This narrative has been edited from a draft written for an international audience in October 1994 by Peter Nicholls, Trustee of the AIPR Trust Fund-Education. The term “parks” refers to both urban and non-urban parks.
Australia is approximately the same size as the United States of America but has a population of only around 17 million people. Yet it is one of the world’s most urbanised communities, with the large majority of its peoples living on the east coast and approximately half of the population living in just two cities – Sydney and Melbourne. Also, it has been traditional for the typical Australian family to live in a bungalow style of home with a front and back area of private open space. It is however increasingly common for people to prefer high density or medium density housing.
Australians have an image of being sun-bronzed and weathered people who prefer the ‘great outdoors’. The impression that kangaroos and koalas are commonplace sights in metropolitan areas of Australia is still widely held among people of the northern hemisphere. While it may be a fact that Australians are, in reality, highly urbanised and as highly diverse in their interests as the people of other nations, they do have an innate affiliation with the countryside. But it is a harsh and often unforgiving countryside (known to Australians as ‘the bush’ or the more remote areas ‘the outback’). Yet it is a countryside of unimaginable beauty, which draws people from all walks of life, Australians and overseas visitors alike.
These facts are important background knowledge to understand the Australian culture in relation to its use of parks for recreation and leisure pursuits.
The earliest settlers in Australia (after arrival of Indigenous peoples perhaps 60,000 years ago) were from Britain and Europe. They found great difficulty in coming to terms with the fact of Australia’s general dry and harsh climate. This difficulty was reflected in the fact that the settlers preferred to create something of the soft lush greenery of their homelands in their development of gardens and local public open space. The typical urban park has therefore traditionally been designed along the lines of the English or European park, with large areas of manicured turf, bordered by trees and flower beds. The American parks specialist, Seymour Gold, on a trip to one of Australia’s more congenial cities, Adelaide, was heard to remark that it was the ‘mowing capital of the world’.
Whereas the main uses of the traditional ‘English-style’ park have been sitting and contemplation, the more modern park better reflects the Australian culture both in its design and its usage. Australians are now coming to recognise their country for its own special form of beauty. This is increasingly evident in parks design with greater use of brown areas, drought resistant turfs and native flora.
The ways in which urban parks are used have diversified in parallel with a growing Australian appreciation of the wide range of available recreation opportunities. Organisations such as Life. Be In It (a highly successful Australia-wide program aimed at promoting the benefits of fitness and increased activity through a ‘soft sell’ approach) has done much to bring people out to their parks for unstructured family activities such as kite flying, ball games, walking, cycling, jogging and swimming. In particular, the phenomenon of seeing hundreds of people participating in ‘Life Games’ did much to give people a new appreciation of the joys of visiting their local park.
The use of parks for public festivals has also grown in popularity. Ethnic festivals, food and drink festivals, Australian adaptations of European festivals such as the German Scheutzenfest in Adelaide, open air orchestral concerts, Christmas Carols by Candlelight evenings and free public rock music concerts are just a few examples of how urban parks are being used throughout Australia.
A modern trend in park design has been the development of linear parks. These generally follow natural corridors such as rivers or creeks, or where the opportunity arises, disused railway reserves. Linear parks suit modern leisure trends in which people look to walking, cycling, jogging, roller skating and the like as enjoyable forms of activity. Linear parks provide a means of getting from one place to another, variety in surroundings and, where they follow a natural corridor, they stimulate the modern interest in understanding and enhancing the natural environment.
Linear parks are succeeding in bringing Australians out of their houses and private gardens and encouraging them to better know and understand their neighbourhood. Creeks are again becoming status symbols instead of eyesores to be concreted and filled. Bird watching and fishing along local waterways is an emerging neighbourhood activity. Indeed it is true to say that linear parks are proving to be valuable media for community development as people who are out walking seem far more inclined to say ‘hullo’ to each other.
Regrettably, modern trends are also resulting in an increasing public perception of urban parks as being places of danger because of a perceived increase in anti-social activities taking place in parks. Public toilets in parks are avoided (and often closed) for fear of confronting antisocial activities. Fear of muggings, stabbings or bashings, excessive drinking and drug-taking are other negative reputations of urban parks which cause the general population to avoid them, particularly after dark. There is general agreement among parks managers that these fears are more a matter of perception than fact but the impact on usage is strong.
