In the debate over whether density works for or against the city, consider this hard fact: since 1998, when Toronto was amalgamated, only one new full-service community centre has been opened.
At the same time, the population has grown by hundreds of thousands. While the mayor's team constantly complains that the number of city staff has ballooned and budgets are too robust, an area where this is clearly untrue is Parks, Forestry and Recreation. If you account for inflation, less money is available now for these services than there was a decade and a half ago. Toronto is, plain and simple, failing to keep up with the need for recreation.
This week the department released its new strategic plan for rec services, its first full report in 10 years. Talk about a missed opportunity! It makes few concrete recommendations, doesn't deal with the shortfall of funds, offers few ideas on improving access to services and puts forward no cohesive strategy in the face of the 2013 budget debate set to begin.
Currently the city spends $121 million, but the report recommends only a few million in new spending starting in 2014, despite the fact that demand for sports has grown by 108 per cent and seniors programs by 36 per cent.
Density is generally a positive and help creates a vibrant city. Certainly, small living quarters encourage people to spend time in public spaces. And, yes, the recent condo boom has increased the tax base. The problem is that those extra dollars have gone into plugging budget deficits so taxes won't have to be increased, and that's lessened the pressure on the province for infrastructure funding.
The city isn't accounting for the fact that while new residents in condos are a money source, they also cost in the form of services. You can't add tens of thousands of people without factoring in new rec centres, pools, gyms and green spaces.
We pay a big price for ignoring this need, an argument made by Recreation Works, a recently launched group coordinated by the Youth Cabinet, Social Planning Council of Toronto and CUPE 79 and supported by a large list of local groups.
The organization says in its statement, for example, that "new investment in programming for children and youth pays for itself in just one year through reduced use of health, police and social services." The group also points to Heath Canada studies showing that for every $1 invested in physical activity, $11 is saved in future health care costs.
(In Parks and Rec's previous strategic plan, the Common Ground Report, now a decade old, it was noted that residents between 13 and 25 had the lowest recreation participation rate.)
More on the sad facts: Toronto has only opened one new pool in 15 years, while some TDSB pools serving the community were forced to close. There's still only one fully publicly accessible 50-metre pool. While the new Regent Park Aquatic Centre is now open and Pan Am will provide one partially public Olympic facility to match the one at U of T, many kids remain unable to find nearby pools.
Then there's the issue of accessibility. Several years ago, the fees charged for many programs began to rise, and new ones were introduced for activities that were previously free.
It's a shame, because Toronto has a long history of free programs going back to the first 20 years of the 20th century, when rec activities were set up for the growing immigrant population. Later, in the 1940s, the city built community centres to combat gangs and help adults stay healthy.
The current fee increases were supposed to be mitigated by the city's Welcome Policy, which allows free access for those on low incomes.
Today there are over 25,000 people registered with Welcome, but the program lacks the money to fund all would-be registrants, and there are limits on how many activities a person can attend. Only 20 per cent of residents know about the Welcome Policy, and only 4 per cent of low-income residents use it. The expansion of the program is limited due to a lack of funding, meaning people are denied activities at tax-funded facilities.
Recreation Works says that when fees were applied in poorer neighbourhoods, there was a 62 per cent drop in enrolment, and it calls for a reduction in fees across the board, plus better funding.
For its part, the just-released Parks and Rec report does recommend the expansion of Priority Centres (community centres offering free programs in low-income areas), which were dramatically scaled back in the 2011 budget. They propose an increase from the current 22 to 40, mostly in the inner suburbs.
Alas, the report makes no specific budgetary recommendation on this, nor indeed on anything else in the report. Council needs to take the matter in hand and ensure that in the budget free-for-all, recreation starts getting the attention it deserves.