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We have all heard the old adage ‘You are what you eat’ but, have you considered ‘You are where you live’?

In the rush to develop and build housing, poor urban design is influencing obesity rates in the outer suburbs. Poor infrastructure, limited public transport, parks and green spaces and medical services are all impacting on the health of residents. New estates are developed with the latest connectivity yet with limited parks for safe exercise, outdoor play and relaxation. These issues have led to a state government enquiry regarding the fact that health considerations should be included in urban planning. Stuart Worn, the head of the Planning Institute of Victoria stated that ‘health should be the first consideration in new housing developments’.

For an example – The Shire of Wyndham, located on Melbourne’s outskirts, has a higher rate of obesity and diabetes than areas located closer to the CBD. The residents have a higher level of car ownership and reliance on cars as the primary mode of transportation. Why? Urban planning and development in the Shire has resulted in no service being located within walking distance and limited close medical facilities and parks. And this lack of public transport and human powered mobility – cycling or walking – is coupled with an increased concentration of liquor outlets and fast food operations – a recipe for a long term health disaster.

While new developments are hailed as ‘affordable’ housing, the long term ramifications will greatly outweigh the initial saving – ‘Building car-dependent suburbs in the name of cheap housing is a false economy that will create massive health and economic liabilities’, says Dr Margaret Beavis, a Melbourne GP currently undertaking a master’s degree in public health and who spoke at the government enquiry. Dr Beavis went on to state that ‘when it comes to urban planning we are building suburbs that in 20 years will be ghettos of ill health’.

Carolyn Whitzman, of Melbourne University, has renewed calls for the encouragement of medium-density developments – developments which have services such as schools, child care centres, shops and community facilities all within easy walking distance.

With the Victorian Government increasing urban boundaries by 43600 hectares, the time to act is now, at the planning stage, to ensure that the new residents are easily equipped to stave off obesity and its related diseases and health issues.

Residents of outer suburban estates need local access to:
• Reliable public transport to reduce reliance on private cars;
• Adequate footpaths and lighting to encourage walking and exercise;
• Bike paths/lanes to encourage cycling;
• Increased access to local facilities such as schools, medical services, and community facilities;
• Community green spaces to encourage outdoor play and exercise;
• Limitations on liquor and fast food outlets.

The planning phase is a great opportunity for various levels of government and communities to implement measures for future residents to help themselves maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.

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