Sydney Garden which may be the key to our mental health

The rainforest patch within the vast grounds of the Drug and Alcohol Drug Rehab Center is a favorite spot for residents.

On more than one occasion, center director Garth Popple has said he wants his ashes to be spread throughout the palm, bamboo and fig tree foothills of Moreton Bay.

A resident of We Help Ourselves soaks up the tranquility of the bamboo forest of Callan Park.Credit:Dean Sewell

“Where do you find that in the city center?” He asks over the chorus of cicadas buzzing in the tropical heat of January, minutes before a downpour dancing through the canopy.

Nature seems to be reclaiming much of the area around Broughton Hall, the NSW Health-owned site on which the non-profit We Help Ourselves (WHOS) is based, buried deep in a corner of Callan Park, in the western interior of Sydney.

Almost nauseous, Callan Park has been used as a symbol of the city’s complex and evolving relationship with green and open spaces. Most often, and most recently, the debate has centered on the acceptable level of trade in Sydney’s parks.

But the timing for many Sydneysiders last year was the effect of entering passive space on their sanity. For Mr. Popple, it was his “duh” moment.

The link between the natural environment and mental health is not a recent revelation. There have been many studies. In 2005, NSW Health published a review of the literature indicating that there was growing evidence that gardens in healthcare facilities had a restorative effect on stressed patients.

WHOS professional educator Lenny Ramsay, who introduces clients recovering from addiction to work in the gardens and elsewhere on the lush grounds, says passivity is crucial.

“In a hospital setting, they call it the ‘potential refuge theory.’ You know how you walk around a park, and you find a space with a seat, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s fine with me, I feel safe here”? ” he says.

“We’ve got sports fields, and we’ve got running tracks, and we’re seeing the benefits of that, but to really invest in spaces that have this passive, deeper mindset ability… in COVID, everyone. world has found this to be the key. “

This is a point emphasized against the queue of vehicles approaching COVID-19 tests just outside the gates of the lot; Collective anxieties are mounting again in what should have been Australia’s scorching summer, but have instead been overwhelmed by Omicron.

WHOS Executive Director Garth Popple inspects the gardens of the rehabilitation center.

WHOS Executive Director Garth Popple inspects the gardens of the rehabilitation center.Credit:Dean Sewell

At the height of Sydney’s winter shutdown, communications professional Tabitha Laffernis walked the Hawthorne Canal in Haberfield almost daily during lunch from her unit in Summer Hill.

“When I got to the end, where the Bay Run is, I could smell a bit of salt water, which had a restorative effect,” says Ms. Laffernis.

“For me, it was very necessary during this time, especially since I lived in a small apartment, with no balcony or outside space.

James Weirick, professor emeritus at the School of the Built Environment at the University of NSW, said the universality of the pandemic had exposed the need for parks across generation and income brackets, adding that Australians felt they owned the outdoors like Europeans did not.

Tabitha Laffernis took the Hawthorne Canal for a respite during the lockdown.

Tabitha Laffernis took the Hawthorne Canal for a respite during the lockdown.Credit:Anna kucera

“In Australia’s historical experience… parks were seen as a right, not a privilege,” he says.

“The simple fact of being able to leave your home and walk around your neighborhood, and to experience a degree of freedom and autonomy in your everyday life … it made everyone aware of the real importance of its local green space. “

Open public space has become a mainstay of the government’s mantra as pandemic-induced claustrophobia plunged the city into a mental whirlwind.

Former Planning Minister Rob Stokes introduced grants to close streets and create more parks, overhauled urban planning rules to improve access to domestic space and greenery, and even relaxed restrictions of alcohol in the parks to reward vaccinated picnickers coming out of lockdown.

While the announcements were widely welcomed, one of its flagship reforms was not.

The creation of an agency to oversee Sydney’s parks sparked concern from communities fearful of losing ownership of some of the most equal places a city in the grip of health and housing affordability crises had to offer.

During a heated parliamentary debate on the Greater Sydney Parklands Trust bill in November, Labor Party planning spokesman Paul Scully called the reception of the community “mistrust, mistrust and reserve. “.

