As explored in previous chapters, rethinking the way cities are built to promote healthy and sustainable living is now a multi-sector pursuit. For public health, this has been fuelled by global concerns about rising levels of physical inactivity, sedentary behaviour, and obesity and their impact on major chronic diseases. However, the interventions required to address these major public health challenges (i.e., the creation of compact, pedestrian friendly accessible, attractive, safe and convivial neighbourhoods served by high quality public transport) will also help address other pressing global issues including managing population growth, climate change, and future proofing against declining oil supplies (Giles-Corti, Foster et al. 2010).
Low-density, car-dependent communities are increasingly being shown to be detrimental to both human health and the environment. Communities such as this discourage physical activity while increasing sedentary behaviour, vehicle miles travelled and air pollution. As a result, built environment features that create urban sprawl are risk factors for preventable and now highly prevalent chronic diseases, the prevention of which represents the major public health challenge of the 21st century globally. Nevertheless, creating communities that support active living will produce ‘co-benefits’ across multiple sectors.
The idea that city design impacts the health and wellbeing of residents is not new. The mass movement of people to cities in the 19th century spurred the first Public Health Act in the United Kingdom (UK), which successfully reduced infectious and respiratory diseases associated with crowding, poor sanitation and water quality, and exposure to pollution. Today, access to sanitation, clean water and safe affordable housing remain the building blocks of healthy urban development. In the 21st century, urban planning is not simply a vehicle for preventing infectious and respiratory diseases, but also a viable means of tackling major chronic diseases, with a particular emphasis on facilitating residents to be physically active: indeed physical activity is a ‘magic bullet’ for reducing the risk of major chronic diseases plaguing health systems. Hence, urban planning’s efforts in this area cannot be underestimated.
This chapter explores the relationship between ‘place’ and physical activity. It begins by providing a rationale for why planners should prioritise neighbourhood designs that encourage residents to be physically active. It then reviews the evidence on community design features associated with various types of physical activity, before considering the implications for the planning of neighbourhoods. The question we hear you asking is ‘could this really work’? To answer this question, we present a case study on the implementation and evaluation of a state government’s planning policy in Western Australia. Finally, we offer some final thoughts to highlight the importance of your work as planners and creators of healthy urban developments.