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Planning healthier cities

by Peter Krieg

Urban planners are encourage to look at designing to promote healthy living.Cities are home to the vast majority of Australia’s population, but as our urban centres have grown, so too have the nation’s waistlines, prompting one UniSA urban planning educator to urge that health is made a priority in city planning.

An OECD report released in 2010 predicted Australia would reach a 60 per cent obesity rate by 2014, but that level was surpassed in 2012. The country is now one of the most obese nations in the developed world, and our cities are defined by their car-dependent environments and increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

Johannes Pieters.So how does the planning of urban areas affect the health of those who live in them? This is a fundamental question underpinning research and teaching by Dr Johannes Pieters (pictured right) in UniSA’s School of Natural and Built Environments.

“For too long, urban planning has been about cars and shopping centres – it lost the health focus it had at the end of the 19th century, when industrialisation was creating particular health problems,” Dr Pieters says.

What emerged were cities built for cars, with key amenities clustered within networks of major roads. Considerations around walkability, safety, community and social interaction, contact with nature and access to food ran secondary to outward expansion, and these, according to Dr Pieters, are essential for a healthy population.

The good news, he says, is that urban planning has been changing, and ways of embedding physical activity and good nutrition – both powerful obesity fighters – are becoming integral to city design.

“Over the past decade or so in Australia we’ve seen health and planning coming back together, and stronger consideration of how the built environment can encourage more physical activity, more social interaction, more nutritious food, and therefore a healthier population,” he says.

Dr Pieters says there is opportunity to address big chronic disease problems – including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, obesity and some cancers – through good planning.

“Many of these diseases are preventable and we know there are some environmental factors at play,” Dr Pieters says.

“Planners now look at connectivity between streets, open spaces, higher density environments close to public transport, street trees and community gardens as part and parcel of new developments.”

These and other components of healthy design are explored in a course Dr Pieters coordinates called ‘Planning for Healthy Cities’, which brings together planning students and health sciences students to study how to plan health-promoting built environments.

“We take students out into the real world and teach them how to assess the built environment,” Dr Pieters says.

“They learn to apply a ‘health lens’ to the design of housing developments, to look for pitfalls and opportunities for improvement.

“We are fortunate to have one of South Australia’s leading health planners, Kirsten Potoczky, as part of the teaching team, and we have a strong working relationship with the School of Population Health.”

The course examines key theories and models regarding links between the built environment and health, and includes field trips to local developments such as the Bowden Urban Village and St Clair.

Chris Bailey.The link between planning and health is also being explored by School of Health Sciences honours student Chris Bailey (pictured right), who is looking at the concept of ‘food deserts’ and ‘food swamps’.

“Food deserts are urban areas where residents have low access to nutritious, fresh food,” Chris says.

“Food swamps, on the other hand, are those areas where there is a disproportionately high concentration of fast food outlets and other high-calorie food options, which are easier to access than healthy, fresh food.”

How the characteristics of these types of urban areas affect the food choices of residents, particularly those with type two diabetes mellitus, is central to his honours research. He is aiming to develop a visual tool to assist local government in developing planning policies that prioritise the availability of fresh food and encourage healthy food consumption.

“If we can identify the areas where risk exists, it may be possible to shape the urban environment to provide healthier choices,” Chris says.

While Adelaide’s councils are increasingly focusing on health from planning stages onwards, Dr Pieters says the city still has plenty of room for improvement.

“We need to get more people out of cars and into cycling or walking or both,” Dr Pieters says.

“Challenging the car-centric nature of our cities and getting more people physically active across childhood, school, workplace, and general community settings is vital to tackling obesity and improving the health of our urban population.”