Denser and more walkable suburban developments keep chronic diseases at bay and deliver lifetime economic and health gains of $4,500 for every resident, new research from RMIT University confirms.
The paper, published by RMIT’s urban researchers in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, reveals an economic and health benefit when new suburbs are designed with health objectives in mind.
The researchers looked at two case studies in different areas of western Melbourne: Altona North, an industrial development site with existing amenities such as transport and shops, and Truganina, a lower density growth area on the urban fringe.
Authors Dr Lucy Gunn and Dr Belen Zapata-Diomedi from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research compared the built environments, and the health and economic benefits that come from living in each suburb.
Their study found that shifting residents to Altona North would result in an average gain of an additional month of living with full health – without chronic diseases associated with physical inactivity such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and colon cancer.
The health uplift of living in a denser suburb represents an economic benefit of $4,500 per person over their lifetime, or $94 million for a population of 21,000 people housed in Altona North.
According to Gunn, the research shows there is great potential for brownfield developments that make use of existing surrounding infrastructure provided they are designed well.
“If you build a healthier environment there is an economic value that comes back to society,” Gunn says.
There is a cost to society for not having infrastructure that supports a healthy, active population and this isn’t recognised in current planning decisions for major infrastructure projects, which typically ignore the role of health, says co-author Dr Zapata-Diomedi.
“Chronic diseases linked with physical inactivity are a huge cost to individuals and our health system,” she said.
“Investing in infrastructure that supports health makes sense – socially and economically.”
RMIT’s research follows several landmark Australian studies last year.
Professor Greg Clark, author of the Property Council's Creating Great Australian Cities report, warned Australia’s cities faced a “low-amenity, low-liveability future” without “shifting from the low-density sprawl of the past to high quality, medium density living”.
Meanwhile, scenario analysis undertaken by Infrastructure Australia in 2018, found that “unplanned growth” delivers the “worst outcomes” for our fastest-growing cities.
In Sydney and Melbourne, the scenario which delivers the greatest proportion of greenfield development, the lowest population densities, and the lowest integration between land use and infrastructure has poorer job and infrastructure access outcomes for future residents.
“This RMIT paper adds to a growing body of research which challenges conventional thinking about density and liveability. The two ideas are not antithetical, and as this research shows, high-quality density can support better health and wellbeing,” says the Property Council’s chief executive Ken Morrison.
“Our cities are already home to 90 per cent of Australians and they are growing. Our choices are between smart growth and dumb growth – not no growth at all. Smart, strategic density is vital to the future prosperity and liveability of our cities,” Morrison adds.