Urban Highs and Lows

Peter Robertson Urban Highs & Lows Header

Despite being internationally recognised as a country of wide open spaces and empty beaches, Australia has become one of the most urbanised countries in the world, slightly less than Japan but surprisingly, more urbanised than England, US and almost all of Europe. Urbanisation itself has been suggested as one of the most significant global challenges of the next 30 years.

In recent articles I discussed some thoughts on the current and emerging imperatives for sporting participation and the important role that sporting clubs can play in our society, particularly in regional Australia.  In an environment where our key urban populations are rapidly increasing, how important will sports be and what role will sporting clubs play in our growing towns and cities?

We are indeed a sports-mad nation, and our incessant consumption of major sporting events is testament to this.  In his book Global Megatrends, CSIRO scientist Dr Stefan Hajkowicz and his team set out a number of key emerging trends that will help shape future Australian society.  Far from heralding an emerging threat to our sporting culture, this research provides exciting opportunities for sports and the role that our sporting clubs and institutions can play in our society.  The CSIRO report suggests that staying healthy will be a key issue for an increasingly sedentary ‘virtualised’ population, as well as for an aging population that wants to stay active and connected.  The demand for authentic real-life experiences will continue to rise and surely sport is perfectly placed to profit from this ‘Megatrending’ new world.

One can also intuitively appreciate that sport can address current issues that we already face. Obesity is now being considered one of the world’s greatest killers.  According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), worldwide obesity rates have doubled since 1980 and the role that sport can play in addressing this epidemic is obvious and well documented.  Additionally sport can perhaps play a part in issues relating to addiction. Johan Hari’s compelling argument that voids created by disassociation and disconnection are sometimes filled by addiction, is surely equally relevant to both city and country.  Being part of a sporting community should assist in filling these voids. Therefore sport should be factored into community responses to these current issues.

And then there is the research relating to mental illness. Not as well known, but equally concerning for us city dwellers, is German research that suggests that you are more likely to be affected by mental illness if you live in a city.  For example, city living poses twice the risk of schizophrenia when compared with rural life, and this risk seems to be proportional with both the amount of exposure and city size.   It’s a complex discussion however, one explanation that researcher Dr Mazda Adli has proposed for these statistics is the paradox of ‘loneliness in a crowd’.  He argues that Social Density combined with Social Isolation results in Social Stress and its resultant mental health implications.  This theory may set the alarm bells ringing when one considers a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald which suggested that only half of all suburban Australians would be able to recognise their neighbours in the street.  This rising level of neighbourly disconnection is a trend that has been observed since the mid 1980s and the obsessions of our digital lives is perhaps making this situation worse. Neighbourhoods where people know each other are undeniably safer and more rewarding paces to live, so the opposite must also be true.

The WHO has declared that stress is one of the major health challenges of the 21st Century and the German research indicates that this will be more acute in our cities.  How important is sport in combating these current and emerging issues?

Now, I don’t know about you, but as a sports mad Aussie, I find sports and physical exercise to be my most potent stress buster.  Without my daily fix of physical exercise, I can feel my stress levels rising.  Despite the usual time challenges and constraints, my physically active time usually turns into my most productive thinking time and it provides an opportunity to organise my thoughts and process my daily challenges.  Lamentably, my smart phone is armed with lots of gadgets for connected exercisers!

To supplement my regular exercise, my ‘sports fix’ is usually administered via a local sports club or facility and plays a different but equally important role. It is at my local sports establishment that I can partially acquit my need to connect, socialise, have fun and compete with those like-minded.  However, for those not associated with a particular club, parks and public sporting facilities can also provide an important neutral ground where people who share similar interests can make social connections and share experiences. One just has to walk along the waterfront esplanades or visit picnic grounds around Australia on a weekend to see the benefits of this type of infrastructure for communities. Clearly, sports clubs and places where we congregate for the purpose of a common pursuit must surely be an important weapon against the dangers of isolation and Social Stress in urban areas.

Unfortunately, when contrasted against often embellished transport infrastructure modelling for example, the economic benefits of community sporting infrastructure are more difficult to quantify and more easily discounted by policy makers.   The real tragedy of the FIFA and other recent sporting scandals is that corruption and lack of transparency provide valid reasons for policy makers to question the net worth of funding for sports.  Nonetheless, leaving the substantial social, mental health and well-being benefits aside, it has been estimated by Frontier Economics that the physical health benefits alone of increased sporting participation could result in a 1% increase in GDP (or around $15.6 billion).

This is important infrastructure that can continue to fulfil a vital role in our busy cities and growing urban areas.  In my next instalment, I will discuss some of the challenges that I see are facing our urban sporting facilities and make some observations of our delivery of sporting infrastructure.

