Urban Utility

Peter Robertson Urban Utility Header 3

In my last article I discussed some of the challenges posed by urbanisation and why sport should play a key role in our future towns and cities. How should we deliver our sporting and recreation facilities in ways that will be appropriate for future residents but takes account of resource constraints?

Australians love their sport and individual sports currently compete for resources, be that talent, funding, facilities and natural resources. This has often resulted in fragmented facilities that are often under-utilised, under-invested and unsustainable. We also need to recognise the changing nature of sporting consumption and the lack of attractiveness of current club membership and operating models to the iTunes generations. So pressure will build on well-located public sporting fields that seemingly sits idle for much of the week, or is confined for use by an exclusive dwindling minority.

Every city and town is different and many of these differences are historical.  Take Melbourne and Brisbane for example. Both cities rank in the top twenty in the Economist’s world livability index (where Melbourne has consistently ranked as the world’s number 1 and Brisbane coming in at number 20). I am a great admirer of sports-mad Melbourne which is blessed with world class and centrally located facilities of all shapes and sizes. Governments have been investing in these since the early 1800’s and access to well-located sporting facilities has been a civic expectation.  One can only marvel as this level of foresight but also the staunchness of Melbournians to protect these assets.   A friend recently described Melbourne as a city that you feel could roll out an Olympics or Commonwealth Games next month if necessary.

By contrast, Brisbane is a country town that suddenly grew up. Some of its most memorable sporting places were back-yards and residents saw having a big back yard as the norm. Urban densification has seen backyards shrinking or disappearing and put pressure on centrally located space for Brisbane’s grass roots sporting facilities.

Peter Robertson Urban Utility Backyard Cricket 1

Another example is the pressure being experienced by some of Sydney’s golf courses, where there is a groundswell of discontent that large areas of valuable and centrally located open space are exclusively dedicated to a handful of members. I am not advocating that our sporting clubs roll over and give up the farm, but equally, it makes no sense whatsoever to put up the battlements and engage in a fight-to-the-death for what will most likely be a losing contest. Faced with such pressure, incumbent custodians would do well to be proactive and embrace inclusive and sustainable solutions before it is too late.

Of course  having real-estate-hungry sporting facilities located on private land is not sustainable in the long run. Property charges and running costs combined with inadequate capital availability or government funding support do not favour this model in the main, although there are obvious exceptions such as gyms. A case in point is back in Brisbane, where the majority of tennis courts have historically been privately owned in one form or another. As a consequence of urban infill and densification, private tennis courts and tennis centres have been disappearing like dodos. The result is that now, the number of tennis courts per capita in Brisbane is half that of the Australian capital city average.

Even though land is an extremely valuable and limited resource in our cities, having centrally located and high utility active recreation space adds to experiences and provides vital social and face-to-face interaction. It also increases the liveability of our cities and the collective value our real estate.

Therefore, my personal preference for investment in sporting facilities is the Community Activity Hubs model; where a central hub provides shared places for people to congregate and socialise in a number of activities. Concentrating this activity allows for greater investment in financially sustainable facilities. They can be of higher overall quality, be open more often and afford more convenient and accessible locations. Confronted with innumerable choices, we also need to accept that sub-standard facilities will not be tolerated or supported by our affluent society. The various sports, activities and urban interface points can radiate from this central hub within community and site constraints. Such a configuration allows people to still pursue their individual sporting passions, whilst facilitating new social connections and perhaps even new sporting pursuits. Ideally, the physical infrastructure should support the social infrastructure and vice versa, thus setting up a virtuous cycle. Think of a public park that integrates a café and bar with some tennis courts, a bowling green, a soccer field and an adventure playground where each activity supports the others. New Farm Park in Brisbane is close to this model.

Unfortunately, as a person who has developed both sporting and commercial facilities, I usually see evidence of the push and pull of myopic stakeholders in sports facility planning and the outcome is rarely optimised. Secular interests can distort design formats and impact on the ultimate outcomes. I am sure we all can think of a multi-sport facility where each sport operates individually and segregates itself and its participants from each other.

Ignoring commercial necessities of these facilities is foolhardy.  Operating in silos discourages holistic attention to economic realities such as revenue optimisation, staffing and operational efficiencies. For instance, I am constantly amazed that the net present value of additional staffing costs is given scant consideration when it comes to design and capital allocations.  Non-integrated facilities are not only wasteful of capital, but fail to optimise revenue opportunities and are difficult to manage and expensive to operate.

Having played innumerable tests and rugby grand finals in the back-yard, I would be sad if we lost the innocence to enjoy those simple pleasures. However, we need to face up to the pressure on our valuable resources and our urban demographic realities. In my opinion, the future of fragmented or mono-sporting facilities is limited and many councils and some sporting bodies are already promoting the concept of active community hubs.

Parochial concerns aside, I feel that councils are best placed to understand local imperatives and lead sporting and recreational infrastructure provision, provided they have clear overarching objectives supported by strong leadership. Many of the benefits of greater sporting participation and improved recreational infrastructure will accrue to the nation as a whole, so it is also essential that councils are adequately resourced and are well guided by state and federal governments.

However as I see it, sporting bodies also need to show leadership and ensure that investments in new facilities are a collaborative venture and not a custody battle.

