Why Plan for Recreation?

In recent years, it has become increasingly popular for municipalities to proactively plan for recreation services by conducting recreation needs assessments, infrastructure feasibility studies, and the development of Parks and Recreation Master Plans. These processes are multi-faceted and consider many factors such as current provisions, levels of satisfaction, community needs, municipal resource capacity, and industry trends.

At the same time, there is societal recognition that recreation is intimately connected with quality of life and wellbeing in a very tangible way, demonstrated by links to health care costs and levels of life satisfaction. As stewards of public recreation, municipalities are challenged with balancing the needs and desires of their communities with fiscal realities and ensuring that base-levels of recreation are available to all citizens in an inclusive and accessible way.

In 2015, the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association, in collaboration with the Interprovincial Sport and Recreation Council, released the Framework for Recreation in Canada: Pathways to Wellbeing[1], outlining a new vision and path for recreation providers when planning and delivering recreation services to all Canadians. The renewed definition of recreation reads as follows:

Recreation is the experience that results from freely chosen participation in physical, social, intellectual, creative and spiritual pursuits that enhance individual and community wellbeing.

This definition opens the interpretation to understanding recreation as a holistic approach to wellbeing for individuals and communities. It recognizes the breadth and depth of recreation as more than fundamental body movement to any pursuit that enhances wellbeing, with a particular focus in the framework for connecting people and nature. While this definition gives agencies a formal framework to move forward, it also blurs the lines between traditional recreation offerings with other municipal sectors such as culture, tourism, community development, transportation, planning, parks, and open spaces, among others.

Operationally, this translates to changes in facility design and programming, with an increase in multi-purpose recreation facilities and more unstructured and informal programming. These facilities accommodate sport and physical activity as well as creative arts and culture and encourage environmental initiatives. Small and large communities alike treat these spaces as social hubs where individuals and families congregate and develop social capital.

Municipalities are paying more attention to sidewalks and pathways as activated recreation spaces for people to walk their dogs, participate in physical activity, and socialize with friends and family. The movement of designing communities as places people can live, work, and play is transforming developments across Canada. Outdoor spaces are being designed to incorporate sports fields and trails, but also to host community events and festivals. There is a push from urban planners and recreation providers for spaces of all kinds to be utilized in many ways by all kinds of people at all hours of the day, recognizing that recreation takes place in many shapes and forms – but how do we plan for this?

This new arena of recreation that encompasses many facets of civic life is pushing municipalities to step back and find out what makes their community unique and think about how to plan for the future. This is where the planning process comes in. It helps to identify trends in communities and inquire how individuals, community groups, and organizations can be supported in participating in and providing inclusive, accessible, and appropriate recreation opportunities. The planning process captures objective information about usage, demands, and perspectives from all community members, while identifying strengths and opportunities to enhance current provisions and sustainably address gaps in programming.

The process also considers responsible and sustainable resource allocation. Municipalities provide recreation provisions in the interest of the public and the planning process helps decision-makers identify where the needs are with special attention to the groups that have the greatest needs, often the populations that are the most difficult to reach. The planning process takes the time to identify and engage those hard to reach populations and balance the needs of the community as a whole.

Recreation planning is establishing itself as a norm in municipal operations similar to other governance areas such as community and economic development. As municipalities spend more resources planning for recreation, more opportunities are created for citizens to participate in public engagement processes and opportunities for better alignment of community needs and recreational offerings.

[1] Framework for Recreation in Canada: Pathways to Wellbeing

Bradley Schiele