Non-urban parks are managed by a variety of agencies, most of which are in the public sector. They include the national parks and wildlife service, woods and forests agencies, water management agencies, coastal management agencies, local councils and agencies generally responsible for unallotted public lands (known as Crown land). There are also large tracts of public land – usually in the more remote regions – leased for private farming and pastoralism but still sometimes open to public access, subject to conditions. (Conditions differ between the various state-based regimes).
Most Australians have a yearning to get away from the pressures of the city life from time to time and enjoy the attractions of the Australian countryside. These getaways vary in length and intensity from the popular family drive in the car and picnic in the nearby countryside to longer and more hazardous treks into the outback.
The distances that people travel into the countryside varies but is mostly limited to the need to be home before dark. Throughout hinterlands within 1-3 hours driving time of metropolitan areas, picnic areas are abundant. One study of visitor patterns at a popular rural picnic area showed that people tended to arrive from about 11 am and the area was constantly busy until about 3 pm. By 3.30 pm the area was all but deserted.
A characteristic of Australians is that, while they enjoy the sensation of ‘roughing it in the bush’ they prefer to do so within sight of the family car. Thus problems arise in creating the illusion of a rough bush setting while providing nearby car parking. This conflict also increases environmental damage as recreationists strive to enjoy the comforts of the car with a rustic experience.
The recreation opportunities sought by the ‘day tripper’ are many and varied with the most popular being simply to drive for pleasure, using picnic areas to stop for lunch and to allow the family to get some fresh air and exercise. Short walking trails (up to an hour’s duration) are popular and opportunities to see native wildlife in safe surroundings are a strong attraction. The ubiquitous shop selling ice cream and confectionery is further evidence of the popularity of parks which combine an outdoors experience with the comforts of home.
Parks near metropolitan areas often provide a range of urban recreation facilities such as tennis courts, playground equipment, barbecues, shelter sheds, sporting ovals and seating. There is an increasing tendency to charge an entry fee into these areas – a practice which is better accepted by the public if they believe that the money collected is being put directly back into the development of that area rather than into a general revenue fund.
Travel to a rural site where it is necessary to stay overnight or longer is also highly popular. Traditionally, Australian park management agencies have provided somewhat crude camping facilities in the belief that this is what the typical Australian camper is seeking. Agencies are now beginning to acknowledge a huge and growing market for rural experiences in good quality camping and caravanning sites and that users are prepared to pay for quality.
In more remote parks, the public seeks natural recreation experiences such as bushwalking, fishing, boating, sightseeing, bird watching, camping, viewing wildlife, nature studies and photography or painting. There is also a high demand for activities which are, to a greater or lesser degree, incompatible with the natural environment. These include trail horse-riding, car rallies, trailbike riding, power boating and offroad vehicle activities.
These latter activities highlight the fact that while the Australian countryside has a rugged image that people from other countries often perceive as being harsh– and unforgiving, some natural landscapes such as water frontages are quite fragile. Funding adequate to allow park managers to control (as unobtrusively as possible and notably through park design) for recreational and leisure use is essential.
National parks are of course intended to preserve and enhance the worthier natural areas of a country and are therefore highly appropriate destinations for the growing world demands for eco-tourism opportunities. In fact by world standards Australia is slow to capture its rightful share of the ecotourism market. Some specific localities are capturing the interest of overseas visitors, such as the Great Barrier Reef off the north Queensland coast and Ayers Rock (Uluru National Park) in Central Australia. Kakadu National Park of Crocodile Dundee fame is another area gaining overseas popularity. However the potential of so many other magnificent areas of Australia’s unique natural environment are still Australia’s best kept secrets in the world ecotourism market.
Parks – urban and non-urban – symbolise the Australian love of the outdoors. To date they have been developed in ways that have tended to reflect the perceived traditional purpose of parks as places to look at and meditate in. It is pleasing to see that modern parks managers are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that there is a huge untapped potential to develop ‘people purpose parks’ which not only cater for outdoor recreation needs but truly reflect Australian cultural values and leisure demands.