So as not finish on too dry an end, I will sign off on a favourite and not entirely random quote:-

A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.’  Wayne Gretzky



About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. Neil Anderson says

    Just a few rambling thoughts after a quick read of your thesis.
    After 27 years living in the country I definitely agree there is less stress here than suburban Melbourne.
    Being digitally connected to the rest of Australia and the world these days reduces problems of isolation for someone like me who doesn’t belong to a sporting club or gym. The Almanac has provided the perfect connection to like-minded people throughout Australia.
    Living in a small country town means you are known by sight or name by most locals on a daily basis. But ironically if I want to spread the word about the Almanac for example, it usually draws a blank. It’s hard to believe, but some locals have never heard of John Harms.
    I agree that exercising in between sitting at a computer is a wonderful way to re-set your thinking if you’re writing something. I must admit if I’m walking the dog around the local lake, I’m still thinking how to make up a new title that somehow involves Marcus Bontempelli, or how to write the perfect ending to a scene in a play.
    Yesterday I attended the launch of Almanac in Bourke Street and relived walking the crowded streets to the train station. It was a flash-back to the sixties when I walked these same streets on a daily basis. All I could think of was the Brack painting of Collins Street, except this time the faces were multi-cultural.
    I feel like I have the best of both worlds living in the country with connections to the city, and I enjoy being quite often just that one man and his dog walking around the lake in Mortlake.

  2. Thanks for the comment Neil As you might have guessed from my previous article ‘No Country for Fit Kids’, I have gone in the opposite direction.


    It now sits as roughly 50/50 country to now city and I still love both places. What sets each apart is the people I meet and connect with, and sport still plays an immense role in all of this. I am hoping that my kids understand the joy of spinning your wheels with your mates on a sport field, golf course, in the surf or fishing somewhere nice.. These experiences keep us grounded and our heads screwed on I think.

    I just spent 5 days playing golf with an eclectic group of business people, international sporting identities and ordinary guys like me. We had a blast and sport was the glue that brought it all together. I want my kids to be able to enjoy those experiences as well.

  3. Good onya Neil. Good to catch up the other night. Urban Australia and rural Australia are very different worlds, though both are equally attractive in their own ways. I was born and raised in the Western suburbs, having a mother who had come down from the Riverina to enhance her nursing skills. As a kid i’d go to Corowa 2-3 times a year and became quite familiar and enamoured with places like Benalla, Howlong and Chiltern. I still love these areas.

    Despite my love for getting out to rural Australia I don’t consider it the “real” Australia as some people portray it, for their own reasons. Since the 1890’s the overwhelming majority of us have lived in urban areas. Recent statistics indicate 89.2% of us live in urban communities, with around 90% of Australian living within 50’s of the coast. This is the real Australia

    Australia is a great place to live , though unfortunately there are people who don’t have a great knowledge of or natural beauty or our history. Importantly it doesn’t matter if you’re in West Footscray or Wantabadgerey, sport is a pivotal part of our lives. The Football Almanac is now part of our sporting culture so let’s keep writing for it, reading it, and overall supporting it.


  4. Thought provoking.great piece. random Aspro-hazed thoughts:

    1. Suspect the dense bits of cities do better than suburbs.
    2. Very low priority -with affordable housing – when it comes to metropolitan strategy etc. a few random sports fields or a bike path along a disused road corridor is usually the thing. But you’re talking about social capital here – we know how to mine it, but not how to grow it.
    3. Clubs should. Organise- here in Inner Sydney they went thru a period of aiming for exclusive access. Nah!
    4. Clubs change. Our local Bowlos have re birthed to be venues and general clubs, mostly pokie-free, which has allowed the remaining oldies to get new facilities. And introduced a new generation to a great game.
    5. My parents were mostly ostracised by the Cathos tennis clubs in Hobart when they moved there because they wouldn’t vote for Harradine. Mmmm..
    6. Golf is great. I fought my colleagues at the Wilderness Society who wanted to launch an all-out assault. But a sharing accommodation with others – walkers, dog clubs, people just needing a venue – should reduce calls for carve ups as Sydney gets a million in the next 10
    7. Surf clubs. The best. We’re not near the beach but it resonates with all of us.

    Only a crowd can make you feel so lonely – Go Keith!

    I will try and get my mate Jonesey to come and chat, he is also a geographer but has worked a lot in health.. And is the new President of the Newtown Swans junior AFL club. Just had his 4th on Friday so might be busy…

  5. Good article Peter
    Health benefits of sports are real. Economic benefits are also well supported by evidence fit people are less likely to be sick and are more likely to meet productivity targets. I think it important to look at causes of sporting decline such as longer working hours. Australians are statistically one of the nations with the longest hours of work per week. I have seen the Fly in Fly out culture with 12 hours a day shift work make it difficult to suppoft local clubs. Not just going to the club but being part of boards or coaching kids or umpiring. Just playing with your kids and kicking balls to them is more difficult when you work long hours and by the time you do have time to play with them they are addicted to their computers phones or iPads. It is multifactorial the decline I sporting clubs decline but not dissimilar to the decline an in attending church services. Do you know anyone that goes to evensong anymore. I am not a religious man but I think that these declines are part of a larger picture.

  6. Andrew you raise a valid point about FIFO workers on a 12 hour day, with no real time to participate in community activities. Beyond the urban/rural divide the oxymoron of work-life balance impacts upon the ability of many people to be involved in sporting/community activities.

