RMIT urban academic wins 2020 Sir James Barrett Memorial Medal

Distinguished Professor Billie Giles-Corti has been awarded the 2020 Sir James Barrett Memorial Medal for her outstanding contributions to developing healthy, sustainable and liveable communities.

Awarded by the Town and Country Planning Association, the medal recognises the best contributions by researchers, architects, planners and public servants to town planning in Victoria. 

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

Based at the RMIT Centre for Urban Research, Giles-Corti and her team have mapped policy-relevant urban liveability indicators across the 21 Australian cities in the Federal Government’s national cities performance framework and are being disseminated through the Australian Urban Observatory.  

This work is now going global, with a subset of these indicators being developed in 25 cities across six continents.  

Receiving the medal yesterday at the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) General Meeting, Giles-Corti said she was deeply honoured to be the 2020 recipient.  

“20 years ago, we embarked on a new program of research physically auditing thousands of public open spaces to measure their quality attributes, how public open space was used, which types of public open space attracted more users; and then studying the physical and mental health impacts of access to public open space,” she said. 

“At the same time, we started exploring how we could draw on the discipline of geography to measure the built environment using geospatial information systems or GIS. 

“We had to build the field from the bottom up, because when we started doing this work, it was still new.  

“Although many had called for this work to be done, I’m proud to say that my team and I did the first comprehensive studies globally.  

“It was challenging – very multidisciplinary involving urban and transport planning, recreational planning, sports science, public health and geography. 

“Fast forward to the present – there is now a vast body of evidence globally showing how important the built environment is for people’s health. 

“It is an incredible honour to receive the Sir James Barrett Memorial Medal and on behalf of the team of researchers and PhD students who over two decades have contributed to this work, I sincerely thank you and the Town and Country Planning Association,.” 

TCPA President, Marianne Richards, said Billie’s work has been an inspiration to the TCPA as well as many others in land use and transport planning. 

“The TCPA has very much focussed on the themes of walking and cycling to maintain health and the human health impacts in urban environments, particularly with regard to green/blue spaces and transport corridors,” she said.  

“Billie’s contributions in the field has been an inspiration to the TCPA and we are delighted to recognise her as our 2020 recipient.” 

“Throughout my career, I have been privileged to work with a huge range of visionaries and professionals who want to deliver positive health and social outcomes and to enhance the liveability of our communities,” Giles-Corti said.  

“The only way we can manage the complex issues confronting communities and cities is through transformative multisector and multidisciplinary efforts. 

“We can and must come up with transformative solutions for moving forward.  

“This is not a dress rehearsal – on our watch, the climate is changing, obesity is rising, and chronic preventable diseases are putting pressure on our health care system and the economy.  

“There is still so much important work to do.” 

About the James Barrett Memorial Medal 

Sir James William Barrett KBE, CB, CMG (1862 –1945) was an Australian ophthalmologist and academic administrator. He was the president of the Victorian Town Planning and Parks Association, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne (1931 – 1934) and then Chancellor (1935 – 1939). 

Like many other concerned citizens of the time, Barrett was passionate about the preservation of open spaces in both the city and the country. He was strongly influenced by the Garden Cities (UK) and American playgrounds movements and their benefits for human health.  

By the time of the UK Garden Cities and Town Planning Association’s Australasian Town Planning Tour in 1914, Barrett had ensured that the Melbourne community was already primed. In 1950, the then President, Professor Brian Lewis, proposed that a £100 bequest from Barrett’s estate be used to fund a medal to recognise the best contribution annually to town planning in Victoria.  

The inaugural Sir James Barrett Memorial Medal was first awarded in 1952 to Frank Heath (architect and TCPA Honorary Secretary 1936 – 1948) and Charles B Bennett (a town planner from Los Angeles).  

The award has been made at an annual event in most years since then.