Mr Stokes defined his vision of Sydney as a “city within a park” and stressed that the intention of the bill is to care for and restore existing and future parks, as well as to respond to the diversity of uses. community of these spaces.

Labor MPs in West Sydney feared a bigger sale of their own public spaces and an agency that would prioritize funding for Centennial, Callan and Moore parks above Parramatta Park and Western Sydney Parklands.

Canterbury-Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour at Northcote Park in Greenacre, where basketball hoops were removed during the lockdown.

Canterbury-Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour at Northcote Park in Greenacre, where basketball hoops were removed during the lockdown.Credit:James brickwood

The experiences of residents of western and southwestern Sydney in government hands during the Delta outbreak had not been good. At the insistence of the police, overhead lights and gas grills were turned off, and basketball hoops were removed to prevent people from congregating in public parks. This was in addition to a curfew, a military presence and helicopters.

Canterbury-Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour, who has become increasingly outspoken about the collective well-being of his community during this time, said there had been families “of seven and eight, and 10 and 12 “living in two bedroom units.

“Rightly so, there was an uproar because at the same time we needed people to exercise for that hour a day that we had, and make sure they could have that feeling of ‘be alive,’ says Cr Asfour.

“It may seem that the public health benefits were better, but in reality, in hindsight, it might not have been. Perhaps that was a step too far in not allowing people this simple pleasure in life.

Nature dominates in the enclosure occupied by We Help Ourselves in Callan Park.

Nature dominates in the enclosure occupied by We Help Ourselves in Callan Park.Credit:Dean Sewell

Around the same time, the Sydney Urban Think Tank Committee hosted a mental health webinar, where the plight of the Cr Asfour community was discussed.

A senior psychiatrist, Professor Ian Hickie of the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Center, asked how society can collectively respond to the social and health crisis it faces.

Climate and gender advocate Sam Mostyn responded, “We have to rise in this collective mindset… We have to move on from ‘how am I? “, ” how are you doing ? ‘

The committee is also studying the benefits of biophilic design, a movement concerned with connecting people and nature in the urban environment, and enlisted the help of dean of biophilia Amanda Sturgeon.


“The value of nature to mental and physical health has not very often been evaluated on the economic costs and benefits side of things,” says Sturgeon, adding that she tries to do just that. With Sydney’s parks under strain, she explains that much of her work in Sydney is about “re-wilding” parts of the city in a way that allows nature to take control.

“It is very difficult for nature to thrive with well-maintained athletic fields,” she says. “The challenge with active spaces is that they don’t offer us this kind of diversity of nature… biophilia shows that we really like to engage with a richness that nature offers us, which is constantly evolving and stimulating for them. sense. “

The Greater Sydney Parklands Trust bill was passed by the New South Wales lower house on November 17 with amendments primarily focused on protecting against over-commercialization of these precious public spaces. It will be the subject of a parliamentary inquiry before being voted on by the lower house.


For Callan Park, the bill as it is will mean a ban on profit-making activities, except for arts and cultural events, such as music festivals. Nonprofits, such as WHOS, will be able to operate cafes and other restaurants.

The feud over the proper use of Callan Park, in particular, drew accusations of NIMBYish from people who saw its potential to be wasted, with the 60-acre park littered with buildings in various states of disrepair.

However, those with a deep connection to the park do not hesitate to point out that the former grounds of the psychiatric hospital had initially been a health establishment. Broughton Hall, where the WHOS operates, was a military hospital for soldiers suffering from shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

A hammock hangs between two trees in the popularly named

A hammock hangs between two trees in the popularly named “meadow” at Broughton Hall.Credit:Dean Sewell

Much of the masonry laid along the footpaths past the giant figs and jacaranda trees was laid by these veterans. Mr. Ramsay says that, whether for the public or the residents, “the place is designed to heal.”

Standing in front of an altar overlooking the rainforest, one local agrees that everyone could learn a lesson from this lush Sydney pocket, as kookaburras ring in the canopy.

“It’s a magical place,” he said. “It really is.”

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