The simple act of walking provides an antidote to many of our chronic contemporary diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and depression

Do buildings shape us? And if so, could buildings then be forces of good? Does the geometry of place have any moral quality? These were some of the questions architectural critic, columnist and associate professor Elizabeth Farrelly asked the audience at her recent Utzon Lecture at the University of New South Wales: Architecture and Morality: Geometries of Virtue.

One could ask these questions not only of the individual buildings to which Farrelly refers but also of our cities generally, those great interactive collections of buildings, spaces and people, land uses and movement systems. And indeed, Alex Tzannes, head of the Faculty of the Built Environment, which hosts the lectures, introduced Farrelly in reference to her inherent advocacy of an “urbanism”, one of those concepts we struggle with here in Australia with our sub-urban myth still so prominent.

Elizabeth Farrelly

Farrelly herself talked about beauty, connectedness and enclosure as necessary criteria for all our built forms in generating and supporting such urbanism, which in turn she sees as essential to cities as “life”. And then also about how we can better integrate ourselves with and create that urban life that sustains us.

Although Farrelly did not explicitly reference “green” sustainability criteria in this endeavour they are equally applicable to her questions and observations.

Do we see our efforts in creating green, sustainable buildings as a moral exercise transforming our environments for the better (as Farrelly also asks: what does it mean to be good, and then create that in a built form), or are we simply engaged in a series of transactions to meet existing market understandings of need, the chasing of short-term value and sales for our projects, ticking the compliance boxes?

Farrelly’s talk intersected with two other events in Sydney. One was Sydney University’s Festival of Urbanism exploring the issues that arise from the need to densify (another word we struggle with), including social equity and how cities might affect our health.

The other was Walk 21, an annual international conference held this year at Luna Park. In part a celebration of the pleasures of walking, in part an urban design manifesto on how to create walkable communities and in part a talkfest of academics on the latest research, it was in effect all about our own health and well-being.

The simple act of walking provides an antidote to many of our chronic contemporary diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and depression, brought about by physical inactivity, obesity, increased stress, and social isolation.

One of the speakers at the Festival of Urbanism talk on density and health, Professor Peter Sainsbury, Director of Population Health at the South Western Sydney Local Health District reminded us that health considerations have always been a part of urban planning. But the historical response has been one of separation – a distancing of our living places from our (earlier often toxic) work places, seeking to maximise the area of our living spaces and then the penetration of sunlight and fresh air to those spaces through setbacks.

Technology in the form of public transport assisted this move to “suburbs”. The advent of mass car ownership served to further facilitate this urban planning objective. And so we thought we were doing the right thing, that we were improving goodness.

But, as Sainsbury pointed out, we have also “dropped the ball”. Our car-based suburbs are now implicated in the chronic diseases mentioned above. Housing distant from centres and jobs, with low residential densities, segregated land uses, disconnected street patterns, and limited public transport encourage car-dependent, physically-inactive, socially-isolated lifestyles. All of which we, deep down, usually already know.

So why don’t we act on it, and too often claim a need for more research evidence as a justification for our inaction?

Farrelly noted that we tend to be embarrassed about discussing morality and goodness, and that she herself felt a little awkward in delivering her lecture. But she also suggested that we do actually “know this stuff in our lives”, but somehow separate it, do not take it with us into our work in designing, developing and managing our cities.

That august body the Heart Foundation has realised this too and now lobbies for us to design with our health in mind once again. In particular to encourage and enable us to all walk more. Walk 21 included the launch of the foundation’s new discussion paper Does Density Matter? The Role of Density in Creating Walkable Neighbourhoods based on extensive research it initiated.

And so, one might ask, is it moral to construct anything else?

Particularly when you also factor in the contribution of walkability (and associated cyclability and public transport use) to a necessary low carbon future through a reduction of our car use.

Night traffic lights, by Leonid Afremov

Walking! The co-benefits abound. Built environments with residential densities supporting public transport with shops and homes close to each other, and where it is easy to walk and cycle not only make a positive contribution to health but are also good for ecological sustainability. It’s about on-going management as well, now –  not just keeping tabs on energy use within individual buildings but also instigating active travel plans to assist the occupants and visitors of our buildings to make the most of these more-beneficial transport options.

The concluding talk at Walk 21 was given by Professor Peter Newman from Curtin University. His message of sustainability as hope rather than fear (which only serves to paralyse us into inaction) is always welcome. He presented the latest graphs, data projections and real-time on-the-ground infrastructure developments and changes in behaviour that suggest that the key transition points towards a low carbon future are not in the future anymore but have actually already occurred.

Density, public transport, walkability have all contributed he says, reinforcing and accelerating the benefits obtained from clean and efficient technologies and green buildings. We are on the trajectory. It was great note on which to end.

Newman did though also raise a lingering debate. Referring to the Heart Foundation discussion paper which stresses that density does not necessarily mean high-rise, Newman flagged that in his view we will need to accept greater concentrations of high rise development in our cities if we are ever to accommodate the populations who want to live there, and in densities that will continue the current gains in low carbon living and preserve irreplaceable resource lands on the city fringes.

But is it that simple? The earlier Festival of Urbanism talk on density and health was actually titled Health and High-Rise – is Density Bad for You? But by and large the speakers tended to dodge the high-rise bit and concentrate on an undefined “density” that would support walkable communities.

The exception was a critical concern based on evidence from overseas raised by one of the other speakers, Associate Professor Stephen Corbett, also from NSW Health, that the current tendency to build residential apartment buildings on major roads will result in increased rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.

The need for separation again. And then we also need to recognise a comment from the floor at that talk citing research that people are “happier” in low density environments.

The Heart Foundation has actually commissioned an extensive evidence review of the health impacts (itself a good measure of “happiness”) of progressive increases in density and building heights, and which influenced its discussion paper. It found that while increasing residential density can produce numerous benefits, including reductions in cardiovascular and cancer mortality, road traffic mortality, and respiratory and mental health problems, optimal effects will only come about when adequate attention is given to:

  • how the buildings are designed in terms of location, construction, space planning, orientation and maintenance (and, particularly in reference to what we now know about the achievements and limitations of the strata-title system, we could also add management)
  • the social, cultural, socio-economic and environmental outcomes within the overall neighbourhood we are changing

So, we have the building technology and know-how and we now increasingly have the proponents. But is healthy high-rise actually possible, or do we risk dropping-the-ball yet again? It is a critical on-going conversation.

Greg Paine is a Sydney based urban planner

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