There is over 30 years of research on how aspects of the built environment can be shaped to support health and wellbeing. Despite knowing better, we are still building neighbourhoods without public transport, good parks and footpaths.
Authors: Julianna Rozek, Karen Villanueva & Lucy Dubrelle Gunn
A new paper by researchers from the Healthy Liveable Cities Group at CUR, the University of Western Australia and the Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research, Australian Catholic University calls for collaboration and action (collaborACTION) to build healthy and liveable cities.
How we build neighbourhood environments affects people across their lifecourse – children through to older adults engage with some aspect of the built environment every day. From the design of rooms and classrooms to the areas we live, learn and work, the built environment influences our lifestyle choices and behaviours. This affects how much physical activity we do, our social and mental wellbeing, and overall health.
While there may be differences in built environment and health associations depending on age group, there are also similarities. The macro and micro built environments can be designed to promote health and wellbeing across the lifecourse.
For example, schools, workplaces, and retirement villages can be designed to promote social interaction and physical activity. Locating them in areas with a variety of local places and spaces (such as quality green public open spaces, shops, and food outlets), lots of connections to walking and cycling routes, and safe walkable streets, can make walking and cycling the most convenient travel mode. Providing seating, lighting and well-maintained footpaths can support mobility in the very young and old, as well as feelings of safety.
For research to have an impact it must be accessible and useful for policy-makers, health advocates, practitioners and other stakeholders. For example, there is a need for more intervention-based studies and natural experiments, which provide valuable real-world examples and case studies. Economic evaluations are also very important for making the case for built environment interventions. By quantifying the benefits of healthy neighbourhoods, these studies highlight the true cost of bad design.
Meaningful collaboration can produce better research and better built environment outcomes. Researchers can assist with designing robust analysis and studies, and in return get in-kind support and access to higher-quality data more suited to peer-reviewed publication. Policy-makers and other stakeholders benefit by having evidence they can use to make better decisions.
The responsibility of creating healthy cities is not limited to researchers, urban planners and developers. Everyone interacts with some aspect of the built environment every day and can have an impact.
Schools and parents can be powerful lobbyists for safer streets and higher quality parks. Older adults spend more time in their local neighbourhood, and can be passionate and outspoken advocates. Employers can design workplaces to encourage riding, walking and public transport to work by providing bike storage and change rooms, organising discounts for transit tickets, and limiting free car parking.
It is our collective responsibility to advocate for a built environment that supports the health and wellbeing of communities. We need to collaborate and act on building healthy cities for all.
For further information, contact Julianna Rozek via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nathan, A., Villanueva, K., Rozek, J., Davern, M., Gunn, L., Trapp, G., Boulangé, C. and Christian, H., 2018. The Role of the Built Environment on Health Across the Life Course: A Call for CollaborACTION. American Journal of Health Promotion. vol. 32, no. 6, pp. 1460-1468. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890117118779463a