In a recent ABC interview the new head of the AFL’s Women’s competition, Nicole Livingstone, identified a problem that would have resonated with many Australians living in our big cities.
Asked about how she hoped to increase participation in AFL, Ms Livingstone said one impediment was the lack of availability of sports fields. There simply aren’t enough sporting fields in big cities to cater to the demand of our growing population.
In my own community in Sydney’s inner west, demand for sporting fields significantly exceeds supply. The area has just 1.5 hectares of open space per 1000 people and 29 sports grounds shared among a population of more than 185,000 people.
We have to keep encouraging our younger generations to exercise — and we need to make sure there is space to do that.
Down the road from my home, the Marrickville Red Devils soccer team has four shifts for training sessions, half of them conducted under lights. That’s a late finish on a school night.
I’ve heard similar stories around Sydney and in other Australian capital cities as population density increases. This issue looms as a new 21st-century barbecue stopper.
Parents already face a challenge encouraging their children away from screens and into physical activity. We must not allow capacity constraints to make it even harder.
One factor driving the increased demand is the welcome explosion of female participation in sports that were traditionally the bastion of boys and men.
Across the country, more women and girls are getting into sport, spurred on by the development of professional leagues in the AFL, soccer, rugby league and cricket.
Cricket Australia’s National Cricket Census showed female participation grew 25 per cent in 2017, while women’s AFL grew an enormous 76 per cent, coinciding with the launch of the national AFL women’s competition.
It’s not just organised sport crying out for more space.
This increased participation must be encouraged and celebrated. Indeed, we need to remove impediments such as the lack of female changing rooms at many ovals.
More broadly, participation in sport by all Australians, regardless of age or gender, is a public health issue.
Sport is our best weapon against obesity. It extends lifespans and reduces costs to the health system.
Governments, sporting organisations and the development industry must work together to increase the availability of open space in the national interest.
That means more sporting fields in and around new housing estates. It also means taking opportunities for protecting and enhancing open space in established suburbs. New developments must incorporate open space, an essential ingredient to improving livability.
Beyond this, we need to think outside the square. We should make better use of existing sporting fields, such as school ovals. We should also re-examine the design of parkland.
Many city parks have great landscaping and excellent paths for cycling and walking. That is a good thing. But sometimes such paths bisect areas that, left open, could be used for sport, even if it’s just an informal game of touch footy.
It’s important we build flexibility into park design and put the scarce open space to practical use.
That’s just a couple of ideas. I don’t claim to have all the solutions. However, it’s clear current development and land use patterns are not serving community needs when it comes to sport.
We live in one of the world’s great sporting nations. We must keep it that way by working together to put in place policies which expand participation in sport at the grassroots.
This piece was first published in The Daily Telegraph on Friday, 9 February, 2018: http://bit.ly/2nNqur8
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.