Australian cities are not designed to make their residents healthy – and nor do they have adequate policies in place to improve the health of their residents.
Despite being frequently touted as “liveable”, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney’s low density and walkability mean they fail to meet health and sustainability thresholds – according to The Lancet Global Health’s new Urban Design, Transport and Health Series.
This means that residents of these cities often live in areas where it’s difficult to walk or cycle to shops and services, and access healthy food – so the chances of meeting the World Health Organisation’s physical activity guidelines are stacked against them.
“It’s easy to say that people should change, but if they can’t walk anywhere, if there’s no public transport, then you can say whatever you like, but it’s very difficult for people to change,” says lead researcher Distinguished Professor Billie Giles-Corti, director of the Healthy Liveable Cities Lab at RMIT University.
The series, which is an update to a 2016 assessment, examined 25 cities around the world for their public health policies, as well as a number of geographical and built environment indicators. These indicators included things like population density, walkability, percentage of the population with access to frequent public transport and fresh food. Many of the metrics were based on indicators from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, although often with more detail.
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“Many cities talk about wanting to be healthy, sustainable and liveable in general terms, but they often don’t have the policies in place to deliver that aspiration,” says Giles-Corti.
“Our central argument is that if you want to have healthy cities downstream, you’ve got to think about what’s upstream, and the policies that create the intervention.”
A full list of the 25 cities, and their scorecards, can be seen at the Global Observatory of Healthy and Sustainable Cities website.
The three Australian cities in the study – Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney – all scored poorly on density, connectivity and walkability.
For instance, only 53.7% of Adelaide residents, 49.4% of Melbourne residents, and 57.7% of Sydney residents live within 500 metres of a public transport stop that’s serviced at least every 20 minutes.
Cities like Sao Paulo (94%), Hong Kong (83%) and Lisbon (93%) all compare favourably. The 11 European cities in the study, in fact, outperformed the Australian cities on nearly every indicator.
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The results stand in stark contrast to things like the Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of liveability, which Australian cities frequently top.
“The Economist Intelligence Unit is not telling you anything about the lived experience of the average person in the city,” says Giles-Corti.
“What it’s telling you about is what it’s going to be like for an executive who’s going to live in the inner city, where it is probably very walkable.”
The much lower density of Australian cities, by contrast, makes them less liveable for most residents.
“If you want to have some vibrancy, if you want to have shops and services nearby, if you want to have public transport, there’s a minimum level of density that’s required to be able to deliver that,” says Giles-Corti.
“Australian cities have, since the last World War, become very low density. We’ve got this incredible urban sprawl. And that means that shops and services are very spread out.”
She says that other surveys she and her colleagues have done in Brisbane and Perth indicate that this isn’t how most Australians want to live – a majority would rather be closer to shops and services.
“The reason why it’s very expensive to live in Fitzroy is because lots of people want to live there. So I don’t think we should just assume that, because people live in outer suburban areas, that’s their first choice.”
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The researchers are hoping that the study will allow people to see which policies are better at improving urban health.
“What we need to have is policy and spatial indicators that we can use to benchmark and monitor cities over time,” says Giles-Corti.
“That way, we can actually see: do we have the policy and frameworks in place to deliver the cities that we need? And how well are they performing?”
This will have environmental, as well as health-based, implications.
“Many of the lower-middle income countries are rapidly urbanising,” says Giles-Corti.
“If they follow what we’ve done in Australia, the US and New Zealand, and create these very car-dominated cities, that is very bad for the world. That’s a lot more cars on the road, a lot more greenhouse gas emissions, and a lot more congestion that’s going to slow cities down.”
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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