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Creating active, healthy and fulfilled communities

The idea that the built environment plays a role in shaping people's’ physical and mental health is not new, however, it is only recently that it has become a key consideration for urban development.

Increasingly, research is linking characteristics of the places we live with major health and wellbeing implications. Recent research from RMIT linked lack of trees, gardens and green spaces with temperature increases of up to 10 degrees in some Australian suburbs.

This is a dangerous increase that would increase the risk of heat stress and heat-related deaths. Similarly, population health records show that Melbourne’s outer suburban growth areas record a higher rate of non-communicable diseases such as obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes than the Melbourne and Victorian state averages.

The good news for developers is that creating places that enable residents to live safe, active, healthy and fulfilled lifestyles has a range of social and commercial benefits.

There are numerous ways to introduce features that promote health and wellbeing into urban development projects. Including viable alternatives to car-based commuting; improving spatial integration and accessibility; introducing recreational facilities and businesses; and, improving access to healthcare and fresh food, are all useful strategies that also present commercial opportunities.

Maintaining good health and the availability of local jobs may not seem to have an obvious link, however, a 2016 study by Vic Health revealed a correlation between long commutes and poor health outcomes.

“Every 10 minutes spent commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10%.” Time spent commuting robs people of time with their family, reduces their capacity to exercise and limits opportunities to make and maintain social connections. Identifying potential local industry partners and delivering a broader mix of land uses by leveraging gaps in community service provision are great ways to increase local employment opportunities.

Looking at ways to provide good walking and cycling connections to public transport nodes is also essential. A well-connected, attractive network of dedicated walking and cycling paths that link open space, retail destinations and transport networks with existing footpaths, trails, and on and off road cycle lanes, encourages people to exercise and take active journeys.

These features also create a stronger sense of place, increasing retail trade and property values. Walkability is now measurable with the introduction of Walk Score metrics. One Walk Score point can increase the price of a home by an average of $3,250 or 0.9 percent.

Consider the provision of dedicated sport and recreation facilities such as sporting fields; tennis, basketball, netball courts, swimming pools, running tracks, public gym equipment, as well as less formal parks and landscaped open spaces for organised and private recreation.

Fitness businesses such as gyms and yoga studios also encourage and support healthy lifestyles while adding to the tenant mix and providing local employment opportunities.

While providing major recreation infrastructure may seem unrealistic, partnerships are a powerful way to raise funds and attract government grants.

Stockland’s Highlands Estate in Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs was able to build the Highgate Recreation Reserve fairly early in the project timeline through strategic partnerships and joint funding agreements with the AFL, Richmond Tigers and YMCA. The facility has attracted sponsorship that is used to fund community programs and also serves to bring the community together.

Poor availability and lack of access to health services such as general practitioners, mental health services and hospitals is also correlated with high rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The need for growth in health services is one of the most obvious commercial opportunities for village and town centre developments.

There are a range medical facilities of different scales that may be considered. At the village scale these may include general practitioners and dentists while medical super-clinics and day surgery facilities suit the scale of a town centre.

These facilities not only serve the healthcare needs of the community, but also become a major employment provider at a local level. They also increase visitation adding critical mass to retail sales and creating more vibrant and active community hubs.

The availability of fresh food is also an important community health factor. University of Western Sydney has mapped Australia’s food deserts. That is, areas in Australia’s major cities in which it is 1,600 metres to the nearest grocer, and less than that distance to the nearest takeaway shop.

The study found a clear correlation between these areas and increased rates of non-communicable diseases. It is therefore important to plan new communities with an appropriate balance of access to fast food vs fresh and healthy food in mind.

Not all healthy food options need be retail-based options such as supermarkets and grocers. Farmers’ markets and community gardens can also be a great way to get the community engaged with the use of fresh produce while forming new social connections. These options also enable ethnic groups to access produce specific to their cuisine and culture that may not be commonly available in Australian supermarkets.

Considering the health and wellbeing of new communities is a critical consideration if we are to avoid creating unhealthy environments. Creating healthy places has the potential to stimulate new commercial partnerships and opportunities while leaving a wonderful legacy.  

Dean Landy is a registered architect, urban designer, speaker and author for the recently published book, Creating Vibrant Communities. With 19 years experience in community development projects within Australia and overseas and as a partner at Melbourne based architecture firm ClarkeHopkinsClarke, he is actively involved in the design of many town centres across Australia.

Landy is also the founder and director of One Heart Foundation, a unique 'for purpose' organisation breaking the poverty cycle in Africa by establishing schools and homes to care for orphaned and abandoned children.

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