Susan Thompson

20 June 2013 — Halfway through day three of the 6th Making Cities Liveable Conference, Susan Thompson, director of the Healthy Built Environments Program at the University of New South Wales, turned off the lights and raised the full length blinds to let natural light into one of the five function rooms.

Sustainability in action.

With the NSW’s Ministry of Health’s Strategy and Partnerships manager Claudine Lyons, Ms Thompson’s topic for the three-day conference, from 17 to 20 November, was “The Healthy Built Environments Program: Working together to break down health and planning silos”.

The Healthy Built Environments Program is an initiative of the UNSW Built Environment started in 2010, with funding of $1.5 million over five years from the NSW Ministry of Health, which brings the built environment and health together.

Ms Thompson said the program had three main areas of focus including research, education and workforce development and leadership and advocacy.

She said the program’s vision was that built environments be planned, designed and developed to promote and protect health.

This was done by built environments getting people active, connecting and strengthening communities and providing healthy food options, she said.

Ms Thompson said healthy built environments was a rapidly growing field and there was a need to focus on partnership building “well beyond the health sector”.

The University had also instigated new courses including healthy planning for undergraduates and healthy built environments for post graduates.

There were also pro bono places available for New South Wales health professionals, Ms Thompson said.

Meanwhile, Ms Lyons said there were still many challenges in creating healthy built environments.

“There are multiple policy levers and actors and sometimes it’s hard to know which lever to push,” she said.

“And there are difficulties getting everyone on the agenda, everyone has a different view and sometimes you feel like you are vying for attention.”

Ms Lyons said the Westminster system of government was also outdated and difficult to work with because “transport does transport and planning does planning”.

“There is no department for healthy built environments.

“And it is still cutting edge – it’s still way out there.

“We are not seen as a key stakeholder – and there are so many health concerns – which are priorities?”

Ms Lyons said there was also a medicalised perception of the term health, along with health being dropped in the same area as human services while planning was linked with infrastructure, economics and transport.

There was a yawning gap inbetween, she said.

“There is a need for more collaboration within the health sector to share knowledge and strengthen influence,” she said.

Ms Lyons said there was also a need for Australian specific research to inform practice and policy, an interdisciplinary alliance, more education and for the healthy built environment message to get out to a diverse audience of policy makers and practitioners.

Ending the talk, Ms Thompson said healthy built environments had just achieved a major victory – having “health” included as an objective in the new planning legislation for New South Wales.

“We couldn’t believe it,” she said.