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Sport in Australia's outer suburbs means long drives, jumping over fences and closed pools

Jaber Moudir has to climb a school fence to play basketball with his mates in an area with few facilities. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Climbing over a public school fence to play a social game of basketball with friends isn't the experience many young people living in Australia have to contend with.

But Jaber Moudir from Melbourne's south-eastern suburb of Cranbourne describes the access to public sports facilities in his neighbourhood as "very limited".

There are better options in surrounding suburbs but getting to them isn't convenient due to limited public transport; a trip to Endeavour Hills involves catching two buses and a train — a trip of more than an hour.

Jaber Moudir doesn't understand why there aren't enough sports facilities in his area. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Australia's growth areas falling behind

The fast-growing local government of Casey, where just under 60 per cent of the population is aged under 45, consistently has some of the lowest sports participation rates in Victoria.

Victoria University's Professor of Sport Participation, Rochelle Eime, found in 2019 that approximately one in 10 residents in growth areas like Casey, Hume and Wyndham were members of sport clubs.

That number shrank during the COVID pandemic, and Casey suffered more than most.

Professor Eime said public sports and recreation facilities shouldn't be an afterthought when new areas are being developed.

"Participation in sports should be much higher [in Casey] than some of those older suburbs of Melbourne, where they have a lot older demographics," she said.

Professor Eime says limited sports facilities don't only impact physical health but mental and social wellbeing of people. (Supplied: Rochelle Eime)

She said a number of factors were involved in growth areas like Casey having poor sports participation rates. They range from socio-economic status, availability of infrastructure, population density and actual space for infrastructure.

"If you think about all the little sub-divided blocks of land, how many you need to actually build a couple of ovals and a pavilion is quite a lot," she said.

In 2019, the City of Casey scored the second highest out of all grant proposals in the federal government's Community Sport Infrastructure program for a proposal to make female-friendly upgrades to Sweeney Reserve, but had its application rejected.

This and other discrepancies later became known as the sports-rorts affair and ultimately forced then Coalition sports minister Bridget McKenzie to step down.

The council has since prioritised the upgrades, self-funding the project with assistance from state government.

But Casey Softball Association president Paul Little said areas like his need more, not less, federal funding.

Mr Little believes growth areas like Casey need more support because families are still figuring out how to manage their finances. (ABC News: Ahmed Yussuf)

"Because it's a new growth area, you move into the area, you buy your house, you really do struggle with your first four or five years in the mortgage," he said.

Western Sydney's CBD without a pool for five years

When Yusra Metwally was working in North Sydney, she'd often duck out on her lunch break for a midday swim. But that's not an option now she works in what many have started calling Sydney's second CBD, Parramatta.

In 2017, the public pool in Parramatta was demolished to make way for the new football stadium.

For Ms Metwally, it's unfortunate an essential swimming facility has been lost in Parramatta, where swimming is the second most popular sport for people under the age of 45.

Ms Metwally says pools in Western Sydney on a hot summer day are jam-packed; there's no room to go in, let alone swim. (ABC News: Duncan Huntsdale)

"It's just been a lost community asset for a part of Sydney that's increasingly growing, a part of Sydney that's being portrayed as a second CBD," she said.

The City of Parramatta council missed out on $500,000 for a new aquatic centre despite registering a high score in the Community Sport Infrastructure program.

The local council was able to access funds from the NSW state government, and the process of building a new pool in Parramatta has begun, scheduled to be completed by 2023.

But Ms Metwally said the demand on swimming pool facilities over the past few years had been significant.

"Go to a Western Sydney pool on a hot day, and there is no room. You're not even able to swim because people are simply going there to seek a place to cool down."

Other pools have closed in recent years. Under the 2019 Leisure and Aquatic Strategic Plan, public pools in Greenacre and Villawood were shut, with the costs of upgrading the facilities cited as key reasons for their closure.

Prior to the last election, the federal government announced the $150 million Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream (FFWSS) to deliver urgently needed infrastructure to encourage women's sport and prevent drownings.

Yet the majority of funding was pledged towards pools in 11 Coalition-held seats.

Three years on, close to $20 million of the scheme remains either unspent or has been shifted into other programs.

To explain the delay, Women's Safety Minister Anne Ruston said in Senate estimates last week: "I think one of the things we all mustn't forget — as much as we'd like to — is the impact of COVID."

