The Birmingham Community Paddle Sports Project

The Birmingham Community Paddle Sport hubs are an innovation driven by Olympic canoeist Andy Train and supported by British Canoeing in partnership with the Canal & River Trust and StreetGames. The project attempts to reach into the most underserved communities, increase access and encourage participation in paddle sport across Birmingham’s canal network. June 2022 to July 2023 has been about capacity building. So, the opportunity to carry out research to assess reach and impact in the Summer of 2023 via the HAF programme is timely.

Amongst the 1.1 million population of Birmingham, a small proportion of residents have historically taken part in paddle sport activities based on the city’s extensive canal network. The reasons are complex but include concerns for personal safety and fear of criminal activity in the inner city in particular. But more significantly, a lack of role models, ownership and sense of belonging that local people are entitled to use those green and blue spaces has resulted in limited access and an underrepresentation in paddle sport on Birmingham’s canals.

Supported by British Canoeing, Canal and River Trust and StreetGames, the project has received £100k in funding during 2023. This collaboration, or system change approach, has enabled the rapid development of seven community organisations to build capacity and add paddle sport to their local youth, community and family offerings.

By taking this approach, paddle sport is now reaching deep into local communities with a wide range of ethnic and social diversity. So, people who otherwise would not be accessing the water are now taking up paddling for the first time and being coached, helmed and organised by local people in locally trusted organisations (LTOs) within their own community. This article is an example of the impact of paddle sport on the doorstep. A truly place-based approach.

British Canoeing sought to evaluate the impact of this initiative and recognised that StreetGames possesses significant expertise in research and insight. Consequently, the two organisations joined forces, with StreetGames taking the lead in formulating research questions, survey formats, and subsequent report generation. British Canoeing provided funding for local coordination to facilitate the survey implementation, with the primary objective of optimising response rates by ensuring that participants and project leaders completed the surveys promptly.

In this way StreetGames plugged the Birmingham paddle sport initiative into the city-wide Holiday Activity and Food (HAF) programme that reaches tens of thousands of children annually via more than 350 local HAF providers. Easter HAF introduced Bell Boating as an enrichment activity by way of ‘Into the Green and Blue: Testing the waters – Bring it on Brum!’ and together with the summer programme 30 HAF providers have now introduced over 1,000 young people to the sport across the seven hubs in more than 50 Bell Boat paddle sessions. The research findings from the summer start to tell the story in terms of impact and reach in this new and exciting approach to create access to paddle sport across the most underserved communities in Birmingham.

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