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Small steps to walkable suburbs

Catherine Carter

The shape of our suburbs and our streets influences the weight and wellbeing of us all.

But we have a special duty of care to create cities that support the health and happiness of our youngest citizens.

Obesity is now the single biggest threat to public health in Australia, contributing to health disorders from Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, to asthma and chronic kidney disease.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says that one in four Australian children are currently overweight or obese. Should this trend continue, our kids can expect a shorter lifespan than their parents.

Gweneth Newman Leigh, a landscape architect and adjunct associate professor at the Faculty of Health at the University of Canberra, says clear research confirms that “once an adolescent is overweight, it is difficult to reverse the condition in adulthood.”

She says “unhealthy food choices, lack of physical activity and family eating habits have all contributed towards the growing girth of our children”.

Meanwhile, the number of children walking or riding to school in Australia continues to fall. Only half of Australia’s children and young people use active transport at least once a week.

“How students commute to school sets up norms that will influence lifestyle choices into adulthood,” Leigh explains.

A complex combination of factors influences whether people – both adults or children – will choose to wear out some shoe leather.

Gweneth Newman Leigh

Gweneth Newman Leigh

Active Healthy Kids Australia says one of the biggest factors in whether a child will actively commute to and from school is distance.

But researchers have found that the attractiveness and vibrancy of a city’s streets has an impact on walkability too. People are often unwilling to walk more than 100 metres across a car park to reach their desired destination, but will walk three times that distance along a street of pleasing shopfronts.

Direct access to a destination is also a key motivator – and the standard grid system found in New York and inner Melbourne encourages walking more readily than the cul de sac model favoured by planners in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, this is not great news for those of us living in Canberra suburbs with labyrinthine streets.

Walk Score – an app that helps people evaluate the walkability of their neighbourhood – gives Canberra a fairly woeful average score of 40, and says it is a “car dependent city”. A perfect score of 100 means everything a resident might need in day-to-day life is easily accessible on foot. While inner suburbs like Kingston and Barton rank fairly well with 83 and 82 respectively, those in outer areas like Banks (20) and Harrison (15) score poorly.

It’s clear that encouraging kids to walk or ride to school requires both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure. While we can rethink the way we design new suburbs to improve their walkability, we are stuck with the layout of our existing suburbs.

Some ‘tweaks’ to our hard infrastructure is possible. The ACT Government’s Active Streets for Schools program, for example, is upgrading footpaths, and bike paths and signage to make school routes clear.

But ‘soft infrastructure’ – like walking school buses and bike access programs – will play a more transformative role.

Leigh says the Ride or Walk to Schools Program has helped 108 schools in the ACT to make bikes available to schools for students to use. This program also teaches children road rules to stay safe.

“The Active Streets program also provides online maps which document safe school routes and Part Way Ok drop off points as a way to increase the comfort of children to cycle, walk, scoot or skate their daily commute to school,” she says.

“Of course, critical to this is having the infrastructure available in the first place. Undertaking pilot programs such as these are helping planners recognise where safe routes exist, as well as identify where they need improving.

“Good pedestrian access routes act as an important health intervention, as they provide children the opportunity to make better lifestyle choices,” Leigh adds.

In other words, small steps can make a big difference to children’s health and habits later in life.

Feature image: Martin Ollman

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up a boutique consulting firm, Indigo Consulting Australia, where she provides a range of specialist business and communication advisory services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author