Obese city: why we must design walkability back into Sydney
Dr Tim Williams, Arup | 12 February 2018
Sydney works against us on health – and, on a more personal note, Diabetes 2 – argues Tim Williams. It’s designing walking out of our lives, building low density suburbs far away from jobs, shops, schools and public transport, and prioritising cars above pedestrians.
One of the NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian’s key policy objectives is to reduce childhood obesity. This is commendable as obesity and diabetes 2 – a main consequence of obesity – have reached epidemic proportions, particularly in certain parts of Sydney.
And here lies a key to the program the premier needs to pursue if she wants to achieve her aim. We need to see a dramatical improvement in the walkability of Sydney, especially in the city’s west, where diabetes is disproportionately found in the population.
Diabetes 2 – which I personally suffer from – has been called the “walking-deficit disorder” because it flourishes in the absence of exercise and where a sedentary existence prevails.
Although some see this correlation as involving lifestyle choices and culture – we can all go to the gym and play sport so why don’t we? – fundamentally this is a problem about where we live. And that is driven by economics, the development sector and government planning and transport decisions over which we have in reality very little choice.
Bad urban design and, worse, city-shaping have much more to do with this health crisis than either a failure to take out gym membership or indeed to eat the right foods, although many like to take the intellectually lazy “you are what you eat and drink” approach to this crisis.
My own personal and family experiences give lie to this analysis and indeed more closely conform with the epidemiological evidence on diabetes 2 than the “Coca Cola and Maccas are to blame” school of thought on this.
I came to Australia seven years ago. I had been a borderline diabetes sufferer before but had seen that off by getting off the bus or car and onto my bike – not as a hobby or a sport but to get to work. This everyday form of fitness activity (with no lycra in sight), involving a daily round trip of about 10 kilometres, sorted me out.
When I started living in Manly – badly linked to central Sydney by dangerous hilly roads and frankly crazy drivers who seemed to deem cyclists an unacceptable presence on their roads – I put away my bike and proceeded to put on enough weight to see diabetes arrive in some strength.
As to lifestyle or diet, I did not noticeably change it when I came to Sydney. And if I did modestly amend it, it was to eat healthier food than in London. But that proved no assistance in the absence of exercise. That link was perversely reinforced for me when I considered previous generations of Williams’s who had been miners and factory workers: all drank like a fish and ate rubbish, but were all as thin as rakes because of the physical nature of their work.
In the absence of work making you fit, my view is this: your city needs to work for you to fill the gap.
Currently, the city works against us. Or rather, the way we are building Sydney is designing walking out of our lives.
So we build low-density suburbs far away from jobs, shops, schools and public transport.
We build greenfield developments without enough pavements or tree cover in areas where the temperature often hits 40 degrees.
We build roads with clearways and “no stopping” signs that encourage cars to go fast and discourage people from walking or cycling – and suburban streets that are blocked off by cul de sacs, which deter walkability and make public transport access harder.
We have traffic light systems that prioritise drivers’ desire for speed over pedestrians’ desire to cross the road – and by the way, Sydney allows less time to cross than most