On a recent evening, I walked past Bonnerworth Park as a typical scene unfolded on this wide-open expanse of grass. A group of young boys was splintering off from the baseball diamond, as the grey sky broke open with rain, speckling the road beside and filling its potholes. The park is about seven hectares, the size of a large city block, in central Peterborough, Ont., outlined by a few trees and bordered by the major throughway of Monaghan Road. There’s at least one kite-flying enthusiast who is here on the regular.

Soon, that might all change. A proposed plan would add more than a dozen pickleball courts and a huge parking lot at a cost of $4.4 million, paving over the two baseball diamonds and four tennis courts (on which you can also play pickleball). I live close to the park, but not so close that a chorus of 16 simultaneous pickleball games played here would drift in my windows. But it’s a sound I can easily imagine — a loud and constant pop pop pop. City councillors have a clear sense of it now too, after a resident opposed to the plan played a cacophonous pickleball recording during a recent general committee meeting. The meeting, which spiralled into name-dropping, turkey-carving threats, highlights just how contentious this debate is.

The plan has sparked fierce backlash that extends beyond the chambers of city council. Neighbourhood residents are mad, feeling “outrage” even, one person told the Peterborough Examiner. Alongside the emotions are objections rooted in noise, a lack of consultation and the environmental concerns of replacing vegetation with pavement. The benefits of green spaces are many, including their natural cooling effect: the greenery absorbs the sun’s energy and releases it as vapor, whereas surfaces like black asphalt absorb even greater amounts of that sunlight and release it as heat. Green spaces also act as a sponge to help prevent flooding — like the “Great Flood” that hit Peterborough exactly 20 years ago — whereas hard surfaces just displace that water.

But the root of the problem might be designating this as a plan for a park in the first place.

A skateboard park with graffiti in the foreground, with a grass field behind it
A proposed plan for Bonnerworth Park would remove the two baseball diamonds and four tennis courts, replacing them with pickleball courts and parking. It would also add a bike track and upgrade the skate park. Photo: Elaine Anselmi / The Narwhal

Definitions may be dry, but I am a word person, and how do we agree on a solution if we can’t even agree on what exactly we’re talking about? The majority of dictionaries define the noun “park” as an area of land that is largely green or in a natural state, and used for recreation. But what’s proposed for Bonnerworth appears to be a rec centre with good landscaping. 

The sports facilities are open air — yes — but they’re hardscaped spaces prescribed for a specific activity, contributing little to the local ecology, drainage or any of the benefits that natural landscapes provide. The plan proposes to plant trees — just as the city did in the parking lot of the community housing complex next to the park — but clearly planting trees does not a park make. So what does?

According to the city’s 2019 assessment of parks and open spaces, there are five categories of parkland, only two of which mention natural features — regional and community parks, with Bonnerworth falling into the latter category — while the others focus on playgrounds and recreational facilities. This sort of categorization is not unique to Peterborough; similar designations are made across municipalities. The breadth of these categories suggests a sort of compatibility: by replacing one kind of park with another park, one would think the community is reaping similar benefits. But, in essence, we have reduced the idea of a park to any space where people can be active, with little in the definition left for the environment.

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The new Bonnerworth plan isn’t just about 16 pickleball courts and parking. A new biking track is also proposed, as well as a skate park to expand the one that’s already there, notably well-used and worthy of an upgrade.

But it’s the pickleball and parking that really gives pause — or doesn’t, as council recently voted against a motion from Councillor Joy Lachica to pause this plan in order to consider alternatives. Both downtown ward councillors, Lachica and Alex Bierk, along with Keith Riel, voted to take that time. The mayor and seven other councillors voted to move ahead — despite having only seen the park plan at a March public engagement meeting, some five months after voting in favour of its development

Councillor Lesley Parnell, the city’s parks co-chair, was absolutely opposed to delaying the development plan, saying the city’s recreation master plan, including the Bonnerworth proposal, had seen extensive consultation — a perplexing claim, given that neither city council nor residents had seen the actual plan for this park until last month.

Mayor Jeff Leal’s impassioned argument for the pickleball courts is focused on the sport’s ability to get more people active, reflecting the “community and wellbeing” pillar of the city’s strategic plan. But it’s hard to imagine the kite flyers and tennis and baseball players will find much space to play in the “landscape buffer” tucked between the pickleball courts and parking lots, nor will the neighbourhood kids who currently have free rein of the grassy expanse. Removing the public spaces of Bonnerworth Park affects many more people than members of official sports organizations that were consulted.

A child runs on the grass in front of a baseball diamond with a black and white kite in the air
The controversial plan for Peterborough’s Bonnerworth Park would see the majority of the grass hardscaped, removing the environmental benefits of an urban green space and its potential for use beyond a single sport. Photo: Elaine Anselmi / The Narwhal

As Leal has pointed out, the park is just across the road from an entrance to Jackson Park, with 20 hectares of trail and woods, an argument that suggests Bonnerworth’s green space is redundant. But the same point can be used to reach a different conclusion: there is ample opportunity for recreational activity in the area around Bonnerworth Park. Across the city, that isn’t the case. Rather than tearing up a park, they could build this pickleball paradise somewhere that’s already paved over, creating new opportunities for activity rather than, at best, breaking even. Lachica has suggested one possible city-owned location; the city’s parks and open spaces assessment lists others. That approach would not only add recreational spaces but also create landscape buffers that could serve as a net benefit to the environment rather than loss.

And this too is a tenet of the city’s “community and wellbeing” pillar, to “demonstrate strong leadership in environmental stewardship by proactively addressing issues and challenges of climate change and the environment.” Where does paving grass to build a parking lot and pickleball courts fall under that lens?

It’s a question that councillors ought to consider as they ratify their vote on the project at an April 8 council meeting.

Looking across the Bonnerworth field that’s now soaked up all the spring snow that took the city by surprise late last week, I can’t help but wonder if all the noise around pickleball is drowning out the real conversation about what makes a park, and if a park is still a park if it’s paved.

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