Equity and Access to the Outdoors and to Nature: The Ottawa Outdoor Gear Library
Thank you to Sherry Wu, Library Coordinator at the Ottawa Outdoor Gear Library, for providing this post.
The famed Rideau Canal, the largest outdoor skating rink in the world, is found in the centre of Ottawa, not too far from various other winter trails and urban parks. A 10 minute drive from the downtown core is Gatineau Park, the largest green space in the region, which boasts beaches, hiking trails and campsites.
The National Capital Region has so much to offer in terms of green space and outdoor activities, however, many of these activities and spaces are not accessible to everyone. For example, Gatineau Park lacks public transportation options to get into the park year round. Furthermore, financial barriers, lack of gear, and lack of opportunity or familiarity with outdoor activities, may also hinder folks from fully enjoying these wonderful outdoor spaces, and the mental and physical benefits derived from these experiences.
Barriers to outdoor gear due to lack of financial resources and knowledge is a significant factor. Learning or trying a new outdoor activity can be daunting, and expensive, especially for families and those living with lower incomes. These barriers also disproportionately affect marginalized and racialized folks, due to a variety of systemic and intersectional factors. For example, layered urban mapping studies have identified that green spaces are unjustly distributed in Canada’s metropolitan areas. More affluent communities, which are often less socio-culturally diverse, have higher levels of tree cover and better access to greenspace compared to less affluent, multicultural communities.
The lack of equitable access to nature and to outdoor recreation have existed for decades, however the impact of COVID-19 has exacerbated this inequity even further and has exposed and deepened the lack of access experienced by equity-deserving groups. For many people, opportunities to fully participate and to benefit from the positive physical and mental health outcomes deriving from access to outdoor recreation, and to nature are constrained by a number of factors – a sense of belonging, safety, profiling and surveillance, access to transportation, cost of fees, and access to recreation equipment are prominent. Jacqueline Scott and Ambika Tenneti, recently released a Nature Canada research report, Race and Nature in the City, identifying and documenting these impacts.
The Ottawa Outdoor Gear Library/Bibliothèque d’équipement de plein air d’Ottawa (OOGL/BÉPO) began in Spring 2021 as a response to barriers experienced by marginalized and racialized communities to nature-based experiences, land-based programming, outdoor recreation, and the associated mental and physical health benefits derived from time outside. We seek to create just access to nature-based experiences for all. We’re also committed to reducing waste, supporting the sharing economy and fostering stronger connections to nature and environmental stewardship.
In particular, the Ottawa Outdoor Gear Library seeks to support people living with low incomes, women, youth, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, 2SLGBTQ+ folks, and newcomers to access gear for outdoor recreation activities.
So how does it work? The OOGL/BÉPO is a community-based lending library that lends out outdoor gear to our members at no-cost. As a way to reduce financial barriers, becoming a member of the library is free, though we do welcome donations to help offset the costs associated with operating. Typically loans are for a period of one week. 99% of the gear at the OOGL/BÉPO has been obtained through generous donations from members of our community, making the library an initiative that is supported by the community, for the community.
While lending libraries are emerging around the world, most are related to tools or musical instruments. There are very few outdoor sports and recreation lending libraries, and where they exist, they are typically specific to one activity, or may be limited to members of a school or sports club.
OOGL/BEPO is unique in this respect. We offer a wide variety of different sports and recreation gear for free, we prioritize populations with layered barriers to access, we provide programming support in collaboration with a broad partner organization network, and we operate with a health equity approach in both our program delivery as well as staffing.
While we have supported over 30 partner organizations and groups throughout the past year, we officially began lending to individuals only 5 months ago, and in that time our membership has grown to over 600 members and we’ve facilitated over 700 gear loans. Our first few months of operating came with growing, learning and adaptation to many challenges, both predicted and totally unforeseen – operating in cold temperatures, Omicron infection rates, Truck Convoy disruptions, etc. Despite these hurdles, the staff and volunteer team have supported hundreds of individuals to try new outdoor activities during the winter season.
Before we started officially operating, we hosted various gear drives in Ottawa to build up our inventory and we now have outdoor gear for all the seasons. We were amazed by the outpouring of generosity from the community, as we received gear that was both new, and well loved. Cross country skis, snowshoes, hiking backpacks, binoculars for birding, field guides, rollerblades, park games, fishing gear, paddles and PFDs, and even telescopes were just some of the items we’ve received. Since we were in the beginning stages and had no idea how much gear we would be able to acquire, we accepted all donations, with the promise that “if it isn’t fit to be integrated in our lending library, we’ll try our best to find a home for the gear somewhere else.”
With several months of wage subsidy support from Nature Canada’s Work to Grow program and 8 months of seed funding through the Canada Healthy Communities Initiative, we were able to hire 3 part-time BIPOC youth in November 2021 to manage and coordinate the library, programs, and volunteer engagement respectively. We were also able to coordinate a partnership with the free and public Rideau Winter Trail, and find a pop-up space near the trail to house our cross country ski and snowshoe gear. This partnership was incredibly successful and was recognized and appreciated by residents, community organizations and local politicians.
As we plan for the summer season and beyond, our leadership team is looking for resources to build on the successful impact of our first year, and for potential alignment with prospective funding partners that share the vision for equity in the outdoors. Our team are excited by the positive community response so far, the significant impact that the Library is contributing in supporting more people to enjoy the outdoors, and the growing network of partners such as Outdoor Play Canada, who are advancing this work.
Sherry Wu is the Library Coordinator at the OOGL. When she is not at OOGL, you can find her sewing and upcycling clothing for her small business, cooking up a mess in her kitchen, or taking a hike outside.