Is country living healthier than city living?

Monday, July 31, 2006
Life in the city. The traffic's hell, work's crazy — small wonder, thousands dream of ditching the big smoke to find a quieter life in the bush or on the coast. But would you really be better off making a sea change?

The theory's good and out in the country it's all about clean air and no stress but is living in the country all it's cracked up to be? Does living in the country actually make you a healthier person? Our reporter Michael Slater has decided to find out.

Professor Robert Cummins of Victoria's Deakin University has spent 15 years measuring our quality of life and produced a massive report on our wellbeing.

"It's a deep sense of our own mood state, it's a state of happiness but it's not the short-term happiness that you get when you find ten bucks. It's asking deep in ourselves how we feel about our own mood," says Professor Cummins.

Bob surveyed 28,000 people from right across the country, from that, he's worked out the kind of place most of us reckon we'd be happiest living.

"It's not a capital city it's a regional centre that contains the amenities people want and yet is small enough for people to have a sense of neighbourliness and a sense of community that is very missing usually from the inner city areas," he says.

In other words a place like Wagga Wagga — so good they named it twice. But Michael is a bit biased — it's his hometown. He's heading back to check out if country life really is as good as we think it is.

First impression?

"I'd forgotten how much extra space you've got … and on the main street there's hardly any traffic around so basically I've got most of the shops to myself."

Sounds good so far, doesn't it? And as a kid, what more do you want blue skies and green grass.

Phoebe Bull's a city slicker, who's made the switch. After a successful publishing career in Sydney, she's moved to Wagga to marry Tom, a farmer.

"It's been a big adjustment. I've left my job, which I loved, my gorgeous old friends, and you know, just my city way of life that I'd gotten used to," says Phoebe.

The job front's a bit lean here compared to Sydney, but Phoebe's enjoying her new life, especially the community spirit.

"There were really big fires here at New Year's Eve, Junee fires, and quite devastating and just the way the community got behind it straightaway with fundraisers," she says.

The downside of all that community spirit, is everyone knows your dirty laundry.

"People do become overly involved in one another's lives and for some people this can be a great source of irritation," says Professor Cummins.

Here's something else to consider before jumping into a sea change. Studies have found people living outside the cities, have poorer diet, drink and smoke more, and have shorter life expectancies.

But down at the local Wagga pub, these blokes aren't buying that.

"It's the relaxed pace and friendly atmosphere that gives you a good feeling of wellbeing," says one local.

"So it's being less stressed that's going to make you healthy you think?" asks Michael.

"Absolutely. The slower pace is good for your health."

If you do get sick out here, another country negative is the health services are pretty thin.

"I phoned to go to the dentist here, booked in two months ago and November 25 is the next date I can go — it's just unbelievable and doctors are the same," says Phoebe.

So you can see, country life isn't quite as perfect as we imagine. A city slicker making the change, might find it a challenge.

"Country living can be a bit dull, if it's the weekend, Friday or Saturday night, and what you're in to is going out, well you've got no chance," says Michael.

Michael heads back to Sydney to check out the pros and cons there.

In order to pursue his cricket career, Michael had to move to Sydney and for a young bloke from Wagga, it wasn't an easy transition.

"It was hard work, it felt lonely, I was working in the city, tall buildings it was just totally different to anything I'd ever encountered and I nearly didn't stick it out — I nearly moved straight back to the country," he says.

That sounds strange to someone like water taxi man Ric Fletcher — he can't imagine not living in the city.

"People get onboard and tell me Ric you've got the best job in the world. And they could be right."

Like many city slickers he loves what the city has to offer: "Things open 24 hours a day you can find a restaurant or a café anywhere. You've got the opera, theatre, cinemas a great choice of night life and live venues you can go to where you've got top-class acts playing pretty well all year round," says Ric.

Sure, but what about the air? Sydney's ozone pollution is 10 times worse than any other Australian city, thanks to all the traffic. But according to environmental expert John Dengate, bush fires and those heavily polluting wood burners mean you can't really breath easy in Wagga either.

"What we find is in the recent drought, and because Wagga has got that valley situation, it actually, for particles, has worse levels than Sydney," he says.

So Wagga's geography means it holds the smoke a bit, but frankly I lived there, and give me country air any day.

Recapping the pros and cons:

  • Wagga Wagga — population 59,000.
    A less healthy population but a slower pace of life. It's a great place to bring up kids in a strong community.

  • Sydney — population 4.2 million.
    It has better work and leisure opportunities. But it's stressful and more polluted than Wagga.

Add it all up, is living in the city, or the country better for your wellbeing? Funnily enough, it's up to you.

"It's really horses for courses, some people couldn't stand living in the country away from the cappuccino strips, away from the anonymity that the city affords them, away from the entertainment possibilities. Other people seek contact with other people, meaningful deep contact — they want to know their neighbours, they want their kids to be known by their neighbours," says Professor Cummins.

So what's Michael's position on all this?

"Okay, I'll come clean. Wagga was a great place to grow up. But now I wouldn't swap the Sydney beaches for anywhere in the world. Of course, if there was a country versus city footy match, you know who I'd be cheering for, it's country all the way. Once a country boy always a country boy," he says.

  • Sea-changers aren't just retirees. More than 60,000 Australians leave big cities for coastal towns every year and nearly 40 percent of sea-changers are under 40 years old.

  • One of the appeals of living in the country is the roaring log fire. But how much pollution is our heating causing? Even the most efficient wood burner produces enough pollution in 24 hours to fill the Sydney Olympic Stadium.

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