own arts in the park program, with members bringing art supplies from home until they secured funding to hire animators for children’s magic shows, art classes and storytelling circles. Such inspirations led Toronto Arts Council to launch an official Arts in the Park program in 2015. As more women started congregating in the park and sharing their stories, the Committee discovered that many were highly entrepreneurial. They ran small informal businesses in their apartments to supplement the family’s income. Though there were many complexities with this initiative, Ali managed to secure a permit for special events which eventually led to weekly Friday bazaars/market, and the vendors in the neighbourhood were able to sell their items. Partnering up with Foodshare, this initiative promoted local good food markets to sell produce at affordable prices to the low-income neighbourhood as well. The bazaar quickly became a grassroots community incubator for micro-entrepreneurship. Along with the bazaar, the Park Cafe was introduced. The Cafe was created as a response to limited access to affordable and cultural food. Also with restrictions to labour market opportunities for the newcomer low-income women in the neighborhood, the Cafe introduced jobs for these women and could be used as a start to grow their skills and work experiences. 
Securing funds and building partnerships brought together a community that cared to revitalize the park. Partnerships like Trillium Foundation, Weston Family Parks Challenge and the TD Bank’s Friends of the Environment Foundation helped create a community market, children’s garden in the park, community vegetable gardens in lawns and clean-ups around Don Valley ravine. The women in the community came together to offer fitness and sewing classes in the Jenner Jean-Marie Community Centre.

Even More Changes

Bolstered by their success, the group began imagining other ways to animate the park. Ali thought what better way to do this than bringing in North America’s first tandoor oven to the park. The women of Thorncliffe wanted to introduce to the children their tradition and also welcome people from other parts of Toronto to share in the celebration of their heritage as these baked ovens are widely used in South Asian countries to make flatbreads such as naan.  We have not only worked with others locally, but internationally as well. With Dutch consulate delegates from Germany, American city leaders from Reimagining Civic Commons, Urban Land Institute Toronto, and City Parks Alliance. Giving tours of the park, we share how to create public spaces and encourage resilience in low income communities. 

With 14 years of efforts, TPWC has implemented:

arts and fitness programming, community gardens, park beautifications, community engagement, advocacy for park infrastructure (including playground equipment, picnic shelter, water bottle filling station, seating), Friday community bazaars with local performers, park clean ups, and environmental education.

With 500 people engaged weekly!


With these changes, a neighborhood previously considered scary and unsafe has transformed into a vibrant community hub. Although the committee has been highly successful in revitalizing RV Burgess Park and uniting the community, it still faces challenges in increasing its capacity to effect change and making its work economically sustainable. The Committee would like permanent funding to hire staff, upscale the micro-enterprises, and offer more opportunities for vendors.

The Metcalf Foundation’s Resilient Neighborhood Economies project helped TPWC recognize their role, which extended beyond the revitalization of the park. It involved changing city policies and procedures and fostering community economic development, rather than being merely a single community development initiative. This realization further inspires the committee to continue its work and validates its grassroots approach. The Women’s Committee acts as a powerful catalyst, inspiring and empowering numerous women to actively engage with their communities. It provides an array of opportunities for personal and professional growth, from participating in educational courses and workshops to initiating small businesses. This platform not only equips women with vital skills and experience but also paves the way for them to secure meaningful employment.

 The importance of these opportunities cannot be overstated. Enabling vendors to test their markets in a low-cost, low-risk manner, to develop a sense of independence and entrepreneurial acumen, is crucial for achieving economic inclusion in the mainstream economy. The Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee has made an impressive achievement as a group of local residents who met in the park years earlier with a vision of improving their park.