Greater use of public, open and shared space

As the pandemic has shifted recreation options, we have witnessed people adapting and increasing their use of open spaces. Open space recreation is part of the way of life in Greater Sydney and research shows that more than 85 per cent of respondents walked, jogged, hiked or ran for recreation or exercise in the past 12 months81. A recent survey by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) shows a dramatic increase in activities in public spaces and local neighbourhoods with 71 per cent of respondents appreciating local parks more82.

Research has shown that walking for an average of 30 minutes a day can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes by 35 percent83, and reduce the risk of dying from all other health related-causes by 11 percent84. Regular physical activity has positive impacts on mental health and wellbeing and reduces the risk of depression, anxiety, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease85.

Figure 6: DPIE Public space during Covid-19 Survey Report Findings, August 202086

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Built environment and shared spaces influence physical activity

Access to public open space close to where people live is associated with increased physical activity in all age groups87. People who have access to nearby useable green space are also twice as likely to report better health than those who do not88. This is further emphasised by research that highlights the benefits that can be reaped from built environment:

  • Living within 400-800 metre of a mix of destinations is associated with higher levels of walking and cycling across all age groups.
  • People living within 1.5 kilometres of a convenience store, or newsagent are twice as likely to regularly walk, and those living within 1.5 kilometres of a larger shopping centre are three times more likely to regularly walk.
  • The more street trees along the footpath network, the more likely residents are to walk for 60 minutes each week89.

The DPIE survey also found that 45 per cent of respondents spent more time in public spaces since the pandemic, even with the challenges of physical distancing. Around 52 per cent of respondents used public space to connect with people outside their households90.

Communities connect in public spaces

Research indicates that people tended to spend more time in their local communities due to restrictions and other health concerns, or because working from home allows them to undertake leisure and recreation activities near where they live. DPIE’s survey found that 30 per cent of respondents feel more involved in their local community or neighbourhood since the start of the pandemic91.

An analysis of current levels of access to centres shows around 34 per cent of people living in Greater Sydney are within a 10-minute walk of a centre that has at minimum a supermarket of 1,000 square metres. However, this accessibility is uneven across Greater Sydney with far higher levels of access to local and larger centres with levels of over 60 per cent in the Eastern City District, compared with around 20 per cent in the Western City and Central City districts92. Access to open space is better across the board, with around 65 per cent of people living in Greater Sydney within a 400 metre walk of open space. This is higher in the Eastern City District at 77 per cent than Western City District at 58 per cent93.

Accessible open spaces connect people, and support health and wellbeing and vibrant local economies. Public and shared spaces, such as public facilities, streets and pavements enable local communities to socialise and engage in physical and recreational activities. Public spaces can also include schools, which are used for multiple community purposes through local joint use plans, as demonstrated by the 2019-20 bushfires where schools served as sites of relief and recovery.

Focus Area 6 – Investment in open, public and shared spaces connects communities and supports healthy lifestyles
The increase in local activity in open, public and shared spaces and its positive input to wellbeing underscores their value as community infrastructure. Public spaces support increased physical activity and healthy lifestyles and play a central role in connecting communities. Recognising how the community views and uses public spaces will enable better support for a wide range of social and economic functions.