As previously mentioned at Croakey, the inaugural international Healthy Parks Healthy People Congress kicks off in Melbourne today.

Ben Rossiter, the Executive Officer of Victoria Walks, will be presenting plenty of ideas for creating healthier urban environments. He writes:

“Why is medium density housing such a hard sell? We know that our present urban form is unsustainable and detrimental to our long-term health and well being. The ever increasing urban sprawl and private car based travel is causing enormous health, social, environmental and economic costs.

The incidence of preventable diseases associated with physical inactivity such as obesity, type 2 Diabetes and heart disease is growing at an alarming rate. Dramatically increasing the level of walking in the community will go a long way to addressing the costs of physical inactivity. It is extremely rare to find walk-friendly neighbourhoods in low density, car dominated areas.

Walking-friendly neighbourhoods are safe, connected, accessible, diverse and pleasant environments with a variety of shops, services, community facilities, good public transport and employment near where people live. They also have public spaces where people can meet, hang around and interact. It is no coincidence that more walkable areas have higher house prices: they are desirable places to live.

Selling the idea of medium density housing is a major challenge. Many see medium density simply as more concrete. The relationship between cities and natural environments has always been fraught. Historically the city has been seen as the opposite of nature: the city kills life. With the car dominated, sprawl of Australian cities this sentiment may not be entirely baseless.

A key to the acceptance of medium density housing lies in convincing the community of the necessity of smaller private spaces. The trade off is or should be more, better quality, greener public spaces. For this to occur, we need to move beyond seeing parks and nature as the extreme opposite of built environments, as wilderness or pristine natural environments, that are observed rather than touched. As important as it is to care for these great parks, the greater challenge is to expand and improve open spaces nearer to where we live.

We need to make our urban parks more permeable, make them places connected to and a part of everyday life.

Let the idea of nature and parks invade the built environment. Many of our existing open spaces are drab and uninteresting. Most of our streets are too wide with too much bitumen. They are built for fast car travel at the expense of neighbourhood liveability and walkability. Many are not the type of places that invite play and social interaction – the glue that binds communities.

Build more pocket parks, informal and formal community gardens, edible nature-strips and play spaces that all can enjoy.  Such spaces do not even need to be on existing green spaces – pull up some bitumen or use the land next to railway lines (they are not all polluted). Possibly even purchase land or make them a part of any new developments.  Sound expensive? The social, environmental and health gains make it a cheap long term investment. It is good economics.

The idea of edible neighbourhoods is not new, during the Second World War governments had Victory Gardens or Dig for Victory campaigns. They encouraged people to grow vegetable in backyards, on apartment-building rooftops, on public land, parks and vacant lots. We can learn from this.

Parks and nature have great potential to help us overcome our physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour by allowing us to walk, discover and get our hands dirty.

A marker of a liveable neighbourhood is the extent to which it works for children. Children need spaces and places they can play, explore and have fun. They also need streets where they can walk and cycle safely, and without adult supervision as they get older. Medium density housing with a mix of affordable housing, slower traffic, better green spaces and stronger communities can all help this to happen.

By rethinking the relationship between the built and natural spaces in which we live, we will create an opportunity to build healthier, more physically active communities. This involves visionary planning and people accepting and wanting change to occur in their neighbourhoods. We can start in areas with existing, underutilised public transport infrastructure and plan for more services.

We can build on some of the great work that has occurred over recent years to re-green some urban areas, particularly with indigenous plants. With these plants comes more native wildlife. A powerful owl and even an echidna were seen in Fitzroy North last year.

For those wedded to the more conventional housing form, rather than retreating to the backyard or inside, try spending more time in your front yard where you can increase the chance of a chat with neighbours. Maybe even grow and share some veggies, it can make for a much friendlier neighbourhood where people want to get out and walk.”