Op-Ed: MABELLEpark

MABELLEarts and LGA Architectural Partners reimagine the community consultation process to better serve a vibrant, low-income community.

Photo credit: Katrin Faridani of Faridanifoto

It’s kinda weird. This is the first neighbourhood where I walk down the street and everyone is saying hi to me. A lot of people know me in this neighbourhood, because of MABELLEarts. I’ve never been in a neighbourhood where people know me like that. Walking down the street: Hi! Hi!

-Pat Austin, Mabelle Resident and Community Leader

MABELLEpark was once a neglected thoroughfare. Owned and operated by Toronto Community Housing (TCH) and located in the centre of a low-income and predominately racialized, highrise tower community, the park received little to no maintenance or care. Given its location, the park was a vital pedestrian passage to the local school and subway. Despite the lack of maintenance, the park had a wild beauty with mature trees offering ample shade in the summer and big round boulders for sitting. In 2007, MABELLEarts started an art and gardening project for children and families in the park, which has evolved into a multi-million dollar, fifteen years long community arts project that has involved thousands of community members as well as dozens of professional artists, architects and builders.

With support from TCH and a range of government and private supporters, MABELLEarts is working hand-in-hand with LGA Architectural Partners on a new phase of park transformation that includes the development of a new multi-use building (The Belle), a range of park improvements and artist/community co-created public artworks. The improvements planned for MABELLEpark were developed through an innovative community consultation process that leveraged long-standing, trusting relationships with residents while harnessing the power of artistic collaboration and co-creation.  By working together on a range of out-of-the-box activities, MABELLEarts and LGA have leveraged community creativity and trust to co-create something transformative for this underserved and deeply deserving neighbourhood.


Reimagining The Community Consultation Process

Through a series of small initiatives, community collaboration projects and events, LGA developed a deep understanding of and commitment to MABELLEarts, to support its overall goal to strengthen community wellbeing. We love engaging in this kind of work. It is highly creative and community-oriented, and it’s fun! We share a common goal with MABELLEarts in that we both leverage our creativity to bring people together. It’s important to have these kinds of relatively quick projects, as making architecture takes a long time to deliver.

-Janna Levitt, Partner, LGA Architectural Partners

MABELLEpark users have a higher-than-average comfort level with creative processes, having participated in countless community arts projects over the years. MABELLEarts and LGA were able to leverage this co-creative competency as well as the general level of engagement and leadership within the community to ensure a high level of engagement. Residents were well-placed to take part in the development of this park transformation given their history of participating in high quality community engagement with MABELLEarts, but there are still lessons to be shared with the broader architectural community. By reframing the community consultation process to better suit the flavour of the neighbourhood and tapping into its core interests and pre-established ways of connecting, MABELLEarts and LGA have fostered stronger community input and ultimately buy-in to the project.


What We Did

Imagining A Building while Building Relationships – Iftar Lanterns 2019

One of MABELLEarts most important yearly events is their Iftar Nights Festival. Held during the Holy Month of Ramadan, Iftar Nights in MABELLEpark is Canada’s first intercultural Ramadan celebration. The festival brings together Muslim and non-Muslim neighbours to break their fast, experience musical performances from the Islamic world and create works of art together. To introduce the proposed park transformation to the community and especially to test the idea of creating a multi-purpose building in the park, MABELLEartists and LGA created a lantern-making activity that invited residents to draw their ideas for a new MABELLEpark and building. Completed lanterns then formed a community parade to mark sundown just before the Call to Prayer.

By taking time to participate in Iftar Nights, LGA started a process of building their own community relationships. It was critical that their first engagement be low-stakes, fun and ultimately useful to the neighbourhood. Perhaps the most important word here is participate – by participating in such an important and well-loved community event, LGA messaged to the community that they were committed to understanding their cultural practices, concerns and desires.

Photo credit: Katrin Faridani of Faridanifoto

Shhmmarkitects! and the MABELLEpark Community Use Framework 2021

Like many community organizations, MABELLEarts made a strong pivot to food security during the Covid pandemic. Early in the crisis, MABELLEarts started a delivery-to-the-door grocery program for the ten most vulnerable households. Over the course of the pandemic, that initial response evolved into MABELLEpantry -a foodbank, farmers market and covid-safe cultural venue in MABELLEpark serving over 1000 residents. MABELLEpantry became a vital hub and meeting place during the pandemic, while offering employment opportunities to residents who took on building, running and tearing down the pantry in the park each week, rain (snow!) or shine. To maintain safety protocols, MABELLEarts enlisted a roving band of therapeutic clowns, tasked with reminding pantry users to maintain social distancing while keeping the mood light and playful.

