Too many steps to access the great outdoors

Between 300,000 and 400,000 Melburnians do not live within walkable access of adequate open space. That startling figure is contained in Swinburne University School of Design’s submission to the Legislative Assembly inquiry on environmental infrastructure for growing populations.

With restrictions imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19, access to space has been top of mind for many Victorians.

“We’ve had an overwhelming number of submissions to this inquiry,” said Committee Chair Darren Cheeseman.

“It shows just how important community access to parks and open space as well as sporting fields, forest and bushland, wildlife corridors and waterways is to the people of this state.”

Submissions have highlighted the value Victorians place on access to nature. Photo: stock.adobe.com

More than 235 submissions have been made to the Environment and Planning Committee so far, with the closing date extended to October 31st for the general community (and to December 20 for local councils, due to local elections).

“People have raised a really wide range of issues: separating cyclists and pedestrians, securing enough open space to match multi-storey developments, maintaining and creating corridors for wildlife, preventing habitat loss, Indigenous heritage and access for sporting activities,” said Committee Deputy Chair David Morris.

“We’ve also heard from a wide range of community groups who have a deep connection to their local area.”

The availability and amenity of parks and open space have been impacted by a range of factors in recent years, including rapid population growth and urban densification. Evidence provided to the Committee will enable it to unpack the effects of these factors within Melbourne and regional centres. It will also enable the Committee to identify opportunities to increase the availability and quality of parks and open space.

Urban spread is impacting people's access to open space. Photo: elements.envato.com

But it is the immediate pressure from the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions that has had the Committee and the community looking at creative ways of using the outdoor space that’s currently available and that’s highlighted the uneven distribution of outdoor space across Victoria.

Research published in The Conversation found that the distribution of parkland varies across Melbourne, with residents in Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula and Melton having the least parkland within a 5-kilometre radius, while those in Knox, Yarra and Banuyle have the most.

New research from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research identified a lack of parkland in inner urban areas; Collingwood has less than half-a-metre per person, while in Fitzroy that figure is only two square metres. With weather warming and parks being among the few places available for socialising, there is a risk of overcrowding.

But the good news is that there’s a great deal of under-utilised outdoor space, including golf courses, schools and bowls clubs.

“That’s where there are lots of opportunities to increase community access to open space,” said Committee Chair Darren Cheeseman.

“That would be a win for COVID safe socialising, within the rules the government has put in place, and for promoting our physical and mental wellbeing,” he said.

Some municipalities have already opened areas normally reserved for sporting activities to walkers and picnickers.

The 24-hectare Northcote Golf Course is publicly owned but privately managed. When golfing was suspended during the pandemic it became a popular space for locals seeking socially distanced outdoor space.

Golf course opened up for other uses during pandemic restrictions. Photo: Bill Bainbridge

It proved so popular that local community members are looking for ways to share the space with golfers, even after the COVID crisis ends.

“It doesn’t need to be sport versus recreation. It can certainly be both,” said Mr Cheeseman.

“There is still time for the members of the public to let the Committee know how they feel about sharing these kinds of spaces, and preserving and upgrading existing outdoor space in Victoria. Not just for sporting fields, but also for forest and bushland, wildlife corridors and waterways,” said Committee Deputy Chair David Morris.

Written submissions addressing the terms of reference for the inquiry are welcome until 31 October 2020. Details on how to make a submission are available from the Committee’s website.