As our rates of obesity, asthma, heart disease and depression soar, we are beginning to understand how the built environment can either enhance or damage our health.
Cars have encouraged an ‘obesogenic environment’ in which two-thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese. Clearly this is not a sustainable way of living.
“We know that the way we design and develop our built environment can significantly influence the amount of physical activity that people undertake on a day to day basis,” said Michelle Daley, the NSW Heart Foundation’s senior manager in charge of active living.
Daley says there is “strong evidence” that the way we build cities, communities and neighbourhood affects travel behaviour choices – especially among adults.
“The location, accessibility, layout and design of spaces and places each affect the extent to which people are able to make healthy choices and lead active lives.”
The Heart Foundation’s Blueprint for an Active Australia 2014-17 presents contemporary evidence in 13 different areas, and finds that reshaping the built environment to encourage walking, cycling and public transport use, as well as recreational physical activity, can significantly increase our daily exercise.
Higher levels of walking for transport are found in walkable neighbourhoods – that is those with sufficient density, mixed-use zoning, connected street networks and access to public transport, as well as a good balance of jobs to housing.
Recreational walking is also encouraged through the presence, proximity and quality of green space and the aesthetics of streets. The nicer the place, the more likely we are to enjoy walking around it.
Daley says urban design that promotes active living also offers a range of benefits beyond the physical, including environmental, mental health and economic benefits.
“Creating walkable neighbourhoods in disadvantaged areas may also help reduce inequalities in chronic disease,” she noted.
The Premier’s Council for Active Living has created a developer’s checklist with case studies to help the industry make their new communities active ones.
Green Star – Communities, meanwhile, rewards projects that consider walkability, safe places and access to amenities, with a specific Healthy and Active Living credit encouraging designs that feature footpaths on one side of all streets, good pedestrian and cycling facilities, and public parks and sports facilities.
Beyond the health benefits, higher Walk Scores are associated with higher property values and lower crime rates, not to mention greater levels of social interaction that encourages creativity and civic engagement. In fact, one very recent study found walking to be one of the most powerful drivers of creativity.
And so, in the words of Hippocrates, “walking is man’s best medicine.”