How sports and recreational facilities are unevenly distributed in Montreal

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Every day after school, children gather at the Walkley Community Center in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighborhood of Montreal to play soccer, basketball or participate in a dance class.

But they have to be careful – the small space rented by the city was once a McDonald’s, and the restaurant’s old game room is lined with glass windows vulnerable to a stray throw or kick.

“You can imagine a McDonald’s without the seating arrangement – and this is our community center,” said Sandra Serrano, who runs the center at the corner of Walkley and Côte Saint-Luc.

“We tailor our business to what we can, based on the space we have.”

Serrano, however, dreams of a larger space that can offer a more complete range of services to the many families who depend on it.

Its borough, Côte-des-Neiges – Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, has the largest number of children in Montreal. There are nearly 27,000 children aged 14 and under.

It also has one of the lowest accesses to recreational facilities in the city, according to a CBC News analysis of data from the city of Montreal.

Examining the data, CBC News found a correlation between the borough’s average income and the number of sports and recreational facilities – both indoor (e.g. swimming pools, arenas) and Outside (eg playgrounds, sports fields).

Near the high end of the spectrum, residents of the affluent borough of Île-Bizard – Sainte-Geneviève have 53 recreational facilities per 10,000 inhabitants, while Côte-des-Neiges – Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, the one of the poorest arrondissements, has the lowest, at 13.2 per 10,000 people.

The findings are consistent with a growing body of research showing a link between income and access to services in cities across North America and beyond, said Kevin Manaugh, professor of geography and urban planning at the ‘McGill University.

“It’s a pretty common model,” he said.

But Manaugh said rectifying these inequalities can be a challenge. In the denser parts of the city, which tend to have lower average incomes, finding space for recreational facilities is a challenge, he said.

At the Walkley Community Center, children play basketball, soccer and floor hockey. But the windows that line one of the interior walls of the space make the sport tricky. (Simon Martel / CBC)

Make it an electoral issue

With Montreal’s municipal elections slated for November 6-7, Serrano hopes to hear solutions during the campaign – and in the years to come.

Community centers like hers and others nearby play a vital role, she said. The Walkley area, in particular, is home to many new immigrants and low income households.

The nearest recreation center, Benny Sports Complex, is a mile away, out of reach for those without a car and on a tight schedule. In many cases, it is also too expensive.

“We have to give them better service, quality service, because everyone deserves better service,” Serrano said.

Usama Rana, who just turned 21, said that growing up, the Walkley Community Center was “the only place we could go and feel safe, with all of our friends.”

“It means a lot, because basically it saved us,” said Rana, who now works part-time at the center while studying at Vanier College. He wants to become a paramedic.

Better equipment and improved facilities would be huge for the teenagers who use the center, Rana said.

WATCH | Usama Rana explains why community centers are important:

Usama Rana, now 21, grew up in the region. He says the Walkley Community Center was a place he and his friends could go after school. 0:20

In Montreal-North, another borough that has a low level of recreational facilities per capita, all of the main mayoral candidates, including outgoing Christine Black, have promised to make a new sports center a priority.

Long-time community activist and Project Montreal candidate Will Prosper said not enough was being done.

“We have schools that have certain facilities that are not open to all citizens,” Prosper said.

The nearest large center, the Marie-Victorin Sports Complex, is located to the east, along the neighboring Rivière-des-Prairies. But it is part of Cégep Marie-Victorin, and shared with the residents of Saint-Léonard and Anjou.

Prosper pointed out that Chris Boucher and Luguentz Dort, now local heroes who play in the NBA, both grew up in Montreal North, but had to train in sports centers outside the borough.

“We have to change that,” Prosper said. Black did not return a request for comment.

Longtime activist and former RCMP officer Will Prosper is running for Projet Montreal in the next municipal election. He wants to build a new sports complex in Montreal-North. (Ivanoh Demers / Radio-Canada)

A “sanctuary” for youth

Natasha Blanchet-Cohen, who teaches community and youth development at Concordia University, recently completed a study on how young people from diverse backgrounds experience Montreal.

Interviewing dozens of young people between the ages of 9 and 17, she found that community centers act as a kind of “sanctuary,” especially among low-income families and new immigrants.

Natasha Blanchet-Cohen teaches community and youth development at Concordia University. She recently completed a study on how young people from various walks of life experience the city. (Rachel Crisp)

“I think these community centers are really important for young people whose parents may not be at home or just to settle down in Montreal,” she said.

“These community centers offer programs, but it’s not just the athletic programs they offer, it’s more about the community they create and find.”

Simeon Pompey, who grew up in the Walkley neighborhood, saw the benefits firsthand. He has worked in the field of recreation for over 40 years and sits on the board of directors of the NDG Youth Committee, the non-profit organization that oversees both the Walkley Community Center and the St-Raymond Community Center.

For families living in cramped apartments, access to services within walking distance is important, he said.

“We can provide that escape,” he said.

To show creativity

When it started in the 1970s, the Walkley Center operated out of a residents’ apartment. It has been a challenge to find a suitable space ever since.

Serrano said the scarcity of land and the high price of real estate have made the problem difficult to resolve. Other organizations, such as the Loyola Center, don’t even have their own space.

The Walkley Community Center has relied on partnerships with the city or school boards to access gyms for some of their programs, but these agreements are not always easy.

The Walkley Community Center is ideally located, but the space is not ideal. The center tried to partner with a nearby school to expand its offerings. (Simon Martel / CBC)

The center hopes to be able to offer better facilities if a plan comes to fruition to add a community hub at a nearby elementary school, Les-Enfants-du-Monde. The previous borough administration, under Sue Montgomery, passed a motion to invest $ 6.5 million in the proposed expansion, which will include a larger gymnasium and rooms for other activities.

“If that happens, we’ll see after the election,” Pompey said. “What’s on the table for one part can end up with another.”


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