Public Open Space

Good practice for creating public open spaces
Provide a well distributed network of walkable attractive and public open spaces and natural areas within the neighbourhood that provide for a variety of recreational, sporting, play and social needs of the community.

  • Design Feature, Public Open Space, Diagram
  1. Convenient access to local, district and regional public open space supports improved levels of walking in a community.
  2. Co-locating school ovals with local public open space is an effective way to encourage physical activity.
  3. A range of public open spaces, natural, recreational and managed address the diverse needs of the local community.
  4. Well lit and maintained public open space is inviting for the community.
  5. A public piazza in the town centre will have different features to regional public open space.

What do we mean by "public open space"?

The term public open space is an over-arching concept that encompasses a variety of spaces within the urban environment that are readily and freely accessible to the wider community, regardless of size, design or physical features and which is intended primarily for amenity or recreation purposes – whether active or passive. [1]  

Throughout the physical activity literature however, the use of the term has generally referred to all areas of land reserved for the provision of green space (sometimes called ‘green infrastructure') and natural environments (e.g. parks, reserves, bushland) and intended for use for recreation purposes (active or passive) by the general public.  


The terms “parks” and “public open space” are often used interchangeably throughout the physical activity literature.  However, studies focussed on examining the associations of public open space with physical activity have generally been focused around “parks”, referring to areas typically designed for a range of different leisure or recreational needs – both active and passive.  These included landscaped, ornamental and manicured gardens or parks and playgrounds as well as publicly accessible (i.e. free to use) sports fields and ovals.  

Parks have tended to be classified as either active or passive spaces.  Active spaces typically provide for more formal recreational pursuits and organised sporting activities (e.g., ovals, soccer pitches).  Active spaces within parks may also be hard non-green spaces, such as basketball and tennis courts which are important facilities for physical activity and exercise.  Passive public open spaces often refer to areas with features such as lawns, trees, landscaped gardens and shrubbery, lakes, fountains, picnic areas, seating and/or walking trails that promote less active or lighter physical activities, or as places for gathering and socialising. 

In recent year’s local government have raised concern that the existing hierarchy of POS in Western Australia does not work and/or deliver spaces that meet community needs.  The Department of Sport and Recreation (DSR) has developed a new classification framework to address this issue and it is currently being considered by the Department of Planning

Plazas, piazzas, squares etc

These refer to paved open pedestrian spaces commonly found at the heart of a town centre.  These provide important gathering places and important foci for a range of activities, public interactions and the development and enhancement of community cohesion and social capital. [1]  Whilst activities undertaken in piazzas and squares do not normally promote vigorous physical activity they are an important aspect of urban fabric and community wellbeing. 

Why is public open space important for physical activity / health? 

Parks and other areas of public open space provide local destinations for people to walk and cycle to and be active in; provide exposure to nature which can be restorative and provide positive mental health benefits; and places for social interaction which is critical for creating and maintaining community cohesion and building social capital. For children and young families, parks provide a place to meet and for children to participate in physical and social play.  The provision of public open spaces is thus a key factor in promoting active living and providing important physical, psychological and social health benefits for individuals and the community.

Summary of evidence

For a more detailed overview of the evidence supporting the benefits of public open space for physical activity and health click here

Evidence has shown that park users are more likely to achieve recommended levels of physical activity compared with non-users.


For children and adolescents, living within 800m of parks and sports centres increases the likelihood that they will use these facilities, and walk or cycle to and from them.


There is some evidence indicating that living in closer proximity to large, attractive public open spaces, is associated with being physically active in young people and adults. 

[6, 14, 15, 16, 17]                                                                                  

There is evidence associating the presence of attractive public open space with enhanced mental health for adults, and that access to nature and green space assists with children’s mental health. 


The provision of playgrounds in parks also provides opportunities for children to engage in play activities which promotes learning about vital social skills such as turn-taking, sharing, negotiation and leadership in addition to providing opportunities for physical activity. 


The provision of natural playgrounds also helps to improve many aspects of emotional wellbeing, including minimising anxiety, repression, aggression and  sleep problems and improving social behaviours.

[26, 27, 28]   

The presence of supportive infrastructure within parks such as footpaths, wooded areas, constructed and natural trails and sports facilities or equipment has been associated with park use and physical activity and walking within parks. 

[5, 15, 16, 19]   

The presence of aesthetic features such as trees and bushes, gardens, grass (i.e. irrigated lawns), flowers, natural settings and water features, as well as the availability of amenities such as toilets, picnic tables as well as the condition and maintenance of park facilities and equipment has also been identified as important for park use. 

[5, 6, 18]   

Perceived park aesthetics, condition and safety have also been associated with park visitation and physical activity levels within parks. 


Attractive park aesthetics appears to promote recreational walking, whereas physical incivilities appear to deter recreational walking for adults and older adults. 

[20, 21]   

The inclusion of community gardens in public open spaces can positively influence diet, providing greater access to healthy fresh fruits and vegetables. 

[29, 32, 33]   

Other benefits of community gardens include improved physical fitness through engaging in physical activity associated with gardening, improved social activity and social connections through the sharing of produce with neighbours, and stress relief, relaxation and improved mental health.

[29, 33, 34]