Feature Columnist – Sports and Recreation: Entertainment or Social Right?

Jean Harvey
Director, Research Centre for Sport in Canadian Society University of Ottawa

The city – a place to live or a showcase? This question seems to be a major dilemma for urban policy today.


For more than a century, sports, recreation and parks have figured prominently in Canada’s urban policies. The objectives guiding public policy in these areas have evolved, influenced by the changing role of government in Canada. For example, parks can serve to improve public health in our cities. One of the objectives behind Montréal’s Mount Royal Park, like Stanley Park in Vancouver, was to oxygenate the city and offer citizens a place to relax. City parks can also serve as places for recreation. Since the latter half of the 19th century, cities that wanted their physical environments to support a high quality of life have made green space a focal point of their development plans. The creation of Allan Gardens in Toronto in the 1860s is another example of people’s growing concern with the quality of life in their environment. Taken over by the City of Toronto in the face of pressure from the business and professional elite, Allan Gardens illustrates how green space was reserved for a limited number of activities that corresponded to the values and morals of the groups supporting them. The regulations governing Allan Gardens prohibited people from playing football or walking on the grass.

If city parks offered little space for the city’s underprivileged classes to play sports and participate in recreational activities, these classes were also excluded from private clubs and associations such as the Montréal Amateur Athletic Association. Gradually, religious or lay organizations, funded by philanthropies, began to offer recreational activities and “healthy” sports for the underprivileged. Patros, YMCAs, YWCAs, community centres, boys and girls clubs, and playgrounds began to spring up across Canadian cities. The North American movement toward “rational recreation” in the early 20th century would elevate these activities to the forefront of the urban moral economy.

Moreover, the 1906 Lord’s Day Act gave cities another role regarding sports and recreation, that of policing. The purpose of the 1906 Act was to encourage citizens to reserve Sunday for religion and family. The municipal police made sure that sports and recreational facilities stayed closed on Sunday, while turning a blind eye to elite private clubs. This law further hindered the sports and leisure activities of the working classes at a time when the six-day work week was common. For a while, it also restricted the growing entertainment industry, including professional sports, and renewed the struggle to eliminate blood sports (cock fighting, bull baiting, etc.) and boxing, events accompanied by betting, drinking and public disorderliness feared by public authorities and the local religious elite.

Sports and recreation have been at the heart of city life for some time, whether it was a matter of curbing their excesses, ensuring their morality or promoting access to them. They have also played an important part in people’s attitudes about their quality of life. This notion of quality of life is quite ambiguous. It is definitely a “quasi-concept,” to use the expression that Paul Bernard applied to social cohesion. A quasi-concept is broad and loose enough to encompass a variety of components and criteria for evaluating its status and even its development. Michel Bellefleur, a philosopher specializing in recreation issues, recently suggested that quality of life be defined as a set of positive ways of organizing and living our lives. Quality of life, therefore, relates to the living environment cities create through their development plans, the opportunities to participate in sports and recreational activities that they offer as a service to citizens, the many social networks that they foster and the sense of belonging to a social and political community that they inspire and maintain. This sense of belonging is the source of a civic identity and the glue that holds it together. The semantic field covered by quality of life makes it a cousin to social citizenship.


Isn’t it time to resurrect the principle of access to sport and recreation as a citizen’s right? Isn’t this access critical to quality of life in the city?


Social citizenship refers to a series of social rights that historically were added to civic and political rights. The growth of the Canadian welfare state following the Second World War was accompanied by the gradual recognition of citizens’ right to claim unemployment and health insurance and, at least in their collective consciousness, the right to sports and recreation. This acceptance of social rights was accompanied by a growth in municipal recreation services throughout Canada, to the point that they were transformed into essential services and citizens expected access to them as a fundamental part of the quality of urban life.

The welfare state crisis that has been felt sharply over the last three decades has greatly eroded the recognition of this right. In response to their debt situations, the devolution of responsibilities by higher levels of government and, in particular, new management principles borrowed from private enterprise, cities have gradually begun to privatize some services, close some facilities or introduce increasingly higher user fees. As a result, the client now comes before the citizen. The citizens who seem the most ignored are those with the fewest resources, especially the citizens of tomorrow. For example, in its report The Progress of Canada’s Children 2001, the Canadian Council on Social Development draws on analyses of several national surveys to show the link between poverty and children’s access to organized sports. In particular, the Council points out that more than 60 percent of children in the poorest households almost never participate in organized sports, whereas the figure is 27 percent for children from affluent homes. The Council also confirmed the theory that cities which give young people a voice in policy development are more inclusive than others. The report concludes that 72 percent of children living in cities participated in organized sports and 27 percent did not.

