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Sport in an urban setting

Author: David Thibodeau

Sport in an urban setting

How does urbanisation and urban sprawl affect accessibility to sports and recreation?

Whether there is limited space to fit sport and recreation facilities into a city, or if urban sprawl has made facilities less accessible, sport in a city setting can be difficult. Cities like New York City, Paris and many other cities around the world, face the challenge of providing adequate facilities and spaces for sport and recreation programming. Other less densely populated cities with a lot of land space, like Ottawa, have the challenge of providing facilities that are easily accessible to everyone. 

Providing spaces for sport and recreation in densely populated cities

One solution can be temporary facilities. While this may be a good idea for helping with the sustainability of events like the Olympic Games, this is not a solution for long term accessibility of sports and recreation programmes in cities. If we build temporary facilities, they will be moved to another area or removed entirely and that will leave a gap. Temporary facilities should only be used when there will be a short term need for an increase in space. 

Another solution is to build multi-purpose spaces. While this is challenging, this is one of the best options. We can build gymnasiums and arenas that can house many different sports and also offer community space for other events (like concerts, town halls, or other events). One example of a sports venue that is multipurpose is the velodrome in Bordeaux, France. This facility is used for cycling and track and field. We must innovate the space around us to maximise the use of it.

One big thing we often forget is the adaptability of humans. Informal physical recreation does not require buildings or facilities to operate. In many cities there are urban playgrounds, parks and work out stations. These fit into the very being of the city. People boxing in the park, work out station under bridges. We can make use of the space that is available in so many ways. Providing more spaces for informal sport and recreation allows us to maximise the community development aspect that sport can have.

One criticism of sport being used for development is the overemphasis on performance, providing more spaces for community level recreation will help combat this. Outdoor activities will become more difficult with increasing heat waves in many parts of the world due to climate change.

However, as Caroline Criado Perez points out in 'Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men', the accessibility of these recreation spaces is not equal. In her book she shows studies have found that women and girls feel intimidated in public parks because they are often dominated by men and boys. There are solutions like making more than one entrance to the park, and creating more divided spaces within the park, rather than having one big open space. There is a need for more data on how we can better use our spaces and make it equally accessible for all to use.

Accessibility of sport and recreation facilities in sparsely populated cities

One the other side of providing sports in an urban setting, many places have increasing urban sprawl. Urban sprawl makes it hard to plan for public transit and other services. Urban sprawl is the spreading of cities to low density residential development over more and more rural land. In Canada, we have a lot of space and not that many people. It’s very easy for cities to spread out. This poses a lot of challenges for city planners. 

As a coach, I often go to a facility for swim meets that is about a 20 minute drive from downtown Ottawa, or anywhere between 40 minutes to an hour on the bus from downtown. If you’re coming from the other side of the city, coming on the bus can take up to an hour and 15, to an hour and 45 minutes, or 30 minutes in a car. The thing is, not everyone has a car. This issue is even worse in smaller cities across Canada that do not have public transit at all.

Access to facilities is important for equality. All people need to be able to access the facilities easily so that everyone can benefit. When people cannot access the facilities a gap is created and it becomes unequal. A single parent (most commonly a single mother) who has two kids in swimming classes may have to take public transit to get her kids to the pool. If this is 30 minutes one way to the pool, that means she is spending 2 hours a week just to get to and from the pool. Is this feasible? Not for everyone.

Urban sprawl and urbanisation can present challenges to how sports can be used for development. If our facilities are too hard to get to, or there aren't enough facilities, people will not be able to access them to benefit from sports and recreation. We need to make sure we are planning physical activity into the very fabric of our cities. Urban planners need to innovate how we plan out our cities.

David Thibodeau is a former competitive swimmer and current National Coaching Certification Program certified coach. He founded Sports for Social Impact to explore sport policy and provide insightful analysis to those working in the sport industry. He is an advocate for better inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in sports and gym classes.

This article was first published by Sports for Social Impact. It has been modified for sportanddev.

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Saturday, February 29, 2020 - 18:53