As Australian cities become denser, it is comforting to learn that the Heart Foundation promotes density as the key to fitness for Australians.

The logic of this may seem initially to be unclear but an examination of the Foundation’s publication Does Density Matter? makes a compelling case for linking density and fitness. The key to having a healthy heart is to be active and the simplest way to do this is through walking for at least 30 minutes a day.

The Heart Foundation then goes on to conclude that neighbourhoods where walking takes over from driving creates healthier people. And the most walkable neighbourhoods are the ones where there are good reasons to walk. The reasons include walking to transport, closeness of supermarkets, and the richness of nearby amenities, parks and interesting places. Most of these attributes occur in compact dense areas.

Studies both within Australia and internationally have found that higher residential densities, along with mixed uses, are associated with walking for all ages, and that people living in higher density neighbourhoods undertake more walking and physical activity than people living in low density neighbourhoods.

Density also brings things closer together and provides the benefit of more "eyes on the street," or passive surveillance. This passive surveillance contributes to the feeling of perceived or actual safety required to encourage more walking, particularly for women and children who may feel vulnerable walking alone. Passive surveillance is a key component of Crime Preventative Urban Design and encourages well-maintained, safe neighbourhoods.

However, density alone does not automatically equal better health. A range of factors also influence the walkability of neighbourhoods, including location, quality and design of buildings, quality of amenities such as public transport, shops and services, the physical environment and geographic location and the socio-cultural background and demographic composition of the residents. One of the most vital elements is the distance to public transport. Most public transport trips require a walking trip at the beginning and at the end. Density around transport ensures people can use public transport without an onerous walk tacked onto the beginning or end of the trip.

Placemaking is also crucial. To encourage more walking, the streets and pathways should be places where people and gather and linger. This concept was first espoused by renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs in her landmark book on urban planning The Death and Life of American Cities. She noted that attempts by city councils in North America to move social activity from sidewalks and streets into parks with little or no passive surveillance tended to fail and create unsafe areas devoid of life.

In order to encourage more street life, streets should contain a mix of activities and uses, spaces for random social gatherings, a range of services and good landscaping in order to cultivate an element of ‘vibrancy’ which attracts people to the area.

Density also works conversely; another report by the Heart Foundation (Low density development: Impacts on physical activity and associated health outcomes) found that low density neighbourhoods are "positively associated with increased overweight and obesity in adults and adolescents." This is largely due to increased car dependency, which results in fewer residents walking and using active transport like cycling.

The policy implications of these reports upon urban design and transport planning is clear: through careful and well-considered urban design and planning, increased higher density urban living can encourage people to live fitter, healthier lives.

An online tool has been developed to measure the walkability of cities and neighbourhoods in Canada, America and Australia. WalkScore measures the walkability of urban areas based on a range of factors including access to public transit, amenities and pedestrian friendliness. Unsurprisingly, the most walkable cities were found to be those which incorporate high density neighbourhoods, with New York, San Francisco and Boston named as the top three cities for walkability.

  • Sound prescriptions for much of inner-city Melbourne and Sydney, much of which was built prior to the advent of widespread car ownership. Probably too late though for the sprawling suburbs of our urban hinterlands.

  • Absolutely right on.

    Provided that footpaths are sufficiently wide and accessible, density creates an incentive to walk rather than drive. Lets have more cleverly designed urban infill and less of these Caroline Springs type debacles whereby whole new neighborhoods are created with no thought as to how or when transport links are going to be added.