Walk around the streets at the Waverley Park residential area in Melbourne’s outer east on weekends and you will see a densely packed outer-urban precinct filled with large double-storey houses on what appear to be relatively small blocks, which suffer from a distinct lack of character.
Look at the centrepiece of the precinct, however, and you will see parents and children enjoying kick to kick on the oval at the famous Waverly Park Stadium which was once used for VFL/AFL games and locals enjoying a memorabilia shops, a café and a supermarket. Indeed, around 10 per cent of the precinct is dedicated to public use and involves parkland, playgrounds, wetlands and a heritage trail.
This is symbolic of what is happening around much of Australia. As our urban environment becomes increasingly dense and backyard space disappears, greater focus and importance is being attached to parks, community facilities and urban green space. That raises important questions about the role of these spaces in contemporary urban Australia, the types of facilities needed going forward, who is going to pay for these and how design needs to respond to changing usage patterns and user needs.
Jason Byrne, associate professor of Environmental Planning at Griffith University in Queensland, says a number of factors are driving both an increase in demand for parks and public recreation facilities as well as changes in the types of facilities which are needed.
Greater density and the growing proportion of Australians living in either multi-residential dwellings or larger houses on smaller blocks with less backyard space is seeing much of the recreational activity which previously took place in private spaces brought out into the public sphere, he said.
Growing numbers of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, meanwhile, are bringing different expectations of park space. Many Asians, for example, enjoy passive forms of recreation within well-manicured spaces, whilst a significant number of Pacific Islanders are accustomed to large families bringing barbecues.
Meanwhile, Byrne says, greater levels of risk aversion with regard to childhood safety over recent decades has led to increasing proportions of child recreation shifting indoors and greater restrictions upon children from their parents in terms of recreational freedom. It has also resulted in a more conservative approach on the part of councils involving greater standardisation in the roll-out of playground equipment (with protective cushioning) which is provided within parks.
He says in the past, Australia has suffered from a ‘cookie cutter’ approach which has seen the proliferation of nearly identical facilities that consist primarily of grassed areas, a few trees, playground equipment, benches and an oval or basketball court under a one-size-fits-all type of approach. This, he says, has led to facilities which are bland in nature and limited in terms of their ability to foster a sense of exploration, adventure or discovery.
He believes we need both types of facilities to suit different uses as well as flexible design within individual spaces to enable the multiple types of activities to be accommodated within the same space.
In terms of the former, he says corner parks where parents are able to take children and which are accessible to older people who may not necessarily be able to travel further distances in order to reach larger facilities are certainly needed. The mix should also include community gardens, rooftop gardens and other private green spaces where people are able to gather together with greater privacy. There is also a need for more walkable places through greater tree canopies on the streetscape as well as bike paths and walking trails.
In terms of the latter, he says individual spaces to be designed in a way so as to facilitate a diverse range of uses. Neighbourhood parks in Spain which are Wi-Fi enabled, for example, allow people to work or use their phone whilst supervising children or getting fresh air. Some parks nowadays have kiosks were people can get refreshments.
“What we need is a pallet of different kind of green space,” Byrne said. “The old approach of one size fits all doesn’t work anymore. We need to have spaces which are multi-functional which enable a range of different activities to occur.”
Byrne says an often forgotten demographic when it comes to public space is teenagers, many of whom he says are being forced to hang out at McDonalds or in shopping centres because the open space is not meeting their needs. As well as skateboard facilities, he says suitable spaces for this cohort could include climbing walls, running and jumping across walls or obstacles or more secluded spots to enable either alone time or quiet time with friends.
Looking overseas, he says places like Barcelona and Shanghai provide examples about how we can use urban space within dense environments. not necessarily for parks per se. but certainly for green space in general. In New York, Byrne says a disused rail corridor called the High Line which has been converted into elevated park with much of the steel and wood from the old rail line forming part of the attraction and local plants being encouraged to grow out from between these industrial parts serves as an example of the type of thing which can be done.
By contrast, he says an example of what not to can be seen in Hong Kong, where community facilities jammed into leftover parts of the city received little sunlight and were paved over instead of green.
Much of the momentum, he says, is shifting away from larger parks, which often require a short drive to get to and back toward smaller and more localised facilities. Basic corner parks were largely coming back into play as activities previously performed within the backyard spill back onto streetscapes, he said.
In cities, rooftop gardens are becoming increasingly common, as are community-based gardens and agricultural spaces where micro communities within an apartment block or row of townhouses might have a coming together space which goes beyond turf and trees. Such spaces may include an integration of garden sheds, home grown vegetable patches, play areas and shelter, he said.
He added that a second trend revolves around greater connectedness of parks and the linking up of smaller open spaces through bicycle paths and walking tracks often accompanied by ecological ‘green web’ corridors with a natural canopy. He says this is important in terms of both growing awareness about the need for a more active lifestyle and the need for access to a diversity of spaces and environments without needing a vehicle.
When thinking about the design of public spaces, Bruce said it is important to understand the demographics of the local community and to adapt the design strategy to best meet the needs of that community. The needs of communities consisting largely of student populations, for example, may vary from those where large portions of the community are couples with dogs and without children.
In terms of parks where large numbers of children will play, Bruce’s view contrasts slightly with that of Byrne. He talks of a push away from organised play and the catalogued items of swing sets and slides and back toward enabling increased use of self-discovery and natural ‘danger’ associated with building things out of sticks, gumnuts and natural stone as well as jumping from things which are ‘not necessarily bright coloured or plastic.’ A number of contemporary playgrounds, he said, blend some set pieces of equipment along with a natural setting which enables diversity of experience and fosters a natural instinct on the part of some children to push boundaries.
One important consideration when it comes to all this revolves around ongoing costs and who will pay. Whilst developers are generally required to provide new green space as a condition of new developments, councils are generally required to foot the annual bill of maintenance after a certain period. This is not cheap. Accounts of the City of Sydney, for example, show that the City spent more than $15.128 million on park management contracts in 2014/15.
Byrne acknowledges that costs are a concern. He says equipment which gets broken is often simply removed rather than repaired or replaced. Indeed, he says that in the US, an inequality phenomenon has emerged whereby wealthier municipalities which had the ability to meet a much higher price tag in terms of maintenance enjoyed more extravagant forms of space with more extensive landscaping whilst those in less wealthy areas were left to make do with only basic facilities.
Finally, Byrne says one factor which must not be forgotten is climate change.
He says much of Griffith’s research has shown that the loss of backyard space and space for vegetation has had implications in terms of localised heat effects, which he says can drive up electricity costs and hurt struggling families.
“We need to think carefully about the urban forest that we used to have in private yards,” he said.
“We need to be cognisant of the heat effects of climate change and we need to be thinking carefully about how we ‘re-green’ the urban realm.”