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How town planning can improve health and wellbeing in the suburbs

Houses in the Melbourne suburb of Point Cook
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Seemingly endless urban sprawl has resulted in Australian suburbs becoming car-dominant, and a detriment to residents' health. Photo: Shutterstock

How town planning can improve health and wellbeing in the suburbs

Our suburbs have become increasingly car dependent, thanks to separated land uses – and it’s having a dramatic impact on people’s mental and physical health.

The way our contemporary suburbs have been designed is literally making us ill. 

For the past 20 years, Australian suburbs have become increasingly car dependent, dominated by separated land uses and streets with limited access for pedestrians – despite the fact that around 40 per cent of the population doesn’t have access to a car.

Many people feel marooned in these suburbs where their daily needs are not within walking distance – and it’s having a dramatic impact on people’s mental and physical health. 

Add to this the impact of COVID-19 and it’s not surprising that loneliness and social isolation have increased.  

People without work or left at home while a partner commutes for work suffer isolation that is known to be linked to physical and mental illness, poor sleep, high blood pressure, suicide and even premature death. 

Most suburban town planning not only separates land uses and people from each other, it has tended to discourage physical activity with a lack of cycle paths or connected walkways, leading to rising rates of obesity. 

In inner and outer regional areas, the number of Australians aged 18 and over who are overweight or obese, has risen to 70 per cent in recent years – higher than for those living in the cities. 

The recent Federal Budget failed to address this, while continuing to prioritise road building – contributing to an unhealthy environment and an unhealthy population. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this. 

Implementing urban design and place strategies that offer alternative, more sustainable forms of transport such as walking along dedicated footpaths, e-bikes, push bikes and public transport options not only helps bring people together, it reduces congestion and pollution, and is less expensive than building roads solely for cars. 

The 20-Minute Neighbourhood concept is where we should be heading. 

It’s an urban design and health and wellbeing strategy that gives people the option to meet their daily needs within a 20-minute return walk from home, with access to safe cycling and local transport choices.  

The policy promotes sustainable transport, mixed-use, the UN Sustainability Goals and local workplaces. 

The Victorian government has committed to the strategy for Melbourne but we need more councils to get on board. 

The young, teenagers and elderly are particularly hard hit by poorly planned neighbourhoods that cut them off from their peers. 

Added to this is a lack of jobs or job creation initiatives in suburban areas that force people to commute long distances to work, compounding their stress and exhaustion.  

The cost of purchasing private vehicles often exceeds the cost of housing in the suburban growth areas. 

We need to emulate what our forebears have laid out and design places that are akin to those cherished, timeless inner-city neighbourhoods.  

Places that are compact and intimate, with a diversity of spaces that encourage and promote an inclusive community – we need to urbanise the burbs. 

It begins with the experience of the youngest in society and it should be mandatory for children to be able to walk to school.  

Scotland and Canada are examples where car-free zones have been dedicated within the walkable catchments around primary schools, and fostering walking to school has been promoted by local and central governments. 

When they are walking, children benefit from chance encounters, being immersed in urban and natural settings, instead of cocooned in a car.  

In urban design, interim schools need to be provided from day one – as LWP did at Ellenbrook, (the Perth master-planned new town designed by Hatch RobertsDay in 1994 where several interim school houses were built within walking distance in the first neighbourhood).  

Kids were walking and cycling to school from day one – alleviating the need for their parents to drive them. Once the primary school was built the school houses reverted back to conventional residences. 

At the other end of life, the growth in Australia’s older population – who may experience physical and cognitive impairment, and who live alone – will be one of the major challenges facing urban planners and designers in the years ahead. 

As the majority of mature-age people prefer to age ‘at home’ within their neighbourhood, creating homes and neighbourhoods that support them, physically, mentally and socially will be paramount.

In Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, the outer suburban population is projected to more than double in the next decades. In Brisbane, the outer suburban population will nearly triple, according to the ABS.

All the more reason why designers and town planners need to work in close collaboration with councils and developers to shape a better future for our communities. 

Tips for creating suburban towns that priorities health and wellbeing

  1.     Walkable environments that reduce the need for cars.
  2.     Separate cycle pathways and connected walkways.
  3.     Micro-mobility such as E-Bikes and scooters
  4.     Public transport options including buses and trams.
  5.     Town or village squares located within walking distance of most residences provide a sense of place          and belonging.
  6.     Parks and other green spaces such as community gardens and rooftop gardens.
  7.     Tree-lined streets with wide footpaths and cars accommodated at the rear of houses.
  8.     Mix of housing options such as terraces and townhouses to encourage a multi-generational population.
  9.     Increased vertical density and mixed-use amenities such as schools, community centres, leisure              centres and shops. 
  10.     A variety of curated community events and programs.

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