No dress rehearsal: why we must act now to save our cities

Billie Giles-Corti knows what makes cities liveable. And she says we need to work together to design better urban spaces for everyone.

The Distinguished Professor and Director of RMIT University’s Urban Futures Enabling Capability Platform is passionate about building healthy, liveable and sustainable communities.

For two decades, Giles-Corti and her multi-disciplinary research team have been studying the impact of the built environment on our health and wellbeing.

It’s critical work.

Our cities are not only bulging with people, but teeming with problems – from unprecedented population growth and rapid urbanisation to housing affordability, air pollution, traffic congestion, rising chronic disease, mental health, social exclusion and public safety.

For Giles-Corti, the future of our urban spaces is being decided today. We need to act before it’s too late.

“This is not a dress rehearsal. The pressing local, national and global problems in urban planning are complex, important and happening right now,” she says.

“Cities across the globe are grappling with how to house, mobilise and provide food and water to rapidly growing populations.

“We need to create affordable higher-density housing in green leafy communities, with local shops and services and employment using high-quality public transport and walking and cycling infrastructure.”

And it’s not just urbanisation, but suburbanisation – that’s the problem.

Most Australians live in sprawling, faraway suburbs that lack critical infrastructure for crucial public services and public transport.

Giles-Corti and her colleagues have started to lay the foundations for an alternative blueprint to the places we call home. It takes the form of a liveability index, which maps indicators of urban liveability across Australia’s cities.

“We’ve looked at the concept of liveability through a health lens,” Giles-Corti says.

“It includes different dimensions, such as public open spaces, access to affordable housing, shops and services, social infrastructure, public transport and walkability.”

Once released, Giles-Corti hopes the index will equip communities, policymakers and practitioners involved in city planning to work together and design healthier, more liveable urban spaces for everyone.

“Building better cities requires integrated interventions across multiple sectors,” she says.

“We are co-creating our research with policymakers and practitioners.

“If they help us to identify the complex urban problems that are keeping them awake at night, it makes our research immediately relevant to their needs.”

So, with all her knowledge of liveability, if Giles-Corti could choose to live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

“London, after Melbourne of course!”

“If you look at inner London as a place to live, it’s a great city. The buildings are mostly four stories high, and you have Victorian houses with parks in the middle, fabulous public transport and shops and services within walking distance.

“It’s good quality living, with a couple of important contemporary exceptions – its lack of affordability and growing traffic problems.

“If we could replicate the best elements of what London has to offer everywhere, we’d have better results when it comes to urban living.”

Story: James Giggacher

Originally published on RMIT News – 19 May 2017