The pandemic, parity and public space

By Sarah Reilly

by Sarah Reilly

July, 2021

This inequity of access to quality large parks in urban growth areas was highlighted during Melbourne’s second-wave lockdown, with only 49 per cent of Melburnians living within a walkable distance to large, public green space, according to research by RMIT’s Australian Urban Observatory (AUO). While we know outdoor Covid-19 transmission is low, not having access to large parks near people’s homes places families and other park users at risk by virtue of gathering in overcrowded small parks and playgrounds that they can get to on foot. We know that COVID can spread more easily in apartment blocks – further emphasising the need for quality public open space nearby high density apartments. This is further exacerbated currently as even those apartments that have access to quality communal open space onsite, are unable to access them right now due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Just how many people can you fit “socially distanced” in a local park?

In NSW, planning for public open space has most recently largely been driven by site needs and capacity, rather than broader district or regional benefits – making it difficult, without government intervention, early acquisition of land, or a re-prioritisation of landuses, to deliver large parks (of around 1.5ha and above) in the right locations.

This means that in some of Sydney’s high-growth urbanised areas, high land values and limited land availability is seeing the delivery of new public open space often in the form of smaller local parks (often around 0.5ha), links to existing parks or park embellishments. At Cred, we’ve worked out, that at a squeeze, such parks can fit under 1,100 people – standing still and socially-distanced at 1.5m apart, in line with public health orders. But account for onsite amenities, and that figure drops to around 900 people at one time.

This pandemic is revealing the growing inequity of access to public open space across Sydney – with some areas feeling the pinch more than others

City of Parramatta’s Community Infrastructure Strategy (CIS) is driven by a goal of social sustainability, with a vision to “capitalise on City of Parramatta’s growth to ensure our CBD and neighbourhoods have the necessary community infrastructure to help maintain and improve people’s standard of living and strengthen their sense of belonging and community”. The CIS indicates that City of Parramatta’s future population is estimated to grow to 488,000 by 2041 (+253,000) and benchmarking indicates that to meet this future growth (and existing deficits) an additional 338ha of sportsground and 280ha of park space for more informal recreational activities would be needed. Areas with the greatest pressure, some of which have limited opportunities to deliver large public open space nearby – and also increasing density and diversity, are around Parramatta (including the CBD) and North Parramatta, Wentworth Point, Carter Street, and Sydney Olympic Park.

City of Canterbury Bankstown Council has set a community led vision in its Community Strategic Plan with important directions for a clean and green future where residents can be healthy and active. With growth forecast for its centres of Campsie and Banstown, this may be challenging to achieve given an existing deficit of public open space (both in terms of walkable catchment access and per person provision) and high forecast residential growth to 2036 (+15,000 in Campsie and +30,000 in Bankstown).

It’s wonderful to see needed investment of $5.5million in the plans for the existing 1ha Paul Keating Park in Bankstown CBD. However, if health pandemics are part of our future, there may be no large/district public space – with enough space for the increased population of people living in apartments in and near these centres – to access close to home (30,000 people needing at least 10ha to social distance 1.5m apart – and to access fresh air and exercise at the one time).

If we couple forecast population growth and increasing density in our growing and high density urban areas, with our new normal of restricted movement (including within LGAs and local neighbourhoods) this could also result in  dangerous urban heat effects making a potential summer outbreak of COVID-19 catastrophic. This will significantly impact higher density areas with minimal green cover, lower quality housing stock, and lower income residents who can’t afford cooling, and who may be living in in overcrowded apartments in some parts of Western Sydney including the current COVID-19 hotspots such as in the Fairfield and Liverpool LGAs.

Why is access to quality and large public open spaces so important for dense urban areas?

Public open space provides respite from apartment living, access to nature, space for exercise and a place to breathe. When it’s hot, it provides a place to seek refuge and cool down when there are trees, shade and water, It provides a place for social connection, communal gathering and recreation.

According to ABS, more than 40% of Sydney’s residents live in medium or high-density housing, and more than half of Sydney’s forecast housing growth is in apartments. While a broad cross-section of Australian society lives in apartments, lower-income households are over-represented compared to other dwelling types – particularly in parts of Western and South Western Sydney.

Research by AHURI found that failure to address the needs of lower-income, high-density residents risks undermining the prosperity and cohesion of Australian cities in future years. This is clearly being played out now, with multi-generational family households living in small apartments in some parts of urbanised Western and South Western Sydney being hit the hardest by COVID-19 restrictions – and sometimes having restricted access to nearby quality parks large enough for recreation, social connection and a respite from apartment-living.

The Heart Foundation Healthy Active by Design resource tells us that in Australia, a longitudinal study found that adults spent around 18 additional minutes a week walking for recreation for every additional green public open space within 1.6km of their home. Similarly, another Australian study found that living within 1.6km of  attractive, green public open space was associated with participating in some recreational walking. 

