The City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation division released Toronto’s first Service Plan for Recreation on November 7th. The service plan will guide delivery of recreation programs and services over the next five years. The plan states that its objectives are to increase participation in recreation, decrease financial barriers to recreation, and improve local and geographic access. The evidence shows that these objectives are important for enhancing our health. Canadian research suggests that if everyone became physically active, approximately 19% of coronary heart disease, 24% of stroke, 13.8% of hypertension, 18% of colon cancer, 21% of breast cancer, 21% of type 2 diabetes, and 24% of osteoporosis would be prevented. These health enhancing impacts are outlined in our paper, Exercising Good Policy, which offered three policy options for increasing access to recreation and improving health for all Torontonians in the 2013 budget. The service plan takes some steps toward advancing the discussion on the need for health-enhancing recreation policies. However, this is only the beginning. Questions still remain as to how and when Torontonians can expect universal access to recreation.
The service plan committed to focusing on children, youth and seniors, but instead of addressing access barriers for specific groups, the City would be in a better position to advance population health through a universal access approach to recreation. Evidence shows that physical activity through recreation plays an important role in promoting mental health in adults by reducing symptoms related to stress, anxiety and poor self-esteem. This shows that access to recreation provides everyone, including adults, with health benefits.
The plan recommends expanding Priority Centres to more neighbourhoods in Toronto by instituting a new method for designation that is equitable and consistent. As well, the report acknowledges that user fees are a substantial barrier for access, the recent experience of introducing user fees resulted in a dramatic drop in registration. It is important to ensure that the new method of desgination is one that expands rather than contracts the number of priority centres. Exercising Good Policy called for reinstating free adult programming at Priority Centres to restore access to all age groups. We urge the City to move immediately to eliminate barriers to access through free programming for all.
The service plan suggests continuing with the dollar based version of the Welcome Policy – a policy that provides low income Torontonians with access to recreation programs. Exercising Good Policy demonstrated that shifting from a program-based allocation to a dollar-based allocation reduces access for those who currently use the program. There is also a concern about whether or not the subsidy will be indexed to potential increases in user fees. Given that user fees will be subject to their own review sometime in the future, Torontonians are left waiting for clarification. An attempt to increase the number of people who have access to recreation should not reduce access for current users. With this in mind, we urge City Council to double funding for the Welcome Policy and return to a program-based allocation. This will enhance access to recreation for low-income Torontonians.
Looking back at some of the lessons we’ve learned, it is clear that more comprehensive data collection would better inform projections for investment and policy changes around service provision. As such, we would encourage caution about the plan’s estimate that demand for the Welcome Policy will decrease as a result of expanded priority centres.
As the service plan goes before the Community Development and Recreation Committee, we hope that Councillors who consider this report will keep the health enhancing impact of increased access to recreation in mind.
This post was written by Lisa Marie Williams, Research Assistant and David Leacock, Research Intern here at the Wellesley Institute.