10 October 2012 — In the course of history, the human race is at its most sedentary. Our built environment reflects this shifting lifestyle which is governed by the vehicle and our incessant strive for convenience, speed, and effortless access to all that we need to survive.

As a result, there is a decreasing rate of physical activity, with a report conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2008 found that the proportion of people in Sydney aged 18 years and over who were sedentary rose from 31 per cent to 36 per cent from 2001 to 2008.

While we all know that physical inactivity has severe health costs, with now two thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of Australian children, overweight or obese; there are other costs of physical inactivity that we are not so aware of.

A report, prepared for The Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, found that the annual direct health care costs attributable to physical activity is around $377 million per year in Australia. Moreover, considering the nature of Australia’s ageing population, it was also found that in people aged over 70, around 4000 deaths per annum could potentially be avoided if the sedentary and low active population became at least moderately active.

Looking at the annual data produced in the Social Health Atlas of Australia, produced by the Public Health Information Development Unit, general trends begin to point to higher rates of physical inactivity in Sydney’s western and south-western suburbs. While these are areas generally associated with lower socio-economic status; the factors of reduced access to public transport and larger block sizes have a large role to play in the reduced walkability of these suburbs and thus declining physical activity in these areas.

As researched by John Olson of EV Studio, people will generally walk five minutes before opting to drive their car to a destination. Most planners often represent a five-minute walk by picking a point and drawing a 400-metre radius. However, as we cannot travel as the crow flies, we soon discover that in our worm-like, dead-end streets in the western and south-western residential suburbs, we can hardly reach the next residential block in a five-minute walk. What this tells us is that the suburban model of our sprawling Sydney is creating environments which promote obesity in our outer suburbs where lifestyle is largely sedentary, and there is no choice but to use cars to get anywhere.

This poses a severe problem about the way in which our new outer Sydney suburbs are being planned. Our lives are literally in the hands of our urban planners and government, with every decision from our street layouts, block sizes, distances to local shops, and access to transport defining how we navigate our communities.

With a new way of life that see us time-poor and busier than ever, there is a need in our suburbs for strategies to achieve increases in incidental activity, working across sectors to make every day physical environments more conducive to being active.

This highlights the need to question the infrastructural policies of our governments, and the opportunity for urban planning reform is upon us now, as the recently released State Government’s Green Paper stands as a strategic direction for the new NSW planning system.

While there is extensive mention of infrastructure in the Green Paper, we need to consider the importance of State design policies to increase the quality of infrastructure in our growing suburbs to create higher pedestrian permeability.

What we need in the forthcoming, and more detailed, White Paper is a cohesive and adaptive planning framework to span the coordination problems between government sectors. The new NSW State planning policies need to provide qualitative guidance in areas such as street design, transport, and zoning to create more pedestrianised suburbs, more physically active communities, and thus improving the quality of life for Sydney suburban residents.

For this we look to world-leading examples, such as the “Complete Streets” policy in the United States, where more than 300 US jurisdictions have adapted a national street design guide to retro-fit pedestrian friendly initiatives in existing suburbs to create more active and engaged communities. The policy has been highly successful and is being considered to become a US Federal Act.

Certainly, what becomes clear from all of this is that physical inactivity is as much a political issue, as it is an urban or health issue. Policies which encourage street development are just as critical to our health as those governing the advertising of cigarettes. What we need is legislative action that helps our urban planners to shape Sydney’s growing population, decrease inactivity levels, and increase our quality of life

Natalie Nicholas is a final year student at the University of Technology, Sydney.