While citizens’ right to sports and recreation is being eroded, cities have made major investments to attract tourists and even private industry, especially by creating major events and facilities. Economic and social globalization is at the root of this new political order. Striving to be known as national or international destinations or to become world-class, big cities are putting on more festivals, trying to attract international cultural and sporting events and feeling their prestige threatened whenever a professional sports team threatens to pack its bags. Cities are no longer places for people to live; they have become showcases. For some of the urban economic elite, a city’s international status is linked to its economic health, even its quality of life. These public investments are not grants to private interests, but absolute necessities. In a sea of international competition, don’t cities need to set themselves apart, create a brand image, a corporate identity? Many impact studies hold up the promise of staggering economic and social benefits from these events, emphasizing the prestige for the city and the flood of tourist dollars that will benefit the collective wealth. Added to these benefits is that of civic pride, which will reinforce identity and people’s sense of belonging to a dynamic local political community.

The city — a place to live or a showcase? This question seems to be a major dilemma for urban policy today. Do we preserve green space and cycling paths for the well-being of our citizens or do we develop a world-class golf course to attract tourist consumers? Citizens do not seem to come out on top very often these days.

For example, at the time of writing, nearly 80 percent of the public pools in Toronto’s schools had been given a one-year reprieve. The school board, which had previously given the City of Toronto’s recreational services free access to the pools, threatened to close them, citing its inability to finance the facilities by itself. Can Toronto provide financial support to keep the pools open to all its citizens? It didn’t hesitate to invest millions in its bid to host the Olympic Games.

Current debates about social capital, social cohesion and citizenship raise many questions concerning the direction for urban sports and recreation policies. Isn’t it time to resurrect the principle of access to sport and recreation as a citizen’s right? Isn’t this access critical to quality of life in the city?

Studies on social cohesion emphasize that community recreation and sports are important to democratic life in a city. Recreation and sports facilities appear, under certain circumstances, to contribute in many ways. For the city’s youth, they can be a place to learn about being active participants in the life of the community. Their parents’ volunteer work could sow the seeds for their future involvement in community sports, recreation or other areas of citizenship. In a recent study for the Laidlaw Foundation, the Canadian Council for Social Development established a link between young people’s participation in structured recreation, their physical development, their psycho-social development and behaviour, their current and future civic behaviour and their future civic competence. In addition, studies of young people who are completely marginalized indicate that sports and recreation may provide a means for this group to reintegrate, provided that they are not isolated measures and that young people have input into the nature and provision of these services. France’s experiences in the 1990s with integrating young people from cultural minorities who were living in cities also showed how sports and recreation can be part of a social integration policy.

The sociability networks that develop in and around community sports and recreation organizations strengthen social bonds. According to some, they are the building blocks of social cohesion and are a rich and varied source of social capital. I would add that they are an excellent means of participating in the life of the city if not a springboard to active participation in local political institutions.

Sports and recreation also contribute to citizens’ physical and mental health and allow them to express themselves and develop individually and as a group. Don’t cities — which provide environments for us to live in — have the obligation to support, structure and promote access to sports and recreation for everyone? Can we talk about quality of life in our cities without fair access to sports and recreation? Isn’t this access a social right and a city’s responsibility? Just asking these questions sets us on the path to finding the answers.


Urban Neighbourhood Revitalization

“One of the really difficult problems in revitalizing a poor area is that programs that make the area more attractive for investors make it less affordable for residents. This paradox is at the heart of the policy problem in dealing with urban decline and disinvestments. Policies that alter the risk profile of a neighbourhood need to be complimented with the provision of housing options for all incomes. … Perhaps the most important lesson from this research is the ineffectiveness of single sector approaches to revitalization. Instead, comprehensive approaches comprised of a selection of policies tailored to suit the specific circumstances of individual cities are required. All orders of government as well as the private and non-governmental sectors must cooperate in the recovery plan. Furthermore, fostering the capacity of local organizations and residents to act on behalf of their communities can
help revitalization become self-sustaining.”

From “Disinvestment and the Decline of Urban Neighborhoods”

Research Highlights: Socio-Economic
Series 90 (November 2001)

Canada Mortgage and Housing