Australia is rapidly losing many of its most iconic suburban hubs for older people with the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney revealing that almost 50% of lawn bowls clubs in Sydney have disappeared in the past 40 years.
The report Redefining local social capital: the past, present and future of bowling clubs in Sydney paints a stark picture of lawn bowls in the modern age, with the number of clubs in Sydney decreasing from 210 to 128 since 1980.
Seen as the ‘third place’ for many – where people spend time between work and home – the humble ‘bowlo’ has been a mainstay of Australian society, especially for a large group of over 65s.
Louis Heath, lead author and city planning graduate, said the clubs were particularly beneficial for older generations of men after returning from war.
“Australia had a very strong post-war leisure boom. There were often many sports clubs in one suburb, including an abundance of bowling clubs,” said Mr Heath.
“Bowling clubs are much more than a destination to play lawn bowls.
“They are a place to engage with your local community and make friendships, the relaxed vibe and the affordable beer in an unpretentious setting still resonate with Australians.
“They cater well to the older generation, who are the keen bowlers, but also allow younger people to come and host different events. There might be less emphasis on the bowling, but the clubs themselves can be a big part of people’s lives.”
According to the 2019 National Bowls Census Report, close to 400,000 registered participants are aged 60 and over, with the participation rates the highest in the 75+ age group.
All up, close to 700,000 Australians regularly participated in lawn bowls in 2019.
Professor Robert Freestone, the report’s co-author, said bowls clubs provide an accessible way for older people to remain active and social.
“Along with this physical legacy, there are the social values embedded in the everyday appeal of the bowlo, not as a public space, but as an important informal space where we gather,” said Professor Freestone.
“There is a distinctiveness to the lawn bowls environment that caters particularly well for over 50s and really stitches the fabric of the community together.”
Accessibility has been challenged, however, as cities continue to infill and modernise infrastructure. Many sporting clubs are located on valuable real estate.
Mr Heath said it became unsustainable over time to have multiple clubs in the same suburb and many have been forced to merge or sell their land to housing developers just to survive.
“The thinning out isn’t detrimental yet, but if clubs start to become less accessible, beyond easy walking distance, they won’t attract as many people, and people will lose a way to engage with their community,” said Mr Heath.
The report calls on local councils to be mindful of the importance of sporting hubs like lawn bowls clubs, particularly to older generations who lean on them for purpose and friendship.
“They do have life left in them, but as more disappear, we lose not only a significant part of our cultural landscape but also another space that is important to many people,” said Professor Freestone.
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