Ms Metwally worries the closure of pools in Western Sydney may leave diverse communities on the backfoot when it comes to learning how to swim. (ABC News: Duncan Huntsdale)

One of the beneficiaries of the program was the North Sydney Olympic Pool, which received $10 million.

"It definitely feels unfair… It is like an iconic Sydney pool but North Sydney isn't the only pool that requires upgrades," Ms Metwally said.

"Living in Western Sydney prevents you from being able to go swim in an ocean just due to the geography and so that makes accessibility to pools such a issue of equity.

"There is a higher population of migrants and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds where we do see an increased rate of drowning at the beach."

National approach to growth areas

The State of the Fast Growing Outer Suburbs report in 2018 found the death rate from heart disease in outer suburban growth areas was higher than the capital city average.

"There is a definite difference in the health indicators between inner and outer suburbs," Bronwen Clark, executive officer of the National Growth Areas Alliance, told the ABC.

"Communities and populations in the outer suburbs do tend to have higher levels of psychological stress, of obesity, of type-two diabetes."

Ms Clark said growth areas right across the country were facing the same issues in terms of a deficit in access to sports facilities.

"We seem to live in a world where funding for infrastructure, whether that's road or car parks, or sports facilities has been politicised," she said.

"If you don't have a park nearby or if you don't have a basketball court or a footy oval nearby, then you're not going to just spontaneously go out and do some exercise.

Professor Eime said a national approach was essential to ensure there was equal access to sport facilities and green space.

"It's not just the physical health, it's the mental health and social health and wellbeing, which we know has been really hampered through COVID."

Professor Eime says without good data tracking areas of need, it's very difficult to understand trends.  (Supplied: Rochelle Eime)

However, the federal government has abandoned a key element of its Sport 2030 plan that was to create a database to better track which sports facilities across the country needed upgrades.

In March 2020, leading sports ministers across the country met and removed the project from Sports Australia's work plan. The abandonment of the project was never announced.

Professor Eime was disappointed the project was scrapped because the need for evidence-based decision making was vital.

"Without good data, it's very difficult to understand trends. There is no integrated facility database in Australia, nor by state — we're [Victoria University] the first that have developed an integrated participation database."

Limited options in one of WA's fastest growing areas

Luul Ibrahim travels to Belmont Volcano Park so her kids can have a sense of play.  (ABC News: Robert Koenigluck)

Luul Ibrahim drives almost half an hour to take her children to the park.

She said the parks where she lives in Gosnells, one of the fastest growing areas in Perth, do not cater to the needs of children of all ages.

""It is important because for all ages to have a sense of belonging, a sense of play, they can learn and grow from it," she said.

Ms Ibrahim is a mother of seven with children ranging in ages, so it's hard finding activities that can serve them all.

"I like Belmont Park… it's got a volcanoes park but what it has is different levels of area for children to play in," she said.

Ms Ibrahim said sport and recreational facilities in Gosnells were quite limited for teenagers.

"The only [options they] have are skateboarding and a bicycle. But what happens to those that don't have those?"

Ms Ibrahim says it's sad that public money isn't going into the right places. She wants accountablity. (ABC News: Robert Koenigluck)

In Perth, more than 70 per cent of the city's population growth is in outer suburban areas.

The City of Gosnells is among the fastest growing areas in the country. It's home to new and emerging communities with 43 per cent of the population born overseas, and more than a third coming from non-English speaking backgrounds.

But Gosnells missed out on $500,000 of federal government funding for the development of Bracadale Reserve, despite scoring well in the grant process.

"It is sad when the money's not going to the right place. And it comes back to accountability," Ms Ibrahim said.

In a statement, Gosnells Mayor Terresa Lynes said they were disappointed to have missed out on the "much-needed funding" for the redevelopment of Bracadale Park.

"Particularly as we met all the criteria. As a result, the city is revising plans for this project and expects to deliver these in the near future," Ms Lynes said.

For now, Ms Ibrahim will continue to drive almost half an hour to take her kids on a day out. It's either that, or they miss out altogether.

Ms Ibrahim feels ridiculous when she drives so far away for kids to play at a park. But doesn't feel there's much of a choice. (ABC News: Robert Koenigluck)
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