Think active communities work isn’t social justice work? Think again.

Claire Sauvage-Mar is a former Grants & Engagement Coordinator with BC Healthy Communities.

Folks involved in planning for physically active communities at any level know that this can be tough work. Parks and recreation facilities don’t maintain themselves. Design standards to promote walking and wheeling don’t fall from the sky fully formed. Funds don’t magically appear to support community-based activity programming. In 2020, when municipal priorities have shifted to keeping people safe from the pandemic, resources may be scarce for anything but COVID-19 response. The Union of BC Municipalities is encouraging action on the economic hardship that will be facing local governments as a result of the pandemic. 

Too often, physical activity and efforts to increase it are seen as disconnected from the important work of creating a more just and healthy society for all. The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated headlines and strategic priorities. It has also amplified the challenges and disadvantages faced by people living on the margins of society who already face inequitable access to good health. Understandably, local governments around the province are taking the opportunity to dismantle the many chronic inequities present in our systems—but we may not have had time to consider the connection between active communities and social justice or equity work. 

Let’s do that now. 

Discourse about colonialism, racism and elitism is becoming a mainstay of conversation, due in part to the many current social and environmental movements we see today. With people taking to the streets worldwide to fight for their lives, promoting active communities might feel out of sync with what’s happening on the ground. Some may feel like active communities work needs to wait in line behind other high-priority municipal projects, even though researchers and physical activity-focused organizations are consistently noting that the myriad health benefits of physical activity may be protective against the disease caused by coronavirus

In our “The Issue” series, we write about how equity requires us to ask who benefits and who might actually be harmed. With that in mind, consider this:

  • In the PlanH Active Communities Guide we highlight examples of innovative partnerships to build outdoor recreation facilities such as running trails. But in the U.S., the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery while jogging has made the act of going for a run a political statement for people of colour and Black men in particular. Is personal safety a barrier to exercise for people of colour here in Canada? What can we do to change that so that these municipal facilities are accessible to all?
  • Spaces for recreation such as ski hills and mountain bike trails are so ubiquitous to our outdoorsy B.C. identity that we rarely stop to question these common activities. But who benefits from these workouts when the equipment and transportation required to participate costs thousands of dollars each year? And are we approaching the spaces in which we carry out these activities in a way that respects the Indigenous peoples who have cared for this land since time immemorial? 
  • Sport as a particular facet of active communities has been identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a CBC panel as a pathway towards truth, justice and reconciliation in Canada. In recent years, the world has seen a reclaiming of Indigenous games. Even popular culture behemoths such as Netflix are exploring the world of traditional athletics. In Canada’s Arctic and Inuit communities, a long tradition of physical activity to get people ready for life on the land is being revived. Could sport be better informed by Indigenous ways of knowing, and what would this look like?
  • Whose health are we advancing? Holistic definitions of health, such as Health at Every Size, are totally in sync with what the World Health Organization and Healthy Communities Movement: that health is more than just the absence of disease. As folks working on active communities initiatives here in B.C. continue to innovate, inclusivity of all needs and body types must be paramount.
  • It’s no secret that the built environment you live in can either facilitate health-promoting behaviour or discourage it. Unfortunately, walkable neighbourhoods with ample amenities—one of the most health-promoting built environment types—tend to be the most expensive, rendering them inaccessible to most. Research has indicated that planners’ attempts to improve neighbourhoods, Including enhancing health-promoting aspects such as walkability—just increases the cost of housing in those areas. Further, this rise in prices can be a sign of coming gentrification of low-income neighbourhoods, potentially creating a situation where communities who carry the most burden of disease are forced out of healthy places only once amenities arrive. This is blatantly inequitable.

Creating active communities is hard work. Dismantling systemic inequities caused by racism and colonialism is hard work. But where there are systemic challenges, there are opportunities for systemic change, and active communities are an important piece. Better health outcomes flow from systemic change in all facets of human life—and that’s what creating healthy communities is all about.

In case you missed it and want to learn more about equity and active communities, here’s the recording of our PlanH Active Communities webinar in June.

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