Australia’s burgeoning population is making the Australian dream of a detached home with plenty of space for gardens, barbeque, and swimming pool unattainable for many people. In its place, more people are living an urban lifestyle, with more exposure to pollution, and too little physical activity. Will the inexorable shift to urban living create unhealthy generations of Australians?

Rapid urbanisation around the world creates different challenges for developing nations and developed nations. In the developing world, the challenge is to get basic infrastructure built, such as roads, potable water systems, and sewer systems. Cleaner energy sources such as electric and gas are invaluable as well, so people don’t have to rely on heavily polluting coal and wood fires for cooking. Currently, according to the United Nations, more than one billion people worldwide endure slum conditions, with limited access to healthcare, potable water, and modern sanitation facilities, coupled with a greater risk of infectious diseases.

In the developed world, the diseases of prosperity can be partially attributed to outdated urban design practices, which have left so many cities with the overwhelming presence of auto-centric infrastructure and the corresponding lack of infrastructure that supports walking, biking, and transit. Obesity, stress, diabetes, and mental health issues abound as people urbanise.

Furthermore, the World Health Organisation considers air pollution in both developing and developed countries to be the greatest health threat, contributing to 12 per cent of deaths globally. More than 1.25 million people die from traffic injuries yearly, while lack of physical activity causes 3.2 million deaths per year.

Health issues confronting Australians mirror those in other developed countries. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics:

  • More than 60 per cent of Australian adults are now overweight or obese.
  • About 5 per cent of Australians have diabetes.
  • More than 75 per cent of Australians aged 45 and up have dyslipidaemia, which means “they were taking cholesterol-lowering medication or had one or more of high total cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol or high triglyceride levels based on their test results.”
  • Ischaemic heart disease, which includes heart attack, blocked arteries, and angina, accounted for more than 14 per cent of all deaths, topping the list.
  • About 11 per cent of Australians have hypertension.

The solutions to these health problems appear to be relatively simple, if not always  easy to implement, thanks to their dependence on government authorities to make the right decisions. A number of cities around the globe, nonetheless, have chosen urban planning strategies that have resulted in solid benefits for citizens.

Curitiba, Brazil, for example, embarked on its urban planning scheme in 1966. Since then, according to the World Health Organisation, the city has become four times more dense while seeing its population quintuple. An extensive recycling system collects more than 50 per cent of paper, metal, glass, and plastic. The city has planted over 1.5 million trees, and has built an extensive system of urban transport options that are used regularly by an estimated 72 per cent of the population. The city’s life expectancy, at 76.3 years, bests the national average by two years.

The need for strong leadership cannot be overstated. The WHO’s case study on Curitiba noted, “Curitiba owes part of its success to strong governance and institutions. A cogent long-term vision, sustained political commitment, and a politically insulated regional planning organization to implement the vision have all been crucial steps in the city’s long-term sustainable urban pathway.”

The WHO case studies also emphasize the power of increasing transportation options. Freiburg, Germany, “has become a world leader in integrating sustainable transport and land-use in urban planning.”

The city has seen transit ridership double, while the number of bicycle trips has tripled, and the share of trips made by car dropped from 38 per cent to 32 per cent. Key factors in achieving these improvements include adopting restrictions on auto use, implementing public transportation improvements, and “prioritising public transport infrastructure development ahead of residential expansion.”