Liveable cities mean healthier, happier residents. But policymakers must keep pace with development to make sure good urban planning leads to better overall health and wellbeing, writes Billie Giles-Corti.
The co-benefits of urban liveability for the economy, social inclusion, environmental and social sustainability, and public health are now well recognised by all levels of government in Australia and internationally.
But what does “liveability” really mean? While it may make headlines, this apparently simple question has no easy answer.
For more than 20 years, I and a multi-disciplinary team of researchers have been studying the impact of the built environment on health and wellbeing.
Our research shows that comprehensive city planning is beneficial to community health. The elements many of us look for in our neighbourhood are proving time and again to be good for our wellbeing.
Take walking for example. Whether or not an area is walkable, with access to shops, service and public transport, with trees and parks nearby affects residents in many ways. This includes whether they walk locally, how safe they feel when walking the streets, how mentally well they feel in general and whether they have connections with neighbours.
Our longitudinal study – the Residential Environments Projects (RESIDE) – evaluated the Western Australian government’s Liveable Neighbourhoods (LN) guidelines. This policy aimed to create more pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods while RESIDE examined the impact of urban design on health factors such as walking, cycling, public transport use and sense of community.
We found that implementing and enforcing the planning rules directly affected the community’s overall health. Importantly, the better compliance with the policy, the better outcomes for the community.
Then University of Western Australia PhD student, Paula Hooper, found that for every 10 per cent increase in overall Liveable Neighbourhoods policy compliance, participants were 53 per cent more likely to walk within their neighbourhood. They were also 40 per cent less likely to feel unsafe from crime and 11 per cent more likely to have better mental health.
RESIDE provides strong evidence that new communities built in accordance with LN principles will likely promote the health and well-being of residents.
Our study also made four other key findings in our search for what makes a city more liveable and residents healthier.
First, getting the movement network right is vital for creating a ‘walkable’ neighbourhood. The results show that living in a neighbourhood with increased connectivity is essential for increasing walking. It provides more route choices, more direct routes and good proximity to core destinations.
Second, when a supportive movement network and diverse residential density is combined with good access to community centres, adequate local retail, community amenities and quality public parks, the “liveability” of the neighbourhood is enhanced.
Third, design features and street-level characteristics can make a neighbourhood a safe, attractive and desirable location. This, in turn, can enhance community health and wellbeing.
Fourth, the street network surrounding school sites should be highly connected but importantly, have lower levels of traffic to create safe, short, and direct walking or cycling trips for school children.
All of this comes with a caveat; urban design policy is only as good as its implementation.
For example, despite strong impacts on health, RESIDE results on compliance indicate a substantial shortfall in “on-ground” implementation. So no matter how determined a government is to implement healthy urban design guidelines, they are often frustrated by slow delivery of infrastructure and intransigence.
Developer incentives and disincentives are required to both “push and pull” change in planning practice and supportive professional development programs. We also not only need good urban design policy, integrated city planning is also needed that delivers public transport and social infrastructure: schools, shops and services.
For example, facilitating the early establishment of local retail and community amenities would provide speedy activation of neighbourhood town centres in new developments. We also need economic development and employment policies to provide local jobs, and high-quality public transport to get people to work.
The reasons to improve residential neighbourhoods are inarguable, although public health tops the list. Up to 80 per cent of cases of coronary heart disease, 90 per cent of type 2 diabetes cases, and one-third of cancers could be avoided by increasing physical activity, a healthier diet, and stopping smoking according to the World Health Organization.
More than 50 per cent of the world’s population live in cities and within 30 years that figure is expected to reach 70 per cent.
For this reason alone it is imperative that we create walkable cities that are healthier for residents. While there are examples of public policy aiming to do this, there are few planned developments that deliver on all community health measures.
Unfortunately, in Australia we are still some way from turning best intentions into reality. In addition to RESIDE, for the last five years, my colleagues and I have been studying how you define liveability and whether our capital cities meet these standards. We’ve looked at liveability through a health lens. The result is our Creating Liveable Cities in Australia report, Australia’s first base-line measure of liveability and the most comprehensive definition of what makes for healthy, liveable communities.
Overall we found that across all the domains liveability – walkability, public transport, public open spaces, housing affordability, employment and the food and alcohol environments – the policy-frameworks and targets are not in place to maintain and enhance urban liveability.
This is not only a problem for today’s populations as it impacts their health and creates greater inequities, but is setting us up for failure in the future given our populations are growing so rapidly. And the challenge is made more acute by the fact that Australia’s population is expected to double by 2050.
What our latest research shows is that we need to act and we need to act now – before it is too late and our cities become places where no-one can live well.
The RESIDE study was funded by the Western Australian Health Promotion Foundation, and undertaken by the Centre for the Built Environment and Health, The University of Western Australia.
Creating Liveable Cities in Australia was funded by the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, and the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Centre of Research Excellence in Healthy Liveable Communities. Download it at: