When Canadian urbanist Brent Toderian was preparing for his visit to Australia last week as a guest of the Heart Foundation, he couldn’t possibly have imagined his message about the connection between walkable communities and better health would lead to immediate, enthusiastic and concrete action from Australia’s state governments.
Mr Toderian told ABC News Breakfast on Thursday:
So the irony is you have to drive to the sports field or to the gym to pretend to walk on an artificial machine, whereas when you design healthy environments you actually find you’re getting activity throughout your daily life. Australia like Canada – even more so than Canada – loves its sport, loves its activity, but we’ve designed places where that sport and activity is a special occurrence instead of part of our daily lives.
It’s surely no coincidence the new Premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, announced on Friday his government will repudiate the urban consolidation policies successive governments have pursued for decades, on the grounds they don’t do enough to promote good health. Mr McGowan said high density living promoted obesity and undermined social capital:
All Western Australians should be able to enjoy a barbie in the backyard with the neighbours, have room to hit a ball with the kids so they don’t get fat, and somewhere to park the cars, boat and the caravan under cover. You can’t chat over the back fence if you live in an apartment. You’re not going to borrow a whipper-snipper from the bloke up the street if you live on the fifth floor.
It seems NSW Premier Gladys Berejeklian also took inspiration from Mr Toderian. Yesterday she announced her Government will close more “lightly patronised” suburban rail stations in Sydney in order to promote walking. She said closing stations and every second bus stop in middle ring suburbs was essential to tackle the growing obesity epidemic among the State’s children:
Walking another couple of hundred metres or so to the station will not only make us fitter, but create safer communities with more eyes on the street. Walking creates vibrant and safe public places. Foot traffic enables small businesses to activate the street.
The Premier insisted the closures would not only save money but would improve the quality of suburban living. “This isn’t only about efficiency, it’s also about having healthy and connected communities”, she said.
Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman joined his interstate colleagues in announcing new initiatives to foster a more “health-conscious built environment”. He promised at a media conference on Friday to build more motorways in the island State because they’re “family and community network builders”. He said motorways will give Tasmanians faster commutes:
It means mums and dads will be able to spend more time being active with their families, friends and neighbours. It’ll be expensive, but savings to the Health budget in reduced rates of mental illness and obesity over coming decades will more than offset the initial cost.
He acknowledged new motorways eventually congest in peak hours, but said it still made very good sense in both social and economic terms to continue to build new ones as and when needed.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also came to the party. She says her government will scale-back plans to construct more bike paths – and close some existing ones – to promote health goals and increase social capital. Ms Palaszczuk told the Qld media this morning:
Walking consumes more calories per kilometre than cycling. Like driving, cycling is an inherently private mode of travel, whereas walking is intrinsically social – walking provides many more opportunities for chance encounters with strangers and so relieves the lonely of despair and depression. It has enormous potential to lower the State’s mental health costs.
Asked if Victoria would follow suit, the Premier, Daniel Andrews, said he would not be announcing any new initiatives, but he’d ordered a review of the government’s “20-minute city” policy to see if it had the unintended effect of limiting health gains:
It might be that having a 20-minute city means Victorians don’t get enough exercise, particularly when cycling. I’ll be talking to the Prime Minister to see if the Commonwealth’s 30-minute city policy might be a better way to achieve the desired health objectives. The extra 10 minutes of walking, cycling and public transport use per trip might make all the difference to improving health and social policy outcomes.
Visiting experts are often criticised for telling us what we already know or think, but Mr Toderian can leave Australia knowing his visit had an enormous practical impact on the way our cities are managed.
Note: the Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill, couldn’t be contacted (his mobile phone was out of charge).