As the pantry solidified into a critical community meeting place, LGA and MABELLEarts were able to launch a new layer of community consultation in cahoots with the team of therapeutic clowns. SSSchmarkitects was born out of a desire to poke fun at the serious and somewhat unknown world of the professional architect. Clowns developed architect characters with lab coats, hard hats and clipboards and set to asking over 200 pantry users practical and fantastical questions about how they used the park currently and what the future park could be like. MABELLEartists worked closely with the clowns to assess and categorize the answers. The responses fit together into what became the MABELLEpark Community Use Framework – a series of guidelines governing the design and use of the park.

By being self-deprecating and silly, LGA staff messaged to the community that they were approachable, flexible and willing to work within the neighbourhood’s pre-developed ways of working, playing and decision making. It was yet another way that LGA said we’re in this with you.

Photo credit: Katrin Faridani of Faridanifoto

This Must Be the Place Exercise – 2022

In order to deepen the dialogue between park users, MABELLEarts staff and contributing artists, MABELLEarts devised a facilitated mapping activity called This Must Be The Place.  Based on mapping processes first shared by Jumblies Theatre Artistic Director Ruth Howard, This Must Be The Place was designed to introduce key stakeholders to Ray Oldenburg’s notion of the third place. The third place refers to public or semi-public spaces where we gather, connect and make friends. Good examples of third places include cafes, libraries, night clubs and places of worship. The exercise invited participants to remember somewhere in their own life that served as a memorable and important third place. Together participants (a mix of project professionals and community members) were guided to map and then share a personally important third place with the broader group.

MABELLEarts Executive Director Leah Houston created the exercise in part to discourage stakeholders from pigeonholing the new park as a kind of social service agency or traditional community centre. By remembering and sharing stories of third places of personal importance, participants were invited to see the park and building as another vital third space in their lives – a place for giving and receiving, experiencing and contributing. Sharing as a group helped break down potential barriers between project professionals, MABELLEarts staff and community leaders and created a shared ground of understanding. Its an excellent way to share more nuanced or complex themes with a large and diverse group.

Photo credit: Katrin Faridani of Faridanifoto

Mini Buildings – 2022

LGA devised an activity that could involve a wide range of park users in articulating their hopes for the new park and building while supporting them to get LGA better acquainted with the proposed building design. Jake Pauls Wolf developed a cut-and-paste template of the future building and invited community members of all ages to decorate it while answering two questions: what do you give and what do you receive when you come to MABELLEpark? Participants were then guided to assemble and share their mini building with a larger group.

This activity was a great way to share a sophisticated proposed design with a large group of community members (including children) with limited architectural literacy. It created a strong sense of ownership over the design and helped participants better understand what was being proposed for the park.

Photo credit: Katrin Faridani of Faridanifoto

Giant Puppet – 2022

Celebrating key project milestones is an important part of any neighbourhood transformation project.  To celebrate the final approval of the park redesign MABELLEarts, LGA and Shadowland Theatre came together to create a giant puppet based on the approved building design. Together with Samba Squad and other community partners we held a neighbourhood parade and block party and danced in the streets to celebrate our future park.

This event was another way to circle back to the community, share designs and solicit feedback while creating a strong sense of buy-in and collaboration. And it was so fun!

Photo credit: Katrin Faridani of Faridanifoto


Lessons Learned

  1. Get involved early and stay involved: take part in something low-stakes and fun but already important to the community you’re collaborating with. Be a good guest and share what and when you can. This shows that you are open to learning about what matters to the community you are collaborating with. Look for opportunities to share your knowledge and skills and collaborate on smaller projects whenever feasible.
  2. Create opportunities to collaborate and share as people: facilitated workshop experiences that invited project professionals and community members to share personal stories and memories were a powerful way to break down barriers between the professional team, residents and MABELLEarts staff. LGA were always open to sharing their personal stories in a facilitated context but did other important things to break down barriers, like volunteering for a day at the MABELLEpantry and taking part in important community events.
  3. Celebrate the milestones in ways that resonate with the broader community: Let milestones serve as opportunities to party, share stories and celebrate together. Don’t be afraid to say “hey! we won!”
  4. Collaborative art making can bring a lot to the community consultation process: MABELLEarts’ collaborative art practice (combined with the level of trust the community has in the organization) helped foster an almost unprecedented level of community buy-in and support for this project. While the situation is unique, architects across a range of projects could consider how to bring collaborative art making into their own community consultation processes.


The project exemplifies the kind of sustainable, artistic, contextually-sensitive and socially-minded work that LGA excels at, and the kind of trusting partnerships that we build with our clients. We’ve been working with MABELLEarts for about six years, long before the park revitalization initiative. We helped them to convert various leftover spaces into useful ones and supported artistic initiatives with our architectural expertise.

-Janna Levitt, Partner,  LGA Architectural Partners