By Dr. Marc-André Lavigne, Professor, World Leisure Center of Excellence (WLCE) at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), Canada

French version here

Making leisure opportunities accessible to all has long been one of the aims of public intervention in the recreation and sports sector. Accessibility and inclusion are tricky issues for recreation managers and policymakers since reducing the barriers to participating in meaningful leisure opportunities is often complex. Those constraints can be physical, financial, cultural, or temporal, among others, and influence how (potential) users perceive the opportunities available to them.

Developing effective recreation programs and policies aimed at improving access for low-income citizens is far more complex than one could imagine. Some organizations reduce their registration fees, promote drop-in programs, or offer free access to recreational, cultural, or sports facilities, but users sometimes struggle to get the equipment needed to carry on their activities. These added costs are often overlooked by recreation managers but have a significant impact on participation.

The Government of Quebec (a Canadian province of 8.4 million inhabitants) announced this week an investment of $40.7 million (US$31.2 million; €30.0 million) over the next five years to create a network of equipment lending centers. The goal is to make accessible to all, in every region, a full range of sports and recreational equipment. The initiative is part of the government’s strategy to reduce sedentary behaviors and introduce citizens to new sports, recreational, and cultural activities.

The program has three components. The first is the purchase of equipment which will then be loaned free of charge to any citizen who requests it. These purchases will be made, if possible, through local suppliers. Specialized equipment designed for seniors and people with reduced mobility will also be available.

The second component of this program is the creation of a network of equipment lending centers, operated by regional organizations well-implemented in their communities. The mission of those centers is to offer a direct service to citizens, schools, and local associations, and to promote the service. Each center will have its inventory of sports and recreation equipment, locally available to anyone.

The third component is the creation of a database, used by the centers to coordinate the regions among themselves. The implementation of this program is thus decentralized, but the coordination of the inventory can be operated at the provincial level. This database will also allow users to know what is available to them and how to get it.

For example, through this program, a family could borrow skates to take their child skating for the first time, a couple could rent specialized outdoor equipment for a weekend even if they are spending time in another region than the one in which they reside, a person could borrow the required equipment for an art class taken in their community center, or a person with special needs could have access to specialized sports equipment.

This program is strongly inspired by a local initiative that originated in Quebec City, Accès-Loisirs, which for twenty years has been offering free subscriptions to recreation activities to low-income people, in collaboration with local organizations. Accès-Loisirs also collects new and used sports and recreation equipment to give it for free to low-income households.
What makes those projects interesting is how they redefine recreation financial assistance programs which, too often, simply rely on pricing policies (gratuities, subsidies or discounts). They implement new strategies – both at local and provincial levels – to reduce financial barriers to recreation participation.