Audit finds Edmonton needs to improve access, equity in recreation

City's community, recreation and culture programming posted a $49 million shortfall in 2023 with increased demand for discount passes and programs.  (Kory Siegers/CBC - image credit)
City's community, recreation and culture programming posted a $49 million shortfall in 2023 with increased demand for discount passes and programs. (Kory Siegers/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton city managers say they'll work on a thorough plan to make recreation programs and facilities more accessible to residents with diverse needs.

Administration is responding to a recent audit on equitable recreation programming, which shows the city lacks planning, co-ordinating with community groups, setting measures and tracking whether it's meeting its equity goals.

Roger Jevne, manager of the city's community, recreation and culture branch, said they're re-evaluating how facilities and programs are used.

First, the branch will conduct a city-wide household survey to get feedback from a range of people, including people who don't use the city's facilities on a regular basis, he said.

"We really do want to know and capture those non-users, what people in each of the districts are looking for in their recreation, that's part of the gap that we don't have now," Jevne told the committee.

Getting more feedback from the broader community is one of four recommendations in the audit.

It also suggests the city develop a plan with a defined vision, goals and targets; identify and track whether they're meeting their objectives; and create a guide for considering equity, inclusion and accessibility when planning recreation programming.

City council asked the auditor in August 2022 to analyze the city's equity programming associated with age, gender, identity, ability, family status, ethnicity, race, religion and income level.

Equitable access

"There is some inequities in how we're doing recreational programming, how we're allotting ice or swim time, or even park spaces and green spaces for bookings," Ward Anirniq Coun. Erin Rutherford said in an interview.

Councillors discussed the findings at an audit committee on June 25.

Rutherford said she's heard from constituents about the struggle for ice and field times, especially for some leagues.

Karissa Eckenswiller, a member of the sledge hockey club through the Edmonton Adaptive Sports Association, said in general, they feel like they're treated like sport-for-fun leagues.

"They often think of us as like a beer league team because we're adults doing a recreational sport," she said of people renting out ice space.

"But people often forget that often for people with disabilities, sledge hockey and a recreational opportunity might be the only opportunity to get out."

Cost of recreation

In 2023, the community, recreation and culture department was short $49 million compared to what it budgeted for, taking in $64 million in revenue and spending $113 million.

The city offers minor leagues the use of recreation space for half the cost of adult leagues, Jevne said.

The Leisure Access Program for lower-income families is growing in demand. Enrolment is up 43 per cent since 2019, with 97,795 people registered in the program as of Dec. 31, 2023, the audit noted.

The city lists dozens of programs that it supports or organizes: Free 'welcome to swimming' drop-in service for newcomers, adapted swimming lessons for people with disabilities, a zoo partnership with Edmonton Catholic Schools for children with learning delays and free outdoor skating at Rundle Park, Victoria Park, Laurier Park and The Meadows Recreation Centre.

Rutherford describes the situation as a tension between the ideal and the practical.

"Especially with something like recreation where you are trying to generate revenue as well, you are both a public good and public service, but you're also having to run like a business."

Coun. Jo-Anne Wright is also concerned about teams and leagues having equal and fair access to facilities.

"Maybe we can do a better job at meeting those equity objectives, I think — once they get determined — if we had more facilities," Wright suggested.

Jevne said creating more recreation centres is an ongoing challenge, and it could be another capital budget request in the future.

"There is limited space, there is limited time and there will be trade offs and certainly parts of the city where we don't have facilities to deliver those programs, either directly or through community organizations."

Councillors passed a motion, asking administration to create an integrated plan by spring before the 2025-2028 fall budget session where new and ongoing requests for funding will be presented and debated.