It’s been called the tale of two cities. As the weather warmed up and Sydney emerged from a locked-down winter, Australia watched on as the city’s wealthy frolicked on the beach and lapped up the waves. Meanwhile, in Sydney's west, playgrounds were cordoned off and time outdoors was limited to an hour each day. The divide was, and is, glaring.
But access to green and open space in cities across Australia has never been equal, and as we face dual climate and health crises, the consequences of this disparity are clearer than ever.
Research reveals that access to green spaces is unequal in every Australian major city, with high-income suburbs having far greater access, and low-income suburbs consistently having less.
Adelaide is the city with the greatest disparity, with there being 20% greenery in the most affluent suburbs, compared to just 12% in the least. Across Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne, just 53% of residents on average have access to large areas of greenery within 400 metres of their home. Much like Sydney, these cities are divided in two.
Ellen Wong is a 22-year-old environmental sciences student living in Sydney’s north-west. Throughout lockdown, Ellen has been confined to her local 5km radius which, as an avid lover of the sea, unfortunately doesn’t include the beach.
“I'm definitely someone who gets a lot out of spending time in nature...I love being in the water. Just the sensation of going for a swim [is so] head-clearing and refreshing,” she told Refinery29 Australia.
Ellen’s connection to the sea is a feeling that many of us can relate to. As humans, we seek out natural spaces as a way to decompress, restore and reconnect with the world around us. Some research suggests that even just being able to see green space can support our mental health and provide restoration in stressful circumstances. The benefits of access are very real.
As a researcher in climate psychology with Psychology for a Safe Climate, Dr Sally Gillespie has studied the benefits that we enjoy when we have access and connection to nature. Once upon a time, Dr Gillespie says, we might have seen parks or open spaces as a nice add-on to our lives, but now, she explains that “we understand that having time outside in the living world is crucial for... both physical health and mental health, and it's also a really important part of our social life and community.”
Within a few minutes of being in green spaces, Dr Gillespie says, the fight or flight part of our brain starts to calm down and allows us to experience a sense of relaxation. As our nervous system relaxes, our digestion is better supported, which allows our energy to restore and our heart rate and blood pressure to lower. After half an hour in nature, our stress hormone, cortisol, drops, which supports our immune system, blood sugar levels, memory and brain function.
“We're made by ecosystems….These are the spaces we evolved in. We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to thrive in such spaces,” says Dr Gillespe.
For Lisa Li, a 21-year-old honours student living in Liverpool in Sydney’s south-west, nature has been a vital resource for helping her to manage stress throughout lockdown. “Parks are the best place to relax, especially with my honours getting really crazy, a park is a great place to completely not think about it,” she says. And living in a household of five, Lisa says she really values the headspace she can get when going to the park.
Lisa also speaks of her friend who lives nearby and is a frontline worker. For her, the local park is her “place of happiness” where she can relax with her dogs, unwind after a stressful shift and recharge.
So when people like Ellen, Lisa and their communities don’t have easy access to these spaces, the consequences can be dire, says Dr Gillespie. Due to the restorative benefits of nature, no access means having less capacity and support in being able to relax and manage stress levels; trauma becomes hard to resolve.
“It's the double whammy of being in a more stressful situation, especially if you can't find your own space because there's a lot of people in your home, and then not being able to then take yourself out and have a period of restoration,” she says.
While where we live determines how much we have access to nature, and in turn, the benefits we may gain from it in the now. The looming climate crisis also reveals how access to nature will impact our futures.
What people think when they think of quintessential Sydney life is this beachside existence that actually, only a very specific part of the population has.
The connotation of 'leafy streets' is synonymous with old, wealthy suburbs in Australia. The large tree canopies in these neighbourhoods provide shade and fresh air, and help to cool down our sweltering summer days.
In contrast, outer urban and new development suburbs have some of the lowest amounts of tree coverage and green space. High housing density, black rooftops and unshaded footpaths are prime for attracting, absorbing and intensifying heat in what is called the urban heat island effect. In Australia, nowhere is suffering more with this effect than western Sydney.
On 4 January 2020, Penrith in far western Sydney was the hottest place on Earth, hitting 48.9 degrees; in 2019, Parramatta, also in the west, had 47 days with temperatures above 35 degrees. For residents, these days are both unbearable and inescapable.
On hot days, Lisa says she’ll check her weather app where it will record expected temperatures, “but because there’s a lot of sun and concrete it feels like you’re walking in a 40-degree bubble; it’s horrifyingly bad walking just five minutes to the park,” she says.
And these heatwaves don’t just bring discomfort, but are also dangerous for those most vulnerable to their effects. “[People in] western Sydney, are actually quite often living in very dangerous levels of heat," says Dr Gillespie. "So what I hear from Doctors for the Environment is that they dread those days because they're going to see their older, more vulnerable patients cope badly, be hospitalised or die."
By comparison, residents living in wealthier parts of the city, likely by the beach or the harbour, get to experience cooler temperatures due to established tree cover, more green space and sea breezes. They can also take a dip and cool off at their local swimming spot.
For Ellen, on these hot days, going for her much-loved swim is “an operation”. She says, “I have to hop in my car and drive halfway across the city to have to do that. It's not a casual kind of thing...What people think when they think of quintessential Sydney life is this beachside existence that actually, only a very specific part of the population has.”
But with most people being locked out from attaining property in the beachy, cooler suburbs, they have no choice but to swelter.
For Dr Gillespie, the first step in combating the disparity in access in Australia is acknowledging the problem and understanding what this inequality means for people in our cities. She explains that we need “significant government support” to get communities involved in designing interactive green spaces that are useful and meaningful to them.
As much of Australia experienced some form of lockdown this year, we are all reminded of the crucial role green, open space plays in our lives. We lean on it for respite and restoration, and our access levels dictate how we experience the climate crisis. Everyone should be able to enjoy the benefits of green, open space and everyone has a right to a healthy environment.
And communities can’t wait any longer. All the research and reasons for taking action are there, but leaders are dragging their feet. Dr Gillespie says, “This has been seen as a fringe issue rather than an absolutely fundamental one.”