Build it and they will walk: the suburbs that foster good health

Jason Dowling  |  City Editor for The Age

If you design suburbs so walking to public transport, shops and parks is an easy option, people will walk – that is the simple and clear finding of long-term Australian research.

urban sprawl

Health and planning experts are urging governments to make health a feature of planning laws and city growth strategies.

Researchers monitored the amount of walking by more than 1400 people building homes in new developments in Perth. Readings were taken before moving in and about 12 months later.

The results, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, showed transport-related walking declined and recreational walking increased.

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The relationship between public health, built urban forms and transportation options in Australia is increasingly becoming a focus of research.

The presenation will provide a review discussing possible health indicators to be used in assessing future land use and transportation scenarios under differing climate change situations.

Urban form characteristics, such as density levels and mixed land uses are identified. These characteristics can be measured to determine the health impacts related to the transport choices they provide. The health benefits, and subsequent economic benefits particularly from health-related productivity, of walkable, transit orientated urban forms are well established and are measurable. Important health indicators include vehicle miles travelled, access to public transport, access to green areas, transportation related pollution levels, transportation related noise levels, density and mixed land use.

A comparison between a high walkability urban environment and a low walkability urban environment identifies various infrastructure, transportation greenhouse gas emissions and health costs. From this it is determined that infrastructure and transport costs dominate.

Greenhouse gas emission costs are small unless the social costs are considered, and then they become substantial but still lower than the infrastructure and transport costs. They are cumulative however and will become more important in future. The health costs are very small if considered to be those related to sickness however health-related productivity gains that are associated with highly walkable urban areas are substantial. Increased productivity considerably outweighs the savings of increased physical activity and reduced health cost reductions from active travel alone. Furthermore these productivity gains are additive to the other costs and together all of these costs provide a powerful economic rationale for developing urban forms geared towards active travel.

Dr Anne Matan, Dr Roman Trubka, Curtin University Sustainability Policy (CUSP) Institute WA

The 5th Healthy Cities: Working Together to Achieve Liveable Cities Conference – June 6th to 8th – Geelong, Victoria

UP 4 Health Guidelines

The Urban Planning for Health project (UP4 Health) is a Health Promotion response to Australia’s long-term pattern of ‘unhealthy’ urban development. Suburban expansion in Australia, characterised by low density housing, poor public transport infrastructure and stand-alone retail centres, has created a car-dependent society with limited opportunities for physical activity and social interactions. There is a rapidly growing body of evidence demonstrating that this pattern of urban development is a key contributor to our nationwide health problems relating to obesity, tobacco and alcohol consumption.

UP4 Health provides a strategic platform for the Health sector to positively influence the population health outcomes of urban planning processes. The cornerstone of the project is the UP4 Health guide, which was developed to build the capacity of Population Health staff in making submissions on development proposals and plans as well as enhancing their knowledge of the links between health and planning. The guide provides a summary of the key areas that can be influenced, key recommendations for letters of submission and links to other relevant publications.

The UP4 Health project has prompted greater Health involvement in urban planning activities, ranging from broad projects such as the Metropolitan Plan for Sydney 2036 through to specific master plans and development applications. While it will take a number of years to see the end results of this groundwork, early achievements include the adoption of health-related objectives in key planning documents at both local and state level. These successes indicate that UP4 Health has the potential to contribute to healthier patterns of urban development in the future.

Miss Melissa Palermo, Northern Beaches Health Promotion – NSW Health

This paper will be presented at the Healthy Cities Conference in Noosa in Juy 2011