Calgarians gathered on September 23 to open a new form of park in the city, one designed to address the mental as well as physical health of its users.
The Brawn Family Foundation Rotary Park was built adjacent to Alberta Health Service’s The Summit, a mental health facility for children and youth located in the community of Hounsfield Heights, but was not designed to be exclusive for those patients.
Avril Deegan, Director in Child Addiction and Mental Health for AHS, said that the park was designed to meet children where they are at in their mental health recoveries, and that also means being able to be a part of a wider community.
“It provides immediate access for children to come and to be a part of nature. What we’re seeing is that children and youth are really enjoying coming, connecting, and they’re being able to just be kids and enjoy playing.”
“It’s all about stigma and reducing stigma. At the base we’re all human, and we all want to be a part of something and be a part of a community and to have peers and to be able to play and enjoy life.”
The $1.2 million park was not originally envisioned as part of The Summit, but came about as a result of recognizing the need to include a green space to assist in patient recovery.
“The project began when rotary approached us and let us know that the new mental health centre that was being built to support youth was being created with no outdoor space whatsoever,” said Sheila Taylor, CEO of Parks Foundation Calgary.
“We really jumped on board found partners found donors worked with the community to design and create what is Alberta’s only park space designed and dedicated to youth mental health recovery.”
The project took three years to from start to finish, with construction of the park beginning in September of 2022.
Careful design to help in mental health recovery
Taylor said that the design of the park came about as a result of careful landscape design that relied on research and science into the best practices to help in mental health recovery.
Landscape architects NAK Design Strategies designed the park after looking at parks around the world along with the latest research.
“Something that is different about mental health recovery is it’s not like breaking an arm where you get a cast. We have people from all walks of life. Some may be experiencing anxiety and depression, so they have different needs,” Taylor said.
“You’ll see calming sensory focused elements like a walking labyrinth, but you’re also going to see areas where you can let off a little steam in the recreational elements.”
Among the features at the park that were installed were hammocks, slack lines, Calgary’s largest outdoor bouldering rock—affectionately called the dounut because of the way it looks sprinkled with climbing holds—a muralled basketball court, bench swings, the walking labyrinth, and a gathering space.
Taylor pointed to the boulder as an example of how a piece of play equipment designed for teens also has profound mental health opportunities.
“When we looked at research for teens, it’s interesting that we always heard that teens love to climb really high and then they like to sit up there. One of the reasons is that adults won’t follow.”
“We hear a lot of teens and see them already climbing up on our bouldering wall sitting up there having that space on their own, but still being part of a really supportive environment.”
That philosophy of allowing children to create their own safe spaces, extended to other elements of the park she said.
“Early on in the project. Alberta Health Services talked to us about the stress that kids are under, and that they often will want to run outside and flee. And so they asked us to create areas of sanctuary where it felt like you could run off but still go to your own space and be safe.
“So you’ll see things like the swing benches which you can go to and spend time and just swing and have that meditation to feel like you’re on your own, but also being taken care of.”
Taylor said that while speaking to a psychiatrist about the park, that medical professional was blown away by the help the park provides to children.
“For so long, we haven’t thought about the role that outdoor spaces play in medical recovery. And I’m excited that we could be really proving that to be the case, and that as we’re looking at medical buildings and medical centres that we’re we’re really thinking about the role that nature and the outdoors can play.”
Community a big part of park going forward
Mayor Jyoti Gondek, who attended Saturday’s grand opening, said in her remarks that the story of the Brawn Family Foundation Rotary Park wasn’t about the money or the land that the City of Calgary put towards the project, but rather about the families that will be helped.
“I could be politiciany and talk about how much money we put into the project, and I really don’t want to do that because this is about more than that.”
“This is about the fact that families are going to be able to take in these spaces as their kids are getting treatment, as their kids are getting better, as their mental health is being addressed, and as they are becoming stronger individuals through everything that goes on at The Summit.”
She said that anyone who has ever had to work through having a child in crisis, knows about the feeling isolation that causes between parents and their children and how that leaves their children wondering if there is something wrong with them.
“It leaves families at odds with what to do. And if you create spaces where kids can get treatment and you don’t give them outside places where they can sit and be with their loved ones, you haven’t done it right.”
“I want to thank all of the partners who believed in it as well, because families are able to sit outside, lie in the hammocks and find the wall and give them a break from the seriousness of the situation. That they find themselves in places and spaces like this are critical to healing, and I don’t think we focus on that. I think we get institutionalized in our thoughts around mental health, and we need to start thinking about what kids need to thrive.”
Brad Krizan, President of the Briar Hill-Houndsfield Heights Community Association, said that prior to the park’s grand opening that he and his fellow community members had already begun to use the park.
“The benefit for us as a community here—it’s important we’ll have this park that supports the work that’s being done for for mental health—but it’s a great community asset, and this is a vast improvement from what was here before and members of the community are using it,” he said.
“I’ve seen families coming over here, seniors walking through, and we appreciated the fact that some of our input was taken and that it’s created a bit more of a cross connection through the community.”