Why sports will play a major role in the future of Toronto

As we rethink the city and its neighbourhoods, sports will be an integral part of community-building

A black-and-white photo of hockey players
Jaskaran Sandhu

Even if the ice has been removed for the summer, the rinks around the GTA are filled with, among other sports, ball hockey – including here, at South Fletchers Sports Complex in Brampton, ON. (Courtesy of Hockey 4 Humanity)

The following is an excerpt from Rebound: Sports, Community, And The Inclusive City by Perry King, which was published on October 19 by Coach House Books (©2021, all rights reserved). It was also featured in NOW’s fall reading issue on October 21, 2021.

Greater Toronto’s future includes growth, and a lot of it. The question is, what’s next? What will Toronto actually become?

When so many of us work and access resources primarily online, what will it actually mean to live in a certain place? And where do sports and physical activity, and the community they create, fit into the picture?

To me, sports in the city is something we invest in physically and emotionally. It is organized and developed collectively in the spaces we hold dear. Sports is an extension of ourselves – if we choose to extend ourselves that way. 

In Toronto, it’s also something more: part of the spirit of this place. It’s a result of the work communities have done to keep people together, for decades – cohesive, communicative, and playful communities. It’s not a trait, but rather the character of how we live together. 

The disruption the pandemic caused gives us the opportunity to rethink cities and neighbourhoods, to imagine a new ideal. One day, years from now, this ideal city will have equipped itself and its citizens with the tools to resist hardship, to encourage local engagement, and, frankly, to make our sporting lives more connected, competitive and fun. 

In that city, we will have built up a portfolio of public spaces that fill the gaps that currently exist. Those spaces will come to be through a rethinking of public and private property by policy-makers. The reclamation of distressed sites, like brownfields and unused lots, are part of the growing portfolios of land trusts and cooperative properties that are proliferating across the city. Many have been set aside for affordable housing, but surplus lots in that future city will also be used for sports, for activities, for connecting with our neighbours. 

In this future city, stadium and facility technologies will make it possible to accommodate multiple large-field sports – soccer, rugby, football – into the same location. Hockey rinks won’t quite look the same, because these ice rinks and sheets will also accommodate non-ice activities – with a technology similar to that in use at the Scotiabank Arena.

Taking cues from technologies developed by the Atlanta Falcons (which built Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the 2010s), these large facilities will be environmentally sustainable with small ecological footprints – water runoff mitigation systems, energy-efficient lighting and connections to local food production. They will also be well integrated into public transit and bike infrastructure, encouraging many of us to use alternate forms of transport to attend and engage in these spaces. 

Technology aside, these facilities and these new community centres are blank canvases; they’re places where new or emerging sports can be practised, reflecting the desires of newcomers and immigrants. Rugby and cricket leagues will have caught on in a way that rivals basketball’s growth in Toronto in the 1990s and 2000s. 

Besides sports, such facilities will also be hubs for social services for newcomers and immigrants. Supports for girls, racialized kids, disabled and LGBTQ2S+ people fill the landscape and engage with each other as they fight against discrimination. Organizing and networking will occur in these places. Local democracy will redefine how we approach sports by capturing and fostering what sports is about: people, connection and rallying together to solve our collective problems. 

How will these places get built? We will pay for them. In fact, we will have found a way to subsidize new infrastructure in the old-fashioned way: wealthier people will see the dividends in investing locally, pay their fair share in taxes and give their time and money to create facilities that reflect current needs and future desires. We will build these places using better data and analysis. 

Everything I just mentioned could make a huge difference, but these ideas will be difficult to execute and achieve. Yet they can happen if communities – parents, of course, but also educators and schools, sports clubs and community groups – speak up and advocate effectively. 

If schools, educators, parents and kids begin to organize, they will make the case for further investment. These groups can promote a Charter for Children’s Rights in Sport (also originally a European idea) that defines kids’ needs and lays out strategies for active living, including standards for activity. 

We must enhance long-term development plans and models in Canada, recalibrating what we need to get the nation on its feet. We can’t design sports participation solely to produce athletes to send to the Olympics. We need more than that from sports, for our own health and happiness.  

We can rally because the pandemic was a wake-up call – we see how it adversely affected our lives, and especially what it has done to our children. We need to create solutions where they will make a difference: in our neighbourhoods and communities. 

Private arenas, sitting empty, became spaces to serve during the pandemic. Some became kitchens and distribution networks for meals for frontline health-care workers and the residents of shelters. 

Sports, in other words, didn’t stick to sports. These organizations became civic partners. And, pushed by disaster, a rethink became a possibility – a window on how we can create a more inclusive culture of sports in the future. 

Madeline Ashby, a Toronto futurist, observes that vulnerable communities are accustomed to contending with hardship and uncertainty, so this is nothing new. 

“The sense of insecurity and uncertainty and unpredictability,” she says, “is something that populations of colour, people in poverty, immigrants, trans kids, homeless people go through on a daily basis.” But, she adds, the pandemic affected everyone in some way. ‘It forced its way into the suburbs, right?’ Even the privileged lost access to sports facilities. Which means that just about everyone should now be eager to fight for those spaces. 

For that reason, it has caused us to look at each other’s lives. The hardships faced by frontline workers should make privileged communities feel uncomfortable. Those revelations can give rise to calls to action. And when it comes to the sports and games we play, maybe we can realize that we share a mindset about their importance that extends across social divides. 

However, an inclusive sporting future means fighting for the quality and quantity of public spaces, understanding how the city works, finding new sources of revenue and recognizing how different people live. To build the city we want, we’ll need to spend time reckoning with ourselves. 

My hope is that the pandemic has given everyone a chance to envision a future that works not just for themselves, but for people they don’t know, too. Sports will be a crucial piece of this process. These pastimes show that people who don’t know each other can come together to pursue a common goal. Everyone, from hijab-wearing ballers to disabled athletes, LGBTQ2S+ rugby players and seniors practising tai chi, should have a chance to play. It is essential to living in the city. 

Perry King is an author, journalist, sports fan and proud south Parkdale-raised Torontonian. Amid the pandemic and heightened concerns about racial exclusion, he dug deep into the role of community sports in highly diverse urban centres and created a roadmap for progressively reimagining neighbourhoods based on these shared pastimes.


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