Please Walk on the Grass

Posted on Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

Written by Cam Shaw

Please Walk on the Grass
The Unknown Legacy of Tommy Thompson - A Champion of Greenspace

Please Walk on the Grass

Perhaps some of the more aged and seasoned Torontonian readers will recall the 1970’s slogan Please Walk on the Grass. Or maybe the name Tommy Thompson rings a bell.  If you are drawing a blank, don’t worry because I was just as unaware up until a recently. During my attendance at Canada Blooms in Toronto this past March, I met an older gentleman and we began chatting about turfgrasses, parks and greenspaces in urban areas.  During the conversation he brought up Tommy Thompson and was surprised that I did not know who he was. He charged me with the responsibility, as an ambassador for turfgrasses to look Thompson up and read stories of his successes and accomplishments as a champion for greenspace in Metropolitan Toronto.  I went home that night and began my homework only to quickly fall down the proverbial rabbit hole to which new discoveries often lead.  Thompson’s story and slogan have been turning over in my head ever since and has now lead to me writing a lengthy blog on the matter. I hope you find the story to be as interesting as I did, since it is one which I believe carries great significance for today’s advocates of turfgrasses, parks, greenspaces and living landscapes. 

Thomas or “Tommy” William Thompson, born in 1913 to the head gardener of Casa Loma was raised to have an appreciation for plants, humans and nature.  In fact, his upbringing on the grounds of the Toronto landmark would help create the foundation and understanding of the necessary symbiotic relationship that humans, plants and nature must share in order to co-exist harmoniously and sustainably.  With almost certain influence from his father the gardener, Thompson pursued studies in botany at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph – graduating in 1936.  After several short-lived positions and a stint in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Thompson gained his first career position as the Superintendent of Recreation and Parks for the City of Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay).  Thompson held this position until 1951 at which time he moved back to Toronto and become Advisor of Parks and Recreation Facilities for the Ontario Department on Education – a position he held until 1955, when the City of Toronto formed a new metropolitan government and approached Thompson to be the city’s first parks commissioner.  It was in this position that Thompson would make his formidable mark.

Thompson’s beliefs and philosophy behind public parks and green spaces challenged the traditional formula of a rigid use structure.  In the 1960’s (and still in many places today) it was not uncommon to see signs heralding proclamations such as “Don’t Climb the Trees” or “Keep Off the Grass” and other lists of rules and punishable offenses such as littering or vandalism.  Obviously, these signs and regulations were designed to preserve the beauty and aesthetics of the landscape for everyone to enjoy – but they also left a cold and distant impression regarding the accessibility, freedom and ownership of the spaces.  To the contrary, it was Thompson’s belief that a softer, more inviting approach may encourage use and simultaneously encourage respect, care and stewardship by the user groups.  Believing that people came to parks to relax and escape the overbearing rules of daily life, Thompson encouraged activities like games, playing, tree climbing, family picnics and even the act of carving initials into trees by lovers (this last one was controversial and resulted in much opposition from the public and city officials).  But Thompson was steadfast in his beliefs and shared the following quote when he was asked about his welcomed form of tree vandalism; “A young couple are madly in love with each other and in the park they carve their initials together on a tree. Now, 20 years later, they return to that spot, maybe with a few children, and they look into each other’s eyes and relive that wonderful, youthful moment of love. I’ll be damned if I stand in the way of that”. Thompson believed that encouraging use and accessibility would change people’s perceptions of parks and green spaces from an aesthetic object to a multi-functional and interactive space for use and play.  He believed this type of connection would create an elevated appreciation for the spaces and an endearing desire for their place in the city. He also believed that eliminating placards coldly announcing rules, offenses and penalties would help to create more positive first impressions for users and perhaps reduce the incidence of vandalism.  It was during this time, in the early 1970’s that Thompson released his “Please Walk on the Grass” campaign – a simple request and a powerful movement that would help to grow and develop the Toronto parks system and encourage use by the public stakeholders of Toronto.


Please Keep Off The Grass Signs

It is not uncommon to see such deterrent signage in public greenspaces and home lawns.

