Should fit be free in Toronto?
Contemplating the future of Toronto and the call for ideas, a friend recently pointed me in the direction of the Guardian’s Public Services Awards 2009. The overall winner of last year’s award was the City Council of Birmingham for their Gym for Free project.
It’s so big, so bold… It’s probably not the kind of idea anyone in our now "have not" province or city wants to allow themselves to dream about. But if Birmingham can do it, why not us?
You see, on Valentine’s Day 2008, Birmingham City Council and the public health trust (part of the National Health Service, I gather) partnered up to send an invitation to the residents of the Ladywood District, offering every household free use of civic recreation facilities in return for attending four times a month.
Within seven months, the number of Ladywood residents using public gyms on a regular basis had skyrocketed from just 90 to more than 6,500. The project was so successful, so quickly, that Birmingham has now extended the project to the entire city of 1.1 million residents.
Why does this matter?
Ladywood is one of the most depressed districts in Britain, where most people are too worried about feeding their families to spend precious dollars on gym memberships.
There’s not room here to go into everything to be learned from Gym for Free, but suffice to say that along with the myriad health benefits, the project aims to build social cohesion. It gets people talking, sharing experience. Furthermore, the economic benefits -- particularly in the longer term as they see reduced health costs -- will be significant.
Look, I don’t think that a parks and rec fee increase is the number one issue of this election. But that’s because I live downtown, with lots of access to gyms and recreation centres, and have some disposable income to spend on those things. And when I compare the cost of using city facilities with the cost of private gyms and private lessons, those fee increases still don’t look so bad.
But at the end of the day, shouldn’t all families have access to good facilities and supports? Some families may need an extra hand or incentive to take advantage.
Like Ladywood and Birmingham, there are real health inequalities in our city. In 2008 Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health released a frightening report, “The Unequal City." The report illustrates the impact of Toronto’s health inequalities by showing what would happen if everyone was as healthy as those with the highest income:like, 1,300 fewer low birth weight babies, and nearly 1,600 more children ready to learn at school entry.
It’s pretty clear the City of Toronto needs to think big. We need to reduce poverty, and close the gap on health inequalities.
So along with the Do the Math Campaign, ask the provincial government to immediately introduce a $100/month health food supplement for all adults on social assistance, and set up a process to set rates based on what it actually costs to live a healthy, frugal, dignified life in Ontario -- let’s look at offering more and better services that will help keep residents healthy.
If Birmingham can think big and bold, why can’t we?