September 1, 2020
Reta Horan
Reta Horan

Okay to get dirty

RITA HORAN, Woodstock, Ont.’s, parks and forestry supervisor, directs boundless energy toward getting kids and families active outdoors. She is the spark plug behind the city’s participation in the Green Streets Challenge — an idea from Come Alive Outside to dramatize outdoor play by actually paving streets with sod. Horan was dealing with a vandalized concession stand the morning of this interview, disappointed that bored kids had ransacked park property. Her mission is to inspire kids with purpose, through green spaces.

Woodstock hosts Canada’s second longest-running Green Streets Challenge. Why did that idea click with you?

I see so many families that are so busy, and they just don’t think about going outside for unstructured time. When I heard about the challenge, I said, “Yes, let’s do it!” My department wanted to get our name out, and it paired well with our goal to help families enjoy green space and get educated about its value.

Do you have a favourite Green Streets story?

I do. Our Challenges happen during Woodstock’s Streetfest, where stores bring merchandise onto the street along with activities such as bouncy castles, pony rides and face painting. Parents were asked to pay for many of the activities, and we saw families look at our Challenge a little cautiously. “Should we stay off the grass?” “How much does it cost?” It is so fun to invite them to come and play, because it’s free.

Did you see benefits beyond the Green Streets events?

We offer a range of programs with the city, everything from sports to physical literacy. We see young kids often sign up for outdoor physical activities who are not so keen on organized sports. We definitely saw Green Streets drive enrollment.

Since Green Streets, like so many events, was postponed due to pandemic concerns this summer, how did you fill the gap?

We promoted the Come Alive Passbook Challenge, guiding families to do activities on their own. I have never seen so many people on the trails as I have this summer. There is a real hunger for green spaces. People had been so involved with electronics, work and schedules, and I saw families gain hours in their day, and use the time to step back to enjoy the outdoors. More family time has been a good change, from my perspective.

Is certification important?

Yes, I studied landscape design at Fanshawe College and earned my Certified Landscape Technician designation. I am working on credentials as a landscape architect.

What is your take on attracting employees to the green professions?

I don’t think young people understand the vast number of jobs available in our trades, so I went into our high school to talk about opportunities. Co-op placements are great. Even in my own case, I knew I wanted a job outdoors, and my co-op experience really helped. I find young people trying out a green job will either love it or hate it. Those with passion will succeed, and some will excel as doers; they love to work in the dirt with their hands. Others are thinkers, and some want to do both. It’s our job to find out what inspires them.

Why does green appeal to young people?

From my experience, I always wanted to be outdoors, so I gravitated toward design. Now I have spent 10 years in the parks system! We have the green spaces, and I am constantly thinking about how we can get people outdoors, and what we can offer the community. It seems most parents are looking for experiences that are clean, safe and cautious. I want to promote risky play and get the message out that it’s okay to explore.
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