The latest urban planning strategy for Melbourne envisages the creation of neighbourhoods that are far easier to negotiate on foot in order to foster the development of healthier communities.

Plan Melbourne, which was released by the state government toward the end of 2014, outlines an overall vision for urban growth in the Victorian capital over the next several decades until mid-century.

One of the key long-term objectives of the strategic plan is the creation of more “walkable neighbourhoods” throughout the city, where all key facilities can be reached on foot within 20 minutes.

According to Plan Melbourne, these neighbourhoods will be places where “housing is within walking, cycling or public transport distance of employment, education, social, cultural, recreational and health facilities, and where people have access to open space and places where they can gather.”

The creation of neighbourhoods structured to incentivize regular travel on foot could have a highly positive impact on the health of residents, and in turn dramatically cut down on medical costs.

According to Better Health Victoria, walking for just 30 minutes a day can have a slew of health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, increased cardiovascular and pulmonary fitness, as well as improved management of conditions such as hypertension and high cholesterol.

The National Physical Activity Guidelines recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week to achieve a minimum threshold of health, while a study commissioned by Medibank Private estimates that the economic cost of failure to maintain this level of health by the general population to be as high as $13.8 billion per year in 2008.

Facilitating access to key facilities via public transport will also improve traffic flow in Melbourne, where a sharp rise in the state’s population from 3.5 million to 4.2 million between 2002 and 2012 has already resulted in worsening congestion and lengthier commute times.

While the potential benefits of more walkable neighbourhoods are evident, whether or not such designs will change the behaviour of residents is another matter.

An analysis by BIS Shrapnel sought to determine the extent to which distance from transportation and services affected daily levels of walking.

Their study found that throughout total Metropolitan Melbourne distance did indeed affect walking activity, with residents living within a kilometre of a train station averaging 1.3 walking movements a day (defined as a journey from one destination to another on foot) as compared to 0.9 movements per day for those living between one and three kilometres from a train station, and 0.57 movements per day for those living more than three kilometres from a station.

The impact of the proximity of train stations remains highly variable, however, with average walking activity remaining roughly the same in outer Melbourne irrespective of distance from public transportation facilities.

BIS Shrapnel’s conclusion is that other design factors have an impact on walking activity, with train stations in outer suburbs most frequently adjacent to either large car parks or low-density housing.

In other parts of Melbourne, however, greater housing density in the immediate vicinity of train stations fosters increased density of services and facilities, which in turn helps to incentivize travel on foot.

In order to achieve Plan Melbourne’s goals, urban planners must thus focus on broader design factors to facilitate pedestrian traffic, in addition to just the proximity of public transportation hubs.