With lots of exciting development happening in Dubbo at the moment – both with lodged DAs and potential developments on the horizon, one of the challenges for any Council is to have a balance between concrete and grass. Sometimes I hear suggestions from developers that we should sell them a nice big green area (like Barden Park or Victoria Park) so they can build offices or commercial premises on that location. The argument from the developer is sound – an injection of funds into the Council coffers and more commercial development for Dubbo.

However, there is always much more to consider than just money. Council’s role is not only to ensure we have a balanced budget and are financially sustainable. We are also expected to create and develop a City in which people love to live. We promote the fact that Dubbo is the City of Smiles and I constantly talk about the friendliness of our residents. Dubbo’s vast amounts and quality of open space, parks and gardens might have something to do with that.

Several studies have built the case for nature as a stress buffer and promoter of healthy residents. The benefits a brush with nature can have on people’s mental health is particularly noteworthy. Researchers from the UK, Japan, China and the US have connected parks, gardens, green areas and forests with lower mortality from cancers, circulatory diseases, stroke and other causes.

When we held the Local Government Association conference in October last year, I heard constant feedback that attendees were impressed with our parks, gardens and general open space. In our local government area, we currently maintain 116 parks, 22 sporting facilities and 56 reserves covering 476 hectares. We have more projects on the boil with master plans underway for Regand Park, Wiradjuri Park, and the Dubbo Regional Botanical Gardens.

In balancing all of these niceties, it is relevant to remember that each time we inherit or create new green space, it needs to be maintained and we normally don’t receive money directly to maintain that new parcel. That is one of our challenges and one that many councils face.

Keep in mind that it wasn’t so long ago that humans lived in small rural communities where access to nature was literally on their doorstep. Now, in a highly urbanised and global community, people have a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook but don’t know the name of their neighbour.

As we start to dig deeper into the health benefits, the case for more greenery becomes obvious. Firstly the cost of depression-related illnesses (depression is not the only form of mental health issue but the most common) to the Australian economy is $3.3 billion annually. Keep that figure as a backdrop. A study of 11,000 adults showed that individuals living more than 1km from any green space were 42 per cent more likely to report high stress and had the worst scores on evaluations of general health, vitality, mental health and bodily pain. Those with 10 per cent less green space had a 25 per cent greater risk of depression and a 30 per cent greater risk of anxiety disorders compared to those with green space near their home. A separate study of 4,500 urban adults revealed those living in closest proximity to areas containing a high amount of green space were less likely to experience negative health impacts of stress.

The data isn’t restricted to adults. A considerable bank of evidence also supports the benefits of green spaces to children suffering from Attention Deficit /Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). One study showed that children undertaking nature-based activities exhibited reduced ADHD symptoms by up to 30 per cent compared to urban outdoor activities and a threefold reduction in symptoms where the same nature-based activity was carried out indoors. We are all only too aware of the growing trend of obesity in our society. The difference in weight gain between children living near green areas against those who lived in a more urbanised setting was 5.1kg for girls and 5.9kg for boys.

It would therefore appear that across all ages, across all socio-economic groups, across many nations, the case is very strong for a progressive Council to plan large useable areas of green space in modern urban designs. It doesn’t appear specifically to be the presence of buildings and other modern elements in our environment that is detrimental to our health – but the absence of natural elements, such as grass, trees and open space. I love the look on the faces of Chinese exchange students who come to Dubbo – they sometimes just stare into open areas with a dazed look as they trying to comprehend the open space. Having spent time in our sister-city in China last year, I probably had a similar dazed look on my face when I stared at the concrete and the smog!

The success of our Tracker Riley extensions last year bears testament to the desire of humans to be outdoors and we will continue to develop open space for our residents. We want Dubbonians to be happy, smiling, healthy residents. The challenge for Dubbo City Council – and all councils – is to balance the expense of the construction and maintenance of open green space with the need to have a sustainable Council.

Tell me if you will be joining 15,000 other people and enjoying the great outdoors at the One Night Stand in Dubbo today at mayor@dubbo.nsw.gov.au

Clr Mathew Dickerson

Mayor of the City of Dubbo

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