Tommy Thompson challenged this habit and wished for a more positive message "Please Walk on the Grass".


During Thompson’s two decades as Parks Commissioner, he grew the Toronto Parks System to over 7,800 acres which included a variety of gardens, parks, greenspaces, and forested areas.  In an article from Weekend magazine in 1972, Thompson states “We saw our job as wilderness management…Letting the land express what it was intended to express”. As a further step to encourage public outreach and use, Thompson began walking campaigns where city councillors, officials and members of the public would stroll through the connecting park systems providing interpretation and demonstrating that in the heart of a booming city, one could still walk for several kilometers without crossing a paved road. In fact, there is a rumour that Thompson made a bet with city councillors at a meeting that one could walk for 10.5 kilometers without ever leaving a park or forested area – a bet he won.  Although Thompson passed away in 1985, his legacy is earmarked by the establishment of Tommy Thompson Park located at the Leslie St. Spit on Toronto’s waterfront – a unique piece of artificial landscape which is approximately 250 hectares in area and stretches over 5 kilometers into Lake Ontario.


Tommy Thompson Park, a man-made peninsula that juts out into Lake Ontario, is one of Toronto's most unique

and interesting parks, wildlife refuges and ecological areas. (photo from Toronto Regional Conservation Authority)


So why is Tommy Thompson’s story so important?  For me it is a shining example of how a single person, a champion of greenspace motivated through passion and knowledge can help to push for change and alter perception, especially at the government level.  I see Thompson as a leader – one who understood the social, health, environmental and economical values that turf spaces, parks, gardens and forested areas hold in our society, particularly in urban areas.   Thompson understood the work and funding required to maintain these spaces in a sustainable manner.  Using his influence at the municipal government level, he acquired the necessary infrastructure and funding to maintain the Toronto parks visually pleasing, functionally sound, and as accessible as possible.  Today’s municipalities, school boards and public stakeholders could learn a lot from Thompson’s story. In an age where real estate is scarce, development pressures are high and living natural greenspaces are in decline, natural grass and parklands need another champion. Public perceptions of grass are not always positive.  Homeowners often see lawn maintenance as a nuisance chore or waste of time rather than a point of pride.  Municipalities, school boards and town councillors see poorly maintained grassed areas as liabilities. To make matters worse, they are often unwilling to invest in the necessary annual resources, equipment, skills and knowledge required to maintain live turf in a safe and sustainable manner.  Turfgrass’ peripheral benefits such as carbon sequestration, ground water filtration, air cooling, oxygen production, erosion control and many others are so easily drowned out in the ever-present discussions of reducing liability risk and minimizing labour costs.  Simply stated, as a society, we  simply don’t consider grass in the same way we consider other plants such as trees or flowers.

Dr. Michael Brownbridge of the Vineland Innovation Centre recently released a report titled “Time to Change the Conversation Around Turfgrass”. If you haven’t read the document, I suggest you visit this link to check it out. Brownbridge’s report provides a detailed and digestible summary of the role natural turfgrasses play in our society and our daily lives.  For joe public, it is a viewport that opens eyes and ears to a deeper understanding beyond superficial thoughts, ideas and perceptions of the annoying home lawn, elitist golf greens, ugly highway medians or overused, bare sports field.  It is my hope that reports like this will act as a catalyst in the necessary paradigm shift surrounding turfgrasses and greenspace in urban centres, school yards, parks and sports facilities.  For the turfgrass industry, materials like this can be a tool that encourages more fruitful and empowering conversations of advocacy and ambassadorship for the little green plant that drives our daily routines. I especially found it interesting to read about the potential influence living landscapes and greenspaces have on mental health, happiness and well-being.  Mental health is a growing concern in our society and knowing that there is a positive correlation between greenspaces and mental health could prove to be an important motivator and stepping stone in the effort to spread the good word of turf.

I urge all readers to access and safeguard valuable materials like Dr. Brownbridge’s report and The Canadian Turfgrass Advisory Group’s Environmental Benefits of Turfgrass Poster and distribute them among your networks.  Every opportunity to spread the good word of turf is an opportunity to change the way the public and the government decision makers think about turf!

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