    I don’t have the up to date figures at hand but since the early 2000’s Australians have been world leaders in house worked. We tend to work some of the longest hours in the world combined with a high rate of casualization and contract work, I think the euphemism for this is ”flexibility’y in the labour market.’

    In the 1980’s I1remember hearing how the advances in technology would lead to increased leisure time. Not to be. As we work more our time to get together, relax and participate in activities has lessened. This often sees the demise of local sporting clubs: not good.

    Panaceas ?


  7. Hi Glen, Andrew & Peter. Great comments, particularly with respect to the FIFO, long hours, and structural impediments to participation and support of local sports clubs/social structures. Andrew, I know you are a national expert in this area being a medical specialist in occupational health – so you see it all.

    I am not so sure about the time poor idea as the data is very confusing. I did quite a lot of research on this topic that I put into an earlier article (and there was piles of data that I culled from that article).


    I would be Interested in yourrespective thoughts on the ideas I covered here.. This article came out of me wanting to understand the data for discussions I have been having in respect tennis and golfing participation programs.

    The comments from Almanac reader are fantastic I have to say.

  8. Hi Robbo

    Your thoughts on the topic of sport and its role in our society are really interesting. I live in an urban environment and within a suburb in which sporting clubs junior) are prominent parts of people’s lives.

    Lots of thoughts here but haven’t time to put them together,,,so one brief thought that does come to mind, and that is the idea of sporting/recreational grounds being a social hub, even for those not affiliated with that sport.

    With urban development and higher density living, these spaces are crucial for residents to escape the confines of smaller homes, often with minimal or no backyard space. I often notice in my own area the networks of dog walkers who meet regularly around the footy oval.

    I would also go as far as suggesting the idea of the green sporting oval as having something of a ecumenical quality….non denominational of course…..Well, on second thoughts, that could be debated….heavily, depending on what suburb in Melbourne you live.

    Anyway, hopefully you get my drift.


  9. Kate, This is an idea employed in Brisbane – philosophically and structurally by the (very large) local govt region known as Brisbane City Council. Cashed up clubs with extensive facilities eg Wynnum Leagues Club became the home of various leagues and clubs in the Wynnum region. It was successful enough to be implemented in other parts of Brisbane – like Shaw Park. That was 15 years ago. I wonder if the system is still in place, and has expanded.

  10. Hi Kate and john,
    I certainly get your drift. My article is part of a 2 part series as I thought the whole thing was too long and boring for one read. I will publish part 2 Saturday and it deals with my thoughts that covers your comments. I look forward to your further input but it echoes yours and expands on some of the regional differences and issues.
    I was in Melbourne for the Newcombe medal last night. Nice to see Sam groth and his coach win awards. They have worked so hard.

  11. Robbo, quick Q ? I know Sam Groth played some tennis in Corowa, but he was born in Narrandera. Now,is he the best sportsmen to come out of Narrandera ?


  12. Gee Glen, you have me there. Anyhow, he gave a nice acceptance speech and i hope he makes a full recovery from foot surgery and has a great summer and AO series.
    His family moved from the country so that Sam could pursue his tennis when he was 14. He is a big lad!!

  13. Last night we had a lovely time playing bare foot bowls at the Whittlesea bowls club. A warm summer evening, sun setting over the hills, 18 teams of four players each covering both genders, made for a fun time. Players ranged from mid teens to early seventies.

    This was a good sporting event, bringing together , collectively escaping the stresses of our lives to have fun together. Though many of us were unskilled in the art of lawn bowls we participated , enjoying ourselves together. This was about living, and being, not simply about having.

    Bare foot bowls is a pleasant community sporting activity. It’s summer now so check out your local bowls club and pop on down for a fun night.


  14. G’day Robbo, returning to the original theme of sporting participation in urban Australia, with an emphasis on healthy living, I wonder if the following points have any resonance for you.

    In New York urban planners and architects are being encouraged to implement active design guidelines for urban spaces, including buildings and streets. A focus is on increased walking and cycling.

    Further north in Canada there is a proposal of tax credits for parents who enrol their children, aged under 16, to enrol/participate in eligible programs , physical activities.

    I don’t have a great amount of specifics re either proposal but in terms of increasing the physical health of urban communities both have some resonance.


  15. Thanks for those thoughts and ideas Glen. I have developed some Green Office Buildings that promote cycling and active transport to and from work. This works quite well but the outside the building infrastructure is lagging. I like the idea of allowing more public infrastructure to be used for activity. Brisbane has recently banned use of park stairways for training so there is always a quid pro quo in these things.

    Queensland has a program that provides funding for kids to participate in sport and they can use the money for membership/coaching etc. It is targeted to low socio-economic groups who seem to have worse health attributes and outcomes in the main. I am not sure how sustainable the program is but surely it will have kick-started some kids to get interested into sport.

    I suppose the take out from this and the points you raise, is that these are relatively small investments when you weight up the community and health benefits. One of the issues to watch is the sustainability of the involvement and somehow working to ensure that programs promote lifelong and structural changes as opposed to quick fixes that produce lots of nice numbers and KPI’s.

    I will look into the Canadian an New York initiatives that you raise.

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