walkable cities obesity

Sydney works against us on health – and, on a more personal note, Diabetes 2 – argues Tim Williams. It’s designing walking out of our lives, building low density suburbs far away from jobs, shops, schools and public transport, and prioritising cars above pedestrians.

One of the NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian’s key policy objectives is to reduce childhood obesity. This is commendable as obesity and diabetes 2 – a main consequence of obesity – have reached epidemic proportions, particularly in certain parts of Sydney.

And here lies a key to the program the premier needs to pursue if she wants to achieve her aim. We need to see a dramatical improvement in the walkability of Sydney, especially in the city’s west, where diabetes is disproportionately found in the population.

Diabetes 2 – which I personally suffer from – has been called the “walking-deficit disorder” because it flourishes in the absence of exercise and where a sedentary existence prevails.

Although some see this correlation as involving lifestyle choices and culture – we can all go to the gym and play sport so why don’t we? – fundamentally this is a problem about where we live. And that is driven by economics, the development sector and government planning and transport decisions over which we have in reality very little choice.

Bad urban design and, worse, city-shaping have much more to do with this health crisis than either a failure to take out gym membership or indeed to eat the right foods, although many like to take the intellectually lazy “you are what you eat and drink” approach to this crisis.

My own personal and family experiences give lie to this analysis and indeed more closely conform with the epidemiological evidence on diabetes 2 than the “Coca Cola and Maccas are to blame” school of thought on this.

I came to Australia seven years ago. I had been a borderline diabetes sufferer before but had seen that off by getting off the bus or car and onto my bike – not as a hobby or a sport but to get to work. This everyday form of fitness activity (with no lycra in sight), involving a daily round trip of about 10 kilometres, sorted me out.

When I started living in Manly – badly linked to central Sydney by dangerous hilly roads and frankly crazy drivers who seemed to deem cyclists an unacceptable presence on their roads – I put away my bike and proceeded to put on enough weight to see diabetes arrive in some strength.

As to lifestyle or diet, I did not noticeably change it when I came to Sydney. And if I did modestly amend it, it was to eat healthier food than in London. But that proved no assistance in the absence of exercise. That link was perversely reinforced for me when I considered previous generations of Williams’s who had been miners and factory workers: all drank like a fish and ate rubbish, but were all as thin as rakes because of the physical nature of their work.

In the absence of work making you fit, my view is this: your city needs to work for you to fill the gap.

Currently, the city works against us. Or rather, the way we are building Sydney is designing walking out of our lives.

So we build low-density suburbs far away from jobs, shops, schools and public transport.

We build greenfield developments without enough pavements or tree cover in areas where the temperature often hits 40 degrees.

We build roads with clearways and “no stopping” signs that encourage cars to go fast and discourage people from walking or cycling – and suburban streets that are blocked off by cul de sacs, which deter walkability and make public transport access harder.

We have traffic light systems that prioritise drivers’ desire for speed over pedestrians’ desire to cross the road – and by the way, Sydney allows less time to cross than most US cities I have ever walked in.

We put schools far away from housing and provide no safe routes for children to walk to them.

We have a poor mass transit network, particularly West of Parramatta, when all evidence shows having such a network encourages walkability.

We have an obesogenic city on our hands where walking has been abolished from our lives.

If you think this is an extreme view just think about your own life or place and ask: are there shops I can get to in less than 10 minutes by walking? Can I walk to school with my kids or, better still, let them go alone? Can I get to my job by walking to a railway station or bus service?

Most Sydneysiders will only be able to answer “no” to these questions.

To shift the dial to “yes”, to get a healthy Sydney, requires more than warnings about eating the right foods. It means building a healthy city. And that means we need to ensure that we stop building a sprawling city for the car and start building a compact city for people.

That means a modal shift and a mind shift in transport planning from private to public transport and indeed to active modes from sedentary ones. It means understanding the difference between streets and roads and favouring the former over the latter. It means recovering our town centres as places to work and live and connecting them better by footpath and cycleways to their suburbs. It means placing access to places and place-making over mobility and speed in public policy.

Essentially, that means seriously planning for an urban not a suburban city. In seeking better health outcomes for Sydney can the premier accept the urban policy imperative to achieve them?

Tim Williams is head of cities and urban renewal at Arup and adjunct professor at Western Sydney University.

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  1. Great article Tim. Not much to add to other comments but simply ask planners, architects, engineers and others to think “Walking in Daily Life” when they develop their plans and project proposals.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed the article Prof Williams even if the news was not positive. But you are absolutely right. Australians are delusional in thinking they are “outdoorsy” types. The reality is that we are overwhelmingly indoor creatures (>90% of our daily lives are spent in built environments). An inevitable consequence is the sedentary lifestyle which is clearly implicated in the diseases you talk about.

    As you rightly indicate, the spatial planning of our cities has a role to play in improving the walk-ability and cycle-ability of cities, but I also wonder what role the urban microclimate plays in the environmental amenity of urban spaces? Addiction to air-conditioned indoor environments is very real and it almost certainly curtails the frequency and duration of excursions outdoors. But careful design and planning of comfortable urban spaces can go a long way towards ameliorating this problem. As I think of the most delightful urban and semi-outdoor spaces I’ve enjoyed in my travels around the world, they are all, without exception, very thermally pleasant and, as a result, definitely walkable or cycle-able. Urban thermal comfort rarely happens by chance, but rather by design.

