Monday, November 24, 2014

How do we value parkland?

Tonight at Hobart City Council (24 November, 2014) we discussed a draft Management Plan for Queenborough Oval, that will be going out for community consultation in 2015.  The motion agreed at Council was amended to include information being given to Aldermen on the income and expenditure of running the Oval.

Now here’s the thing. 
How do we really value the cost to Councils of running recreation and parks premises? 
Do we stick to income/expenses/depreciation/maintenance accounting, or is it time for a new methodology that takes into account the real value to the City and its people?

As a bit of background to see what got me thinking on this, have a look at the draft Management Plan on the Council’s Parks committee agenda.  It’s not a long read, and much of it is in easy layman language.

Particularly, have a look at the map on page 35 of Agenda item 9.  You’ll note that there is a linkage between Bicentennial Park and the Queenborough Oval facility. 
Let me tell you, this is the first time we’ve had a set of consultants think outside the boundary in making such a connection– between a sports ground and a parkland in suggesting a draft management plan.  It really impressed me that these consultants were thinking not just inside the sports ground, but its value to the community surrounding it.
And, and this is the really exciting bit, they looked at it in the context of where it sat in the City and what it's connections were.

And this is a real change that reflects a connection between bushland use and sports recreation grounds.  It re-defines the value of Hobart’s parks and recreation grounds as not just stand alone facilities.  Sport, although a team effort, is also an individual pursuit.  Bushland, although a conservation space is also a recreation place.

The value of bushland linkages for sports grounds also flows into the surrounding suburbs in terms of residential amenity.  How, you might ask?  Well, here’s a story.

Cleaning around the council office prior to the election, I came across a panoramic photo of Hobart from Porter Hill to Mt Wellington and an itsy-bitsy copy of a Certificate of Merit from the Royal Australian Planning Institute. In the 8 November 2000 Tasmanian Awards for Planning Excellence, this certificate in the category of Community Based Planning was presented to the Regional Skyline Group for its “Draft Policy – Management of Landscapes of Natural and Cultural Significance”. 

Memory lane city!  Over fifteen years ago I was involved with a number of citizens across Tasmania in promoting the idea to the State Government of the importance of bushland and undeveloped skylines in planning matters.  (Kay McFarlane, now Alderman on Clarence City Council, was a key and keen driver of the group.  She faced a far worse situation in Clarence with insensitive subdivisions.) 

From this activity a significant document dated February 2000, Planning Guidelines: Urban Skylines and Hillfaces, was developed through the Urban Skylines and Hillfaces Committee in the old State Department of Primary Industry, Water and Environment.  Although alas, following governments saw fit it ignore it, it worked some magic in its day by providing a professional and technical set of arguments for keeping hillfaces, and especially in Hobart.

Fortunately, or not, depending how you look at it, around the same time the development of Tolman’s Hill subdivision provided the “Empress Towers” moment to argue for conserving Porter’s Hill (now Bicentennial Park) skyline when the Dorney family tried to develop most of it for suburban housing in 2001.

Here was me, still wet behind the ears as a new Aldermen, and trying to argue for some form of a Bushland Fund that would buy up the last remaining hillfaces and bushlands of Hobart that had yet to fall to the developer’s bulldozers and their architects’ penchant for stucco ghettos and MacMansions of the kind you see at Nicholas Drive in Sandy Bay. 

How to argue it? 

There was, given the makeup of Council at the time, very few people really au fait with the ideas and importance of biodiversity at the elected level, let alone simpatico.  Could they be convinced why keeping land for plants, insects, reptiles, birds and marsupials versus the possibilities of increased money in the coffers via subdivision was a good idea?  Based on arguing the case for nature in other development applications, no. 

Yet, based on arguing the case for aesthetics and how this translates in improved property prices, this curiously proved the way to get some good policy in place. 

In short, the confluence of the awfulness of Tolman’s Hill development on the skyline, with the policy work done by the community activists of the Regional Skyline Group, and being able to be around the table to argue sufficient support for keeping skylines via a Bushland Fund, all resulted in a largely uninterrupted bush skyline from Porters Hill to Mt Nelson.

You really don’t see this unless you’ve taken the odd ferry trip on the River Derwent, and then the full majesty of this policy outcome is revealed.  You only have to listen to the comments of visitors from overseas how impressed they are that Hobart has kept so much of its skylines as bushland.

What does this mean in terms of the Queenborough Oval?  Well, without the work of past activism and all that flowed from it, it would mean that the linkage between bushland and sportsground would not be possible.  It would mean more of the Mt Nelson/Tolman’s Hill death by a thousand subdivision cuts.  If there were any remnant bushland, it would be way over there, up the hill, over the other side, out of reach other than by car and then only for the very fit.  It would mean that local residents would not be out working in the local Bushcare Groups and making connections with their local community.  The experience of walking this linkage, or mountain bike riding it, would have been lost. 

For the surrounding suburbs of Mt Nelson and Sandy Bay, their quality of living, their residential amenity, will be immeasurably improved by having access to both the Park and the sportsground in a single linkage. 

This is the sort of living environment that people pay very high prices for in Sydney and Melbourne, let alone other places in the world.  And consider this – this sort of living is ten to fifteen minutes by car (at most) to the centre of the City.

I argued years ago that people perceived access to bushland for recreation as valuable in their selection of a home for raising their families.  Having such access would make Mt Nelson and Sandy Bay more desirable, and therefore would improve property prices – and from there, improve the AAV and therefore more rates to be gained for Hobart.  Adding this linkage will again improve the perception of the quality of life for local residents.  Those in Sandy Bay will now have access to bushland via the sports ground linkage that previously would only be possible by negotiating a complicated series of roads by car.

So how to value this in our Annual Report? 

Purchasing Porter Hill is listed as a debt to be paid off, an asset to be managed and depreciated.  Queenborough Oval is listed as a community sports ground whose maintenance appears to exceed its income (like so many recreational facilities).  Arguing the case on old financial methodology means either descending into gated parks and sportsgrounds for the elite few who could pay for entry or accepting running at a financial loss as a bad thing.  If both had to be run at a financial breakeven, first of all, how could you do it if the only value used is monetary, and secondly, would it mean that only those who could afford would have access?

I’d argue that it’s time for a new methodology in valuing parklands and sports grounds. 

The costs are financial and apparent.  The benefits are intangible, not easily quantified in financial terms.  How do we value amenity?  I’m talking about more than the old triple bottom line accounting here.  Access to facilities that improve mental and physical health can be measured in terms of less sick days and less demand for medical health facilities and services.  Access to walking means improved health outcomes, especially where there is a sense of adventure and wonder, a creation of mental contentment in the surrounds. 

And I believe that if we polled the community on the value of access to both sportsgrounds and bushland, with costs shared across all the municipality to ensure equity of access, we might find that it’s time to change the way we account to the community for managing their parklands and sports recreation grounds.

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