Every sport pretends to be a literature, but people don’t believe it of any other sport but their own.  Alistair Cooke, broadcaster

Peter Robertson Urban Utility End Table 2

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. unreal. big greenspace conversation in Sydney at the moment.

    coming back to this when am less mancolded.

  2. The good work keeps coming Robbo. I’m going to go off on a slightly different tangent re the term community. It is a word all strands of politics are happy to use, a term that everyone is happy with. Sporting clubs are often considered as hubs of our communities, hotels were for a long time considered a hub of the community. People would come together, hold meetings, services, etc, but what in some ways has surpassed sporting clubs and hotels as being places where we congregate, are shopping centres. Your big shopping complexes, Westfield, etc, is where members of the community meet, socialise, spend their time together. in a period of commodity fetishism is the big shopping centres the new hub of our communities?


  3. You make a good point Glen. Sports is an important community grouping. but there are many many others. There is must studied about the effects of giant malls and shopping towns. There is a movement designed to bring back the high-street in new urban developments called ‘New Urbanism’. The signature town that has been used as an example was also the setting for ‘The Trueman Show’. I like this movement which seeks to bring back that level of incidental community interaction that occurs in the high-streets. Places which have great high-streets are nice places to live. I grew up in a small country town and going ‘down the street’ was an adventure. My grandparents always dressed up to head into town, and I knew that i was in for a treat.

    Sporting facilities probably have a lot to learn from Westfield where their centres are convenient, comfortable, high quality, offer loads of choice and consequently attract loads of people. Many now offer physical activity and sporting type activities. However, I think that you are alluding to a shallowness of this connection that is based on consumerism. High quality and inclusive sporting facilities can definitely attract people out of shopping centres and being part of a sporting club is surely a more fulfilling experience.


  4. Robbo, whilst i’m on a tangent re community and its hubs, a place that is becoming a hub is the local sporting club, on the basis of its pokies.

    We often go to a local bowls club. The staff are friendly , I can have a bet and a bevvy, we now take part in the barefoot bowling, all activities that enhance the bowling club as a place where the local community can gather and participate in recreational activities, but the proliferation of poker machines is disconcerting. It appears the majority of people attending the bowling club are attracted by the poker machines. One would be aware that the DSM 5 now list problem gambling as a mental health disorder. If sporting clubs have to survive, based on a financial dependency with the poker machines that’s sad.

    This again comes back to commodity fetishism where all aspects of our lives appear to be measured by cash exchange. I have always liked a bet but the power of the gambling industry, particularly with the pokies are a major form of ‘entertainment’ in contemporary Australia, is excessive. What his means for the future of sporting clubs and sporting participation remains to be seen. It is an interesting topic, one i’m sure we will continue to discuss. Watch this space.


  5. Hi Glen,
    We don;t quite have he same pokie/club situation in Queensland but I am aware of how this can distort the club experience across the border in NSW. Some have said to me that they are happy that the pokies support the sport and keep sport affordable, others feel that the pokies have taken over. I confess that I was focused on the non-pokie elements but perhaps should have included some thoughts on that as well.

    Brisbane is about to get a mega casino, and it will change the face and geography of our city in a big way. Like you suggest, the jury is out as to whether this will have enough positives to counter the negatives.,

    Gambling seems to be having a massive effect on sport and something to watch out for. That is another topic as you say.

  6. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Interesting thought provoking article and while I understand your point re having full time management instead of volunteers in some aspects it is unrealistic. The main point surely is society in all aspects remembering how important open space and community sporting clubs are re mental well being with communication and the whole social aspect thanks,Robbo

  7. Ta Robbo. Being in Victoria the pokies/club relationship is fairly new, going back to Joan Kirner and her ALP government of the earl 1990’s. The power of the gambling/pokie/club lobby is not as advanced here, a sit si across the Murray. One only has to remember the onslaught they unleashed on the reforms of the Gillard-Wilkie proposal, which was blown out of the water.

    Back here in Victoria clubs often survive on fundraisers, membership drives, etc, as a way of remaining solvent. In the current climate having lots of poker machines keeps your club solvent. Look at reigning AFL premiers Hawthorn ! The point i’m again alluding to is the commodification of so much of sport, where it can be seen that participation and being healthy are no longer the primary point (s), rather the sole focus is on making money.


  8. Hi Malcolm,
    I agree that Volunteers are vital. The numbers are startling on the economic benefit that volunteers provide to sport. According to the ABS, sporting volunteers has been estimated to provide some 200 million hours per annum, which would equate to some $4 billion dollars per annum if based on average wage rates for paid employees in the sector.

    However, I am just not seeing the same volunteer ethos that used to exist. I feel that our kids are being trained (and influenced by media) that the only type of volunteers are those who do work for humanitarian or high profile causes. So, I suppose I made a leap that this was going to be harder and harder to resource going forward . Bringing a number of complimentary activities can allow for full time paid service delivery. This does not apply to many existing facilities/offerings(nor should it) that are open for set times and set activities and there is no one size fits all approach.

    As usual, great and well considered comments on this topic!
    Thanks again,

  9. street golf was happening when I was in Bologna in 04, think it was a promotion perhaps with Monty. I wrote a piece about playing it in rome and holing out through the lid of the pantheon.

    re high streets, everyone in Sydney wants one. we are lucky round here we have 3 – King St, Enmore Road and Marrickville Road. but they take years to develop the accreted character. get the framework right and keep traffic speeds down and voila is your French uncle.

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