  3. Was lucky enough to move to Rozelle last year. After 3 months we sold our car, shocked at how little we used it. We were suddenly walking everywhere – the city for meetings, the markets for food, the pool for kid swimming lessons. It was easier, and nicer, than wrangling with roads and a car that only a few months prior was deemed indispensable. My partner lost 1.5kg.

    Had expected to like (and not like) a lot of things about Rozelle but i underestimated the walkability. It’s probably more happy accident than design here, but it’s the most solid, most valuable feature of the place.

    Thanks for the article.

  4. I totally agree with you about our poor city-shaping and the need to design and plan for more walking in our cities. It is one reason I ensured i lived within walking distance of a train station. I walk to and from my local station and as many stations, bus-stops, cafes, shopping centres, libraries as I can during an average day. I climb stairs rather than catch lifts. I also adapt to what is available. For example, one of my main forms of incidental walking is to pace a platform while waiting for a train (this is only possible outside of main commuter times).

  5. The greatest cause of death in our society is the car. It directly causes the deaths of nearly 1300 persons this year and in the last 50 years over 100,000 families have lost members to road accidents.

    The indirect car deaths due to lifestyle diseases and toxic emissions are far greater and could be counted in the millions over the last 50 years.
    It’s time that “car” development was ended, the fictitious rural lifestyle within a city ended. We must move to a more sustainable European row house/apartment model centred around rail mass transit, with zero car neighbourhoods.

  6. When Tim says a healthy city, he includes cycling and laments the unsafe traffic that forced him off his bike on the Northern Beaches. Let’s stop fighting on active modes and just say we want a healthy and accessible city that encourages people to move under their own steam! And to connect and use public transport for the long hauls without it being a chore. We gave this up from the ’50s through to right now, where more low density sprawl is being released for development than ever, where there are no jobs and people are still building cul-de-sac suburbs. Changing this cycle will take one step at a time…

  7. I agree with Jim that cycling would be a much more viable form of active travel in such a sprawling environment.

    The author means well, but it’s indeed odd that he only mentions cycling as the one thing that worked for him and then keeps banging on about walking instead.

  8. Excellent article. There is the serious issue regarding the mega road mania – westconnex and F6 – projects that mpacts our local road network significantly. Along with the myriad of other serious issues. We are finding critical traffic calming speed humps and pedestrian crossings are being removed by the RMS that has proved a disaster for safe walkability. Higher volumes of traffic at higher speeds is the result, making our local environment unpleasant, noisy and downright dangerous. Naturally, kids aren’t allowed to get about independently. All to ensure that the predicted tens thousands of more cars per day on local roads continue to push through. Why, in 2018, are we continuing to push the roads only mantra? The rest of the world realised decades ago that to move people, active and public transport is the most efficient, plus the benefit that accidental additional exercise has for overall community health. Of course, the health care costs of obesity, diabetes, plus chronic illnesses like cancer & heart disease from the unfiltered exhaust stacks were never incorporated into the Business Case to support ramming these monster roads into Sydney.

    This is a total outrage what the Baird / Berejiklian Government is doing to the people of Sydney. We need experts like you, Tim, to push the livable city concept with these stupid politicians.

  9. AAAAAARGGGHHH! A 10-minute walk will get the average person about 800 metres away, probably make your feet sore especially if you’re not young, and limit what you can carry if, as is common, you’ve gone to the local shops to get some groceries.

    OTOH a 10-minute bike ride will get you three times as far as walking, not hurt your feet, enable you to carry a load that is impractical and uncomfortable if you’re walking, and use IIRC about 1/5 the amount of energy. So which one do you think real people will prefer, and therefore which one do you think people will make repeatedly if they had a choice between walking and cycling?

    Oh, a cycling catchment area is nine times bigger than a walking one, so you can reach nine times more destinations than you can by walking.

    Which mode do you think will be best to retrofit active travel into the *existing* suburbs where 99% of the population lives!

    I do wish consultants would wake up and realise that “walkability” isn’t going to transform the vast amount of the obesogenic environment any time soon, and if it were to if would cost nine times more to do so than making it cyclable.

    There is a country that has already done this – it’s called the Netherlands. Over a quarter of the nation’s trips are on a bike, with the average length being just over 3km long. The NL is also one of the best countries in the world to drive in. Why is this? Because of their Sustainable Safety transport policy; a policy that Austroads claims as the basis for their Safe Systems Approach, but in practice they fail to grasp what the NL policy actually entails. In much the same way as the author fails to grasp that his cycling trips were all that it took to keep his Diabetes 2 in check.

    So wake up Australia! There’s opportunity to solve most of the problems of our obesogenic environment at relatively little cost, and in a way that clever engineering consultants can still earn good fees by doing so.

    1. sure – we’ll all start pedalling bicycles when we make Sydney flat like Amsterdam – last I looked Druitt St beside Sydney Town Hall was a steep climb on a push bike from Darling Harbour.

      MAMILs may love to sweat it out (shudder) – but most folk who are ambivalent about the effort quickly balk at the first steep hill they see – and Sydney CBD has enough – toss life-threatening heavy vehicles into the mix and I don’t plan on riding a bicycle in Sydney CBD – like – ever.

  10. Absolutely! The population needs legislated protections from governments and developers building them obesegenic environments, as the evidence is clear this condemns people to a premature death. Just as there is for use of asbestos, or for unsafe conditions at work. Great article, thanks Tim.