However, adults with larger, attractive green public open space within 1.6km of home were more likely to achieve the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity through recreational walking. This suggests that having a larger, high-quality green public open space within walking distance may be more important for promoting sufficient walking for health benefits than simply living close to smaller, lower-quality green public open space (see linked reference for source references).

Planning for public open space for Sydney’s high density growth areas

If Greater Sydney is to be a resilient city in the face of ongoing major shocks (such as pandemics and heatwaves), we need to ensure that future growth is “good growth.” This means supporting not just economic outcomes and jobs, but social sustainability and equitable access to quality and large public parks in areas with: existing public open space deficits; significant high-density growth; and social and economic vulnerabilities.

We need to acknowledge that without access to quality and large public open space we risk creating increased household stress, anxiety, and community breakdown. The NSW Government’s renewed focus and investment in public space through its Parks for People program and Public Space Charter is a great start, and it is exciting to see a NSW Public Open Space Strategy currently being developed having consideration for strategic open space outcomes. 

And while contemporary approaches to public open space planning utilise proximity, access and quality to assess need in urban contexts, in some instances we still do need some focus on the size and capacity of parks, if we are going to provide future high density communities the same equity of access to quality and large parks and open space areas, that are afforded when planning in greenfield sites. If not, we risk significant health (both physical and mental), social and economic impacts to these communities.

We also can’t continue to plan based on a site by site needs basis only, and continue to rely on the same regional parks to address latent and forecast demand in some of Western and South Western Sydney’s highest growth areas.

What can we do?

I’m not unrealistic, and I know the cost of land is high and larger parks cost a lot of money to build. But public open space is essential to us all, it’s not a “nice to have” and I can believe we can plan even better: for the quality of public spaces; for the linking of public spaces; for the increasing of quantity and proximity of public open space in high growth, high density, and socially, culturally and economically diverse areas of Sydney, and Southern Western Sydney in particular. Some ideas:

  1. Rethink what “high value” land means. Attributing value not just to the short term financial cost but thinking to its long term social return on investment. We know that access to quality open space reduces the burden on our health system, increases social cohesion, but is also a major driver of economic outcomes.

  2. Listen to what communities are telling us about their public open space needs and desires for more greening, more access to nature, more lighting of public spaces for night time use, and more quality open space close to home – particularly in dense and growing places. This includes in the planning of places and the feedback on planning proposals.

  3. Be smarter around how we use social and spatial planning data and mapping to understand the unique differences, challenges, and vulnerabilities that communities face, what this might indicate about their public open space needs, and to prioritise where new large and/or quality public open spaces are needed the most urgently.

  4. Re-imagine how single use public landholdings such as golf courses could be used to deliver multipurpose public open space opportunities.

  5. In priority areas, we can rethink planning mistakes of the past, and think about how we can unlock access to significant public open space areas that have restricted access due to roads, disused rail, or inefficient/redundant industrial uses – some international precedents here. We can also strategically consider how under-utilised government assets/land (e.g. RMS, Sydney Water, or TNSW) can be re-imagined as public parks or linear parks, prioritising high growth urban areas of Greater Sydney – and future proof this land for this purpose. The Committee for Sydney Public Spaces Ideas Competition had many winning entries about this for areas across Sydney.

  6. Reconsider housing targets set for some constrained parts of Sydney and potentially more equitably distribute housing growth in areas that can deliver both the housing, local employment, and the public open space required providing for local, district and regional outcomes. If the required public open space can’t be provided nearby, maybe the site is not appropriate for increased density and growth?

  7. Plan upfront for the community benefits and long-term social outcomes we want to deliver from future large planning proposals on private and government land. Sites such as the Canterbury racecourse with links along the Cooks River could provide opportunities to deliver broader regional public open space outcomes (addressing existing and forecast deficits in Campsie and neighbouring suburbs) and not just smaller local public open spaces that would service only the future local community who would live on the site, and not contribute to addressing any latent demand.

  8. And where there just isn’t any way we can get more public open space to address community needs – we can get more value out of our small spaces to improve neighbourhood connections and take pressure off parks in areas with existing deficits. This includes ensuring sufficient access to communal open space in apartment buildings at ground level; and making better use of unused residual landholdings which serve little recreational purpose such as Committee for Sydney’s Public Open Space Ideas Award winning Blacktown Micromeadows entry by Cred Consulting).

Ensuring all of our communities across Greater Sydney communities have equitable and easy access to large and quality public open space is one of our greatest challenges and opportunities. We need to find ways to embed in our planning system a genuine and long term valuing of public open space and to work collaboratively across tiers of government, communities and the private sector.

If you’d like to chat more about how we might be able to do this together, please get in touch with us at Cred Consulting.

Sarah Reilly is the owner and Director of Cred Consulting and passionate about creating happy, healthy places for people.