One of Australia’s leading experts on health and the built environment has welcomed the appointment of a new Federal Minister for Cities and the Built Environment.
Professor Billie Giles-Corti, from The University of Melbourne, whose work focuses on the impact of the built environment on health, and on evaluation of built environment interventions, described the new cities ministry as “a great opportunity to promote health”. She was unaware of any other nation that had such a ministry.
On his appointment last week, the new Minister, Jamie Briggs, said it was vital that cities were well planned, serviced with world-class digital and physical infrastructure and environmentally sustainable so they could continue to grow as economic assets.
“Cities are one of the great drivers of our economy,” he said. “Most Australians live in our cities and the majority of businesses are based in or around them. They are the engine room of commerce, infrastructure, innovation, the arts, science and development.”
Prof Giles-Corti said it was important the new Minister worked with Australia’s health ministers, along with planning, infrastructure and transport ministers, if Australia was to extract health benefits from the initiative.
“Australia is really at a critical time for the whole issue of cities,” she said. “Australia’s population may double by 2050 – so it’s critical to focus on health and wellbeing as well as on environmental problems.
“The Government is obviously making cities a priority. There needs to be a discussion about all types of infrastructure that make cities work − it is so important to the health and wellbeing of all Australians.”
Australians wanted their cities to be liveable, Professor Giles-Corti said, and the health community was picking up on ‘liveability’ as a health issue, with researchers and practitioners looking at liveability through a health lense.
Liveable communities were safe and socially cohesive, environmentally friendly, included affordable housing and were linked by walking, cycling or public transport to employment and other services needed for healthy living.
“What is critical, as a priority, is that we design cities so that people can walk, cycle and use public transport. To do that we need to create communities, not just affordable housing but also places with all the services required for healthy living – schools, health services, public transport and leisure services that can be accessed by walking, cycling and public transport.
“Ideally health ministers will start talking to ministers like the new Minister for Cities and the Built Environment – this is already happening in some states, like Victoria, where the concept of liveability is the included in the state’s health and wellbeing plan. Health departments are really starting to think about this.”
Prof Giles-Corti said the World Health Organization, among other international bodies, had stated that health should be at the heart of governance of cities. Liveability indicators were a critical first step, and she and her colleagues had already developed indicators for elements such as public open space, walkability, public transport, affordable housing, access to employment, access to alcohol and access to healthy food.
“There is potential to add more indicators of liveability – we stand ready to do so,” she said. “The new Minister has the opportunity to work with the states to provide leadership to create cities that are not only sustainable and liveable but also health promoting.”