11/07/2012 05:11 EST | Updated 01/07/2013 05:12 EST

Community Centres Should Belong to Everyone


For the past few months, Community Recreation for All has been collecting surveys from residents across the city, asking what you want our community centres to be. On a recent Saturday, four of us met in a basement room in mid-town Toronto, and spent hours reading through and analyzing hundreds of surveys. The questions we asked you were basic. Routine, even. The answers were nothing we could have anticipated.

Community Recreation for All is a small group of activists, organizers and community advocates. While we don't have the capacity to do a needs assessment for community recreation across the city, we know that Parks, Forestry and Recreation is preparing to unveil its five-year service plan. As such, we want to provide a glimpse into your dreams for our community spaces. Our hope is to start a city-wide conversation. And to inspire action.

For two years, Community Recreation for All has been focused on eliminating economic barriers to our community centres. We know the Welcome Policy subsidy program is complicated, humiliating and systemically under-resourced. We know user fees keep going up. We know Parks, Forestry and Recreation has designated only one new Priority Centre -- a community centre that is free for children, youth and seniors -- in more than 10 years, and only following years of pressure. We know how hard it can be for community groups to get space in community centres and that some neighbourhoods don't have a community centre at all.

Over these two years, we've also heard so many stories that hurt. Stories about children and youth trying to spend time at their community centres, and getting asked to leave. Or the one we heard from a man who was told by his doctor to begin swimming for his health. He tried to get into his local pool, only to become so frustrated by the Welcome Policy subsidy program that he gave up on community centres completely. Most recently, we learned that the brand new Regent Park Aquatic Centre is charging fees, keeping many people out.

To capture more of your stories, we collaborated with workers from community agencies to distribute surveys across the city. We also put the surveys out online. In response, we received approximately 320 surveys from people ranging in age from 13 to 84. We will admit that we had some preconceptions about what people would say. While we weren't entirely wrong, many of your responses surprised us, thrilled us, and even moved us to tears.

We expected to hear about barriers, and we did. We expected to hear about the programs you love, and the programs you want see introduced. And you provided us with a wealth of information there, too. We are still sifting through the details, and will be offering a report soon. But if we had to put a sentence to the overarching theme of your input, it would be this: community centres should be a place where everyone can go.

Toronto, you are lovely. You have beautiful aspirations for our communities and our city. And you see community centres as the places to carry them out: "...a place where everyone can come together in a safe environment and not be embarrassed or ashamed." "A safe and welcoming environment that is open 24/7 so the youth can use it at night." "...the cornerstone of healthy individuals, healthy families, healthy communities..." "...a place where community members can feel safe, welcome and included."

We have pages and pages of comments like this. Over and over, you emphasized embracing the full spectrum of communities as they are. And over and over, you said you want community centres to be "welcoming to all" and "a place to go." You want to drop in and be with your community. And you want everyone else -- children, youth, adults and elders -- to have that, too.

Unfortunately, over the past number of years, Parks, Forestry and Recreation has been going in the opposite direction. While you talk about access, they cut free adult programs at all Priority Centres in 2011 (attendance dropped by more than 60 per cent). While you talk about welcoming spaces for young people, during the 2012 budget process they proposed the elimination of free programs at Priority Centres for 12,870 children and youth and 17 out of 29 youth outreach worker positions. (Due to immense pressure from Toronto residents, these proposals did not go through.) While you talk about shared space for all, they do not budget consistently for staff to animate community centre spaces. At the same time, user fees continue to go up, and the subsidy program continues to be complex, often humiliating and unavailable on a year-round basis to those who qualify.

Toronto -- you've made it clear. While you really want safe spaces and a range of programs for your kids, you also want to make sure other people's kids have this too. And while you see programming as a key component of community centres, you also believe that they should offer so much more: A place to define ourselves as a city. A place for everyone to go and "not be embarrassed or ashamed." You see community centres as the sites at which to both be a city and be ourselves. To Parks, Forestry and Recreation and City Council: this is the city you are charged with serving.

What does this look like in policy terms? The expansion of Priority Centres -- each with a comprehensive range of programming and drop-in opportunities for all age ranges - in 2013. The immediate re-introduction of free adult programs at Priority Centres. A range of fixes for the complicated and often humiliating subsidy program, including the immediate indexing of the subsidy allocation to user fee increases (right now, when user fees go up, the value of the subsidy allocation goes down). An expansion of the youth outreach worker program. Dedicated staff to animate community spaces. A range of operating hours. A real, time-sensitive plan to expand community space and recreation opportunities to neighbourhoods where none exist.

What will it require from us to make this a reality? Parks, Forestry and Recreation brings their five-year service plan to the Community Development and Recreation Committee on November 14. It's a great opportunity to make a deputation, and talk publicly about what you want for community recreation in your neighbourhood. We also have to talk to our City Councillors, and let them know we want to see access to recreation for our neighbourhoods, and for the entire city.

Even better, we can start neighbourhood recreation committees. Ongoing, organized local pressure can make a difference. If our community centres are going to reflect our dreams for the city, we need to find out -- and keep and eye on -- what's going on inside.

Community centres belong to communities, to us. We hope and expect that the service plan process will honour the vision of community centres as defined by the people who live here: places where everyone can go and find a place to be.