Mass bowls club closures leaving a void in the lives of older Australians

Nov 30, 2022
The number of bowls clubs in Sydney decreased from 210 in 1980 to 128 in 2022 with 51 of those closures occurring in the past decade alone. Source: Getty Images.

The iconic green lawns of the local bowls club have been a familiar suburban feature for over 150 years, serving as the cornerstone of social engagement for many older Australians.

However, in news that will surely devastate those who enjoy nothing more than catching up with friends on the green for a day of bowling, the future of the humble ‘bowlo’ remains uncertain following a series of mass closures.

The Redefining local social capital: the past, present and future of bowling clubs in Sydney report conducted by researchers from the School of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales Arts, Design & Architecture analysed the closures of bowls clubs and the changing nature of the establishments in Sydney.

The researchers found that half of the city’s bowls clubs have closed in the past 40 years. The study also revealed that no new clubs had been opened in the 15 years to 2020.

The number of bowls clubs has seen a steady decline in recent decade with the number of bowls clubs in Sydney decreasing from 210 in 1980 to 128 in 2022.

In total, the number of bowls clubs in Sydney decreased from 210 in 1980 to 128 in 2022 with 51 of those closures occurring in the past decade alone.

The study’s lead author, Louis Heath explained that although the steady decline isn’t “detrimental” just yet, if blows clubs continue to disappear community engagement will suffer.

“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,” Heath said..

“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 resonates 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.”

Lawn bowls green.
Source: Getty Images.

The report’s co-author, Professor Robert Freestone shared similar sentiments, explaining that the bowls club environment “caters particularly well for over 50s and really stitches the fabric of the community together”.

“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,” Freestone said.

The researchers have used the report to encourage developers and local councils to recognise the value of bowls clubs hold for the community, particularly for older Australians.

“Councils should understand the social value of bowling clubs for the community beyond profitability and membership numbers,” Heath says

Freestone stressed that despite the downturn, bowls clubs “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”.

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