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  • Writer's pictureDavid Thibodeau

Sport and Urbanization

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

Last week I attended the first edition of Global Sports Week in Paris as a Young Sport Maker. In this post I am reflecting on some of the discussions that occurred during the two days of Global Sports Week.

One topic that I had wanted to write about for Sports for Social Impact for a while now actually came up during Global Sports Week (GSW), and that was delivering sport in urban settings. How does urbanization and urban sprawl affect accessibility to sports and recreation?

At GSW we focused on how to deliver sport and recreation programming in cities that are overcrowded and where space is limited. Cities like New York City, Paris and many cities in Europe and cities in Asia, this is a global challenge. Trying to provide spaces for sports is becoming more challenging as more people move to cities.

One solution suggested was 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 programs in cities for youth programming or for other ages. If we build temporary facilities, they will be moved or removed entirely and that will leave a gap in accessibility. Temporary facilities should only be used when there will be a short term need for an increase in space.

Another solution was to build multipurpose space. While this is challenging, I think that this is one of the best options. We can make gymnasiums that can house many different sports and also offer community space for 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.

Arenas can also be used for concerts and other large events. These spaces can have multiple functions and this is not a new idea and is already being done all over the world. I think we need to apply this to more local and community settings, like in schools. School gymnasiums should be available to groups outside of school hours. There will be challenges with this, with more groups using the space, scheduling enough time for everyone will be difficult. Providing enough space for sports will be challenging but we must innovate so that we can continue to engage in sports.

I think one big thing we were forgetting is the adaptability of humans. Informal physical recreation does not require buildings and facilities to operate. All around Paris there were urban playgrounds, parks and work out stations. These were fit into the very fabric 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. We can innovate the way we use space to optimize how we can fit physical activity into it. Of course this does not provide solutions to competitive sports that do require more than just a little bit of space in a park, like swimming or ski jumping. Outdoor activities will also become more difficult with increasing heat waves in many parts of the world due to climate change.

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.

Often I go to Nepean Sportsplex for swim meets in Ottawa. It makes sense, it’s the biggest facility and the best for holding bigger events. It’s 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 Orleans area, even longer on the bus: an hour and 15, to an hour and 45 minutes (maybe 30 minutes in a car). The thing is, not everyone has a car. Car sharing like Zipcar and Communauto and services like Uber and Lyft have made it easier for people without cars to get around, but it is still difficult for some to get around the city to sport and recreation facilities. (Ottawa, is not alone in this, in Fredericton, a 15 minute drive to the pool would have taken me over an hour on the bus).

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 us to spread out. This poses a lot of challenges for city planners. But can this have an affect on sports and recreation?

To help understand this more I reached out to Dan Chenier, the General Manager Parks, Recreation & Facility Services at the City of Ottawa.

What is the role of a general manager?

The GM of a Department oversees the broad strategic directions of the Departments, its operations and priorities. He also works directly with members of City Council on ward and City wide issues and priorities. In my case, I oversee the delivery of recreation services, cultural programming and the maintenance of all City facilities.

As the general manager Parks, Recreation & Facility Services, how do you see urban sprawl impacting the accessibility of these services?

The development of the City beyond its urban core has generated the need for additional recreation facilities in these growth areas. Through Development Charges, a good portion of these new facilities are funded by developers through the development of new neighbourhoods. The expansion of the City beyond the greenbelt has impacted on affordability of housing which often means that young facilities are seeking more affordable housing in the suburbs. This has caused a pressure on the City to provide more facilities in these areas. The revitalization of inner core neighbourhoods is also creating a pressure since many of the recreation facilities there are older and are challenged to meet new demands.

What can we do to limit the impacts of the challenges?

A variety of solutions. Continue to provide funding for services in growth areas through the development process. This is under review at the Provincial level with Bill 108. Also, provide infrastructure funding to renew facilities in the inner core or repurpose them to meet the new demographics of a neighbourhood. Establish reasonable service standards in terms of number of facilities per population and acceptable distances to travel to reach a facility.

How do you see your role in making services accessible to all residents of Ottawa?

Through planning future facilities to meet population growth and development of neighbourhoods, seeking out sources of funding to renew or repurpose existing facilities and developing partnerships for the provision of services.

How do you see policy influencing the accessibility of our facilities?

Policies determine the service levels the City will provide, the rate of growth in undeveloped portions of the City and the amount and speed of collecting development charges to provide new infrastructure.

Here are some screenshots of Ottawa. In the first, pools located around the city. At first it looks like a lot, but taking out “Marriot Swimming Pool and “Dutchie’s Hole Wading Pool”, and I will note that I know of three that are not on the map (UOttawa, Carleton and the Plant recreation centre). Pools are expensive to build and expensive to maintain. I’m not suggestion we build pools in every neighbourhood. I’m simply trying to show that some people living in certain areas may not be able to access a pool for swimming lessons (not even competitive swimming). If a pool is 30 away on the bus minutes one way (an hour there and back), it may not be accessible for a single mom of two kids to spend an hour one or two nights a week going to the pool.


This second map is a map of soccer fields in Ottawa. You can see that anyone living in more central Ottawa may have some difficulties getting to a soccer field. Also for some sports like hockey, and swimming, there are early morning practices, sometimes they start before public transit starts running for the day, creating another barrier for some to participate.


Overall I think urban sprawl definitely poses challenges for sport and recreation and policy makers and sport administrators need to keep this in mind. We need to plan our cities to be as accessible as possible. Dan brings up a good point in refurbishing old facilities in the downtown area. I think sometimes we are focusing on the new suburbs and how we keep up with that growth and don’t think about the growth that is also happening closer to the heart of our cities.

Sport policy should include ways of getting people to the facilities. Teams should try to pick facilities that are easy to get to on public transit (not always possible), they can also set up carpooling (which is also better for the environment). Sport organizations need to be consulted when the city is planning for new facilities because they can help determine where they are best situated in a city. This concept of accessibility is important for both cities with a large urban sprawl, and cities with high density.

Access to facilities is also important to 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.

One policy that we need to have when we are planning our cities we need to incorporate things like segregated bike lanes. This is important for safety and increased user ship of bikes in a city. This will decrease air pollution and traffic while increasing people’s physical health. Many cities do not have the proper infrastructure for this. We need to change the car centred culture and place more focus on bikes and walking and public transit.

To have the biggest social impact, sports and recreation must be accessible to those who have the least in our society. Urban sprawl and urbanization can present challenges to how sports can have a social impact. If our facilities are too hard to get to, 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.

Thanks to Dan Chenier for his thoughts on urban sprawl!

1 Comment

Feb 25, 2020

I am lucky to live about 4 blocks from a Canada Games aquatic center. Ì love the idea of swimming in a venue where "real athletes " train. Its motivational! But there are issues, the facility is aging, parking and of course the price of membership is prohibitive to the groups i see using it, the younger and older generations. The city has even advertised for someone to take over the running of this expensive venture. Somehow we have to make these resources sustainable

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