Parks and Recreation turning from a service into a necessity

The next generation is going to be the first generation not to outlive their parents.

That statement was told to Centre Wellington Parks and Recreation Director Andy Gol­die by a Public Health official – and he believes every word of it.

“The obesity rates and lack of physical activity in our kids is even scarier than we first be­lieved,” Goldie said in an in­ter­view at the Sportsplex in Fergus May 30.

Centre Wellington is doing strategic planning in all of its departments to meet the future needs of its citizens.

This is the third in a series by the Well­ington Advertiser to explain some of the challenges the township is facing, and some of the solu­tions it is looking at.

Running the parks and rec­reation side of township facili­ties used to be relatively sim­ple.

Supply schedules for faci­lities, and make sure the grass was mowed in parks, the ice was flooded, and the ball diamond lights came on and people would be relatively happy.

But today, that department is involved in much more, and a good part of the new priori­ties are general health and well­ness of citizens. That means pro­viding opportunities for all groups of society, from kids to grandparents. And particularly, these days, for kids.

Who ever heard of a parks and recreation department work­ing with Public Health on pro­grams? That is the kind of things that Goldie is doing today.

“Parks and recreation has always been about physical activity and recreation opportu­nities,” he said. “We under­stand the health benefits. For the first time, we’re seeing part­nerships with the health unit.”

That group, he said, was “always reactive” but its role is now changing, too. Officials in both places see that active, heal­thy people can reduce the strain on a much overburdened health care system. “We’ve all seen in the last ten years that health costs are rising, rising, rising. We needed to partner to get people physically active,” he said.

Goldie has been involved with parks and recreation for nearly 20 years, and this is the first time he has seen such diverse partnerships.

The reason is obvious.

There is an obesity epide­m­ic among children that has been worrying health officials for the past ten years, and their cries are becoming more stri­dent as it heads towards a peak. At first they yelled about unfit kids. Lately, though, they have been warning about such things as major obesity and the prob­lems of onset (type 2) diabetes as a danger to people – by the time they reach their 20s. Currently, that affliction starts mainly with people in their mid-40s.

But too much fast food, hours of playing computer gam­es, and even more time spent watch­ing TV have all drastically cut into children’s physical activity times.

Centre Wellington has also been working with the school boards, and two schools in the township, James McQueen Pub­lic School, in Fergus, and St. Mary Separate School in Elora have won their level three as active schools in a national program.

Goldie said those schools will likely be at level six by the end of the school year.

And yet, school policies in many places are also a part of the obesity problem, and Go­ldie admitted that the issue is “awkward.”

Drive by a school in winter during recess or noon hour, and look at the students in the yard. Not so long ago, there would have been a handful of different hockey games being played, with kids running hither and yon, chasing a ball with a stick. In the fall and spring, it would be soccer, football, baseball, and lacrosse.

Today, none, or very few of those acti­vities are taking place at any schools, because school officials are too careful to allow them. Goldie said the reason is simple. Lawsuits.

“We talk to the school boards about risk,” he said, and not­ed that “as operators [of recreation facilities] we worry about the same thing.”

In the past, little Johnny might have got a black eye or split lip in some vigorous pla­y­ing of games. Today, schools boards get hit with lawsuits by his parents.

So, the kids often stand around idle during their recess and lunch breaks.

He does not blame the teachers, either, for the lack of activities among students.

“Risk managers are saying they are open to lawsuits,” Gol­die said. “It’s more a comment on our society.

There is also the issue of kids being bored. If they can have no excitement in their play, they are not left with active alternatives, so they often drift towards computer games and TV to get that.

The township recently pro­vided James McQueen and St. Mary schools with a bag full of Sports gear for students, but, “We need a buy-in so these things are used,” Goldie said of those donations.

One step the township has taken with school boards and Well­ington-Dufferin-Guelph Pub­lic Health is the In Motion campaign. Last fall, it had a huge kickoff in Elora and Fer­gus, plus a number of schools outside of those centres were also involved.

Goldie said the idea for good health for everyone is to get at least some physical ac­tivity built into people’s lives every day.

And that carries his Parks and Recreation program into yet another area of Centre Wellington Township; plan­ning. He said the idea is to help develop and design commu­nities that are built to “provide for the opportunity to walk, run, and bike to and from school or work. We’re working with [planner Salmon] Brett. We’ve just released a tender for urban design guidelines.”

Goldie said the challenges that Centre Wellington faces in redesigning its communities are the same in other locales.

“There are pockets in North America that are doing this,” he said of places looking forward towards the health of its citizens.

There are other planning chan­ges, too. He noted that in many places, houses are now being placed closer to streets, there are walking trails, and other ways that people living there can become more active. He cited British Columbia and Calgary as two areas that are redesigning urban standards to encourage physical activities.

“In Europe, people walk and cycle all winter long,” Gol­die said. “We need to increase our infrastructure to provide that. We need to look at differ­ent models. Fergus and Elora are not that far apart.”

He said nearby cities could be far more accessible, too, and regional transit to, say Kitch­ener, should accept people taking their bikes onto buses for a ride to there. They could shop or visit, and then return home the same way.”

Goldie said managing those changes will be “a huge job. It’s not going to happen over night. It’s similar to the ban on smoking [sought by advocates years ago]. We’re 25 years down the road and it’s a reality. We need that cultural change, but it will be pretty cool when it happens.”

Next week: Meeting faci­lity re­quirements for a growing user group.