Australian cities out of step on walkability, transport: study

A new series, part of the Global Healthy and Sustainable City-Indicators Collaboration and led by Distinguished Professor Billie-Giles Corti, has been published in The Lancet Global Health.

The ‘Urban Design, Transport and Health Series 2’ assesses city planning policies and the urban design and transport features of 25 cities across Australasia, Asia, Europe, USA, Central and South America, and Africa, with the aim to inform policy directions for more healthy, sustainable cities worldwide.

The new research used indicators such as proximity to public transport and food, walkability, city density and policy settings to determine how healthy and sustainable are the cities of Maiduguri, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Baltimore, Phoenix, Seattle, Hong Kong, Chennai, Bangkok, Hanoi, Graz, Ghent, Bern, Olomouc, Cologne, Odense, Barcelona, Valencia, Vic, Belfast, Lisbon, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, and Auckland. The research published in TLGH is supported by reports and scorecards that present assessments for each city.

This series presents a first step toward the development of a global system of policy and spatial indicators for healthy and sustainable cities.

The Australian cities assessed – Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney – failed to meet several health and sustainability thresholds, let down by poor access to public transport and car-centric designs.

Lead researcher Distinguished Professor Billie Giles-Corti said the report was a wake-up call.

“Our car-centric cities are falling short globally, in terms of being healthy and sustainable for all,” Giles-Corti said.

“Despite positive rhetoric about health, sustainability and liveability, many cities we studied – including in Australia – did not have adequate policies to promote healthy and sustainable lifestyles.

“Urban design standards often fell short of what’s needed to create healthy neighbourhoods, such as safe walking routes and green spaces.”

The study is among the first to assess health-supportive city planning policies, urban design and transport using standardised methods.

Most Australians were found to live in areas that did not meet density and walkability thresholds, in line with World Health Organisation targets to encourage physical activity.

Only 37–44% of the population in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne lived in a neighbourhood with above-average walkability, whereas most people in cities such as Sao Paulo (97%), Hong Kong (96%), Chennai (92%) and Mexico City (87%) lived in a neighbourhood with above-average walkability.

Australian cities also performed poorly when assessed for access to frequent public transport. 49–57% of residents lived near frequent public transport, compared to Sao Paulo (94%), Hong Kong (83%) and Lisbon (93%), where nearly everyone had access.

All 11 European cities included in the study outperformed Australia on almost all indicators.

Giles-Corti said urgent policy reform was needed to help rebuild healthier and more sustainable cities.

“Without good urban policies, we can’t deliver healthy and sustainable cities,” she said.

“Cities should boast neighbourhoods where people can live locally, walk and cycle and have access to amenities they need for daily living.”

The authors are now calling for a 1000-cities challenge to activate a global citizen science program and incentivize collection of open data and create city planning indicators to improve the knowledge base and inform decision-making, with a focus in the most data-scarce areas. These could be used by global agencies to assess progress towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Lancet Global Health Urban Design, Transport and Health Series is available here. Visit the Global Observatory of Healthy and Sustainable Cities to find out more and see city reports and scorecards.

You can watch the global launch of the series here and the follow up launch focussed on Melbourne and Sydney here

Story: Jenny Lucy

  • Header image: Photo by Carl Higgs