Published on May 10, 2023
In our latest guest writer series, author Perry King notes that parks, community centres, and playgrounds unlock opportunities for social and public gatherings.
Public spaces are so much more than a place available to the community — they’re where community happens.
These spaces offer opportunities for interaction, break down barriers and function as an important point of connection that strengthens community health and vibrancy.
Evergreen is inviting guest writers to share their perspectives on the value of community spaces, and how we can make these public places more welcoming. The series continues with Perry King, who shares how public spaces allow opportunities for community sports for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities.
King is the author of Rebound: Sports, Community, and the Inclusive City, about the role community sports play in our cities and how crucial they are to diversity and inclusion.
Sports connect cities, regions and countries. In our cities, boroughs, neighbourhoods, side streets, community centres, parks — heck, even in empty parking lots — sports connect neighbours, parents, schools, residents and tenants.
It builds relationships with those who share the same resources and common spaces and makes us better problem solvers and communicators. In our communities, it builds better connectivity to our public and common spaces, enhances livability and makes us healthier and more in tune with our own needs.
Many studies flesh out this concept. For example, according to an entry in the International Journal for Equity in Health, “Sport-for-development, as it is called in this context, has been, among others, implemented to tackle discrimination and encourage respect; bridge social, cultural and ethnic divides; combat non-communicable diseases and HIV/AIDS; contribute to gender equality; and healing the psychological wounds of traumatized victims of natural or human-made disaster.”
“I see so much of the best of the city — that is, intergenerational, culturally rich, boisterous and colourful — when public spaces open to either structured or informal sports.”
These are lessons that I surmised well beyond the pages of academic study. As a journalist and author, I’ve had the chance to walk communities, observe and speak deeply with people and places, and learn about the issues that bind us together. To what effect, I wrote a book about how sports matters in our lives in so many ways. There is nothing that has been more indicative of the heartbeat of a community than when people get together for a game of basketball — or soccer, or T-ball, or anything active and competitive that folks have the capacity of putting together.
I see so much of the best of the city — that is, intergenerational, culturally rich, boisterous and colourful — when public spaces open to either structured or informal sports.
Picture it: you’re at Falstaff Community Centre located in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto, a neighbourhood with lots of newcomer and immigrant communities, Black and brown communities and such. On Friday nights, the centre opens up their gym facilities to multiple sports for teenagers and young adults, such as basketball or floor hockey. But, it sometimes has a movie night and provides spaces for story time. Dozens of kids show up. And, by the way, many of these drop-in programs are free or low-cost for these residents.
At Falstaff, you have parents and grandparents looking after teens and kids, sometimes there’s baked goods and juice. Parents get to catch up and talk about the neighbourhood, like how to help repair that sign above that mom-and-pop grocery store or how to pay for that field the kids have been asking for.
Many of the kids are just there to be active after sitting at school desks and on comfy couches all week. But, on the court, the play is intense — but the kids keep up the fiery passion without malice and anger. If anything, close calls on the court are settled with long (very long) three-point basket attempts or floor hockey shootout attempts (and keep a prayer for the kid with the lackluster hockey pads, that their swelling is kept to a minimum).
This is just a quick example, but community sports are already accomplishing what we all hope — that through this space, people’s lives are just that much better. They’re healthier, they’re off the streets, they’re more informed and they’re ready to take on the weekend with full hearts and minds. Folks who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access opportunities like these are coming here to give themselves more.
Unfortunately, participating in sports isn’t always affordable and accessible. The Canadian Youth Sports Report, once considered the most comprehensive study ever undertaken on the challenges and opportunities facing Canadian families, made that clear: youth sports represent a $5.7 billion market with families spending nearly $1,000 annually per child on sports.
Not everyone can access an elite athletic program, or pay thousands of dollars for equipment, rink fees, the best nutrition and a personal trainer to maximize their potential in sport. And honestly, not everyone wants to invest thousands just to play a game. Many just want to play, and many just want a chance to play anywhere at all.
This is what makes community sports in public spaces that much more special. They bring benefits to everyone, in athletic and civic ways, and present opportunities to everyone. Entry is available and accessible to low-income people, to girls who don’t have chances for competitive (or even casual) sports participation, disabled people who want to be active and newcomers looking to meet new people.
“Equitable public spaces, whether indoors or outdoors, are a place where everyone gets a chance to take part.”
And to put a fine point to it, equitable public spaces, whether indoors or outdoors, are a place where everyone gets a chance to take part. As CivicWell (a U.S. nonprofit) argues, these spaces are “a key piece to the puzzle of livable communities and urban infrastructure.” Spaces like parks, community centres, and playgrounds unlock opportunities for social and public gatherings, and are a conduit for local investment — from government to private entities, but also for your neighbours and family.
In sport, we sometimes face off against total strangers — those with their own lived experiences, whether they are a different race or identity or walk of life. On that playing field, however, we all operate with the same rules in order to achieve a goal. When you see someone as an equal on the field, that carries through off the field as well.
Off the field, we begin to seek better for our opponents. They may have endured racism, homophobia and the like. Their quality of life may differ from our own. Their access to resources may be different. These realities and marginalization should never be, but they do exist. Off the field, we forge bonds, achieve a high level of personhood and begin to assertively solve these problems together. That’s the city I want to live in. I would hope it would be so for you as well.
Public spaces are the ones that benefit all. Community sports is a tool that could change the game for everyone.