The following article is based on an original article published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, authored by Harrison Birch, Clare Walter, Louis Irving, Shymali C. Dharmage and Natasha Smallwood.
There is increasing evidence internationally and in Australia linking a higher risk of asthma and allergies with exposure to traffic-related air pollution.
Given that children are particularly vulnerable to traffic pollution because their lungs are still developing, and they often spend more time outside than adults, a study was undertaken to examine the risks associated with co-locating childcare centres and outdoor play spaces with car parks in central Melbourne and Sydney. This is the first study in Australia to investigate the special relationship and the inherent health risks between childcare centres located in close proximity to car parks.
Many children under the age of five spend a significant amount of time in childcare centres (42% of children in 2017). The siting of childcare centres and the placement of outdoor play spaces in proximity to pollution from roads and nearby car parks is, therefore, a significant health hazard.
While small car parks (fewer than 25 spaces) are needed to enable parents to drop off or collect their children from childcare, co-location with larger commercial car parks is concerning. Nevertheless, until now, there has never been an investigation into the magnitude of the problem of the co-location of larger car parks and childcare centres.
The co-location of childcare centre outdoor play spaces and car parks was examined through measurement of horizontal and vertical distances using Google Earth Pro satellite imagery.
Online registers were used to identify all childcare centres and car parks within a six-kilometre radius of each city centre. The presence of outdoor play spaces and the size of each car park (number of parking spaces) were recorded. A significant size car park was categorised as either greater than 25 spaces (public/commercial parking) or greater than 50 spaces (private/residential parking). Car parks smaller than these capacities are unlikely to pose a significant risk and childcare centres with no outdoor play space were excluded from the data.
In Melbourne, 156 childcare centres were identified within six kilometres of the city centre and 14 were excluded due to having no outdoor play space (5 centres) or insufficient car park data (9 centres). For the remaining 142 centres included, 133 car parks were identified. Eighty-one centres (57%) had a significant sized car park within 150 metres and 43.7% had a car park within 100 metres.
Twenty car parks (15%) were found within 10 metres of childcare centres, of which 12 (9%) had more than 100 spaces. In total, 79 (59.4%) of car parks were found to be larger than 100 spaces, with 40 (30.1%) of these found within 50 metres of a childcare centre. Twelve childcare centres had play spaces above ground level, of which 11 had car parks within 100 metres. Forty-one car parks surrounded these elevated play spaces, with 10 being located directly under the childcare centre.
Four childcare centres in central Melbourne were co-located with hospitals and all had major car parks within 100 metres. Eleven car parks were found surrounding these centres, with eight having more than 200 spaces and three having more than 800 spaces at an average distance of 60 metres. One hospital-associated childcare centre had six car parks within 100 metres, of which four were greater than 100 spaces.
In Sydney, 18 childcare centres (90%) had car parks within 150 metres and 17 (85%) had car parks within 100 metres. Eleven childcare centres were excluded due to the lack of an outdoor play area.
Six car parks (19.4%) were located within 10 metres of childcare centres, of which five (16.1%) had more than 100 spaces. A significantly higher number of centres in Sydney were situated above ground level, with 15 (75%) of the outdoor centres being organised this way. Fourteen of these centres had a car park within 100 metres, totalling 26 car parks being co-located with these centres. Of these 26 car parks, six were located directly under the centre’s outdoor play space.
The study’s findings reveal that children attending the majority of childcare centres in central Melbourne and Sydney are potentially exposed to significant traffic pollution from nearly large car parks, increasing their risk of chronic respiratory disease.
Importantly, the small but significant number of childcare centres either built on top of multi-storey car parks or associated with major institutions (such as hospitals and universities) and co-located in extremely close proximity with large car parks, is concerning.
The report suggests many parents would not be aware of the risks of large car parks being located so close to their childcare centre and so greater awareness of this issue is required.
Physical pollution barriers are one option to reduce exposure, and in order to be effective, the barriers should be purpose-built and generally consist of vegetation. The report also suggests avoiding outdoor playtime at childcare centres during times of peak traffic flow, and to create ‘buffer zones’ between childcare centres and roads.
In summary, the report found Australian childcare centres are located too close to car parks, exposing children to high levels of traffic pollutions. This traffic pollution is an avoidable risk that must be considered when planning the location of childcare centres in future.