Though people are living longer, there is an epidemic of chronic diseases affecting quality of life, especially, but not only for the elderly: cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, diabetes, cancer and auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Increasing obesity trends are also alarming, especially in relation to the health of our children with recent research stating that the rate of obesity and being overweight in Australians aged between seven and fifteen years has doubled since 1985. Eighteen per cent of Australian adults are obese, a figure which has doubled since 1989.
A greater awareness of the opportunities to contribute to positive health outcomes, on the part of professional planners and urban designers as well as local and state government and the community, will hopefully mean some of these negative health trends can be reduced.
Provision of walking and cycling
Provision of walking and cycling paths is a commonly accepted design component of our urban environments and residential areas. However the mere provision of such facilities is not enough! The location, including links and destinations, width, surface materials, signage, and facilities enroute such as seats, shade, drinking fountains, toilets, are also critical design elements to be considered. A narrow walking/cycling path located at the rear of dwellings surrounded by high fences is of dubious value! Footpaths (suitably wide to enable shared use) must also be provided along each street, streets that are connected – not a maze of dead-ends and culs de sac. Whilst a walking and cycle trail may provide a wonderful opportunity for physical exercise and relaxation in the open air and sunlight, often the most direct route is to a local destination such as the school, shop, local park or post box is the route made for motor vehicles. Therefore we should plan roads to be safe for pedestrians and cyclists, not only cars.
Speaking of local destinations – if there are no local destinations then residents have even less reason to walk in their local area! A local shop is a vital facility – it is here that residents meet each other, buy essential provisions (hopefully healthy fresh food) and in doing so get some exercise. Health means mental as well as physical health, and our mental health is frequently affected by how we feel about a place. Opportunities for social interaction in a local community are a key to positive community spirit and the mental health of residents.
An awareness of the impact the planning and design decisions can have on the health of individuals could be a difference. Obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer may be diseases of our time but we can make a difference by providing more opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating in particular. For the motor vehicle to be a less attractive option relative to walking or cycling will be a challenge involving multiple remedies such as increasing densities, vastly improved public transport, safer and more attractive pedestrian and cycle routes and attitudes changes, with all strategies undertaken in a coordinated not piecemeal way.