Park life: we need better green spaces for a healthy society

My local council just spent more than a million dollars improving the park near my house. But recently, on a hot afternoon, I found myself queuing for the park’s only portaloo with my friend and our group of five children. There were seven other adults ahead of us in the queue – six of them women, one pregnant, most with young kids.

When I complained loudly to my friend that there should be more than one toilet, the man in the queue overheard me. He asked why I didn’t take my kids to the nearest cafe, which was at least another 500 metres away, on the other side of a six-lane highway.

Green spaces are vital to our society’s health.Credit:Nine

This suggestion made me think about how having kids has changed my relationship with public space. As a parent of small children, you are much less mobile than you were before. Even short distances can seem insurmountable when you are carrying a baby and pleading with a tired, fractious toddler who refuses to follow you. You develop a deep aversion to crossing busy roads. And if you’re like me, you might find it hard – very hard – to relax in a cafe.

Children need parks, and this is especially true if they live in apartments or townhouses. Most Australian cities contain a lot of open space, by international standards. But these spaces were never designed to be substitutes for the traditional suburban backyard. They have not kept up with the pressures of population growth, high-density development and the changing needs of families.

This is a serious and worsening public health issue. If a park lacks basic infrastructure, a visit can quickly degenerate into an exhausting and harrowing experience for everyone involved. The more often this happens, the more tempting it is for a frazzled parent to stay at home and switch on the TV.

Parks help the community to connect.Credit:Jason South

If we make our parks a priority, we can improve children’s health and the health of the people who care for them. As a full-time stay-at-home mum, a trip to the park may be your only chance to spend time with other adults. It wasn’t until I went on maternity leave that I realised how much incidental socialising happens at work. Regular trips to the park were a vital reprieve from the isolation of those early months at home. Gradually, I came to know a lot of other parents this way.

But I also noticed how many simple things were missing from my local park. A few more benches, some shade and a fence to keep the toddlers away from the road would have made life so much easier.

By investing in parks, we could make it easier for people of all ages and abilities to enjoy public space. This would offer a lifeline to those at greatest risk of social isolation, with all its attendant physical and mental health risks. This includes parents of young children, but also the elderly, the differently abled and the unemployed. This is more important than ever in the aftermath of COVID-19.

As well as throwing more than a million Australians out of work, the lockdowns of 2020 caused, or exacerbated, a raft of mental health problems across the population. By forcing the closure of local clubs and community organisations, they left many more vulnerable than ever to loneliness.

Depression and anxiety became more common, especially in families with young children. These families bore the brunt of prolonged school and daycare closures while trying to work, or much worse, coming to terms with the loss of their jobs. The lockdowns were especially hard on those living alone, a cohort that includes many older Australians. People with disabilities lost access to respite and support services, putting them and their carers under incredible strain.

There is much we can do to repair this damage and rebuild a healthier, fairer and more cohesive society, while also creating desperately needed employment for those out of work. This should include a national commitment to improving local parks and making them genuinely accessible to all. Unfortunately, so far, we’ve seen no such thing from the Morrison government. Instead, we’ve seen tax cuts favouring high-income earners and a misguided HomeBuilder scheme, subsidising home renovations costing more than $150,000.

The quality of our public spaces reflects who we are as a society.

The quality of our public space is a powerful expression of our social values and priorities. As we begin to rebuild after COVID-19, and remake the connections that were ruptured during months of lockdown, investing in parks should be part of our national recovery plan.

Unlike HomeBuilder, this would benefit everyone, especially those most in need of support. Instead of subsidising the private homes of the wealthy, our federal government should be creating public spaces that bring us together; spaces that affirm our connections to each other and make everyone feel valued and included.

Lucie O’Brien lives in Melbourne’s north-western suburbs. She has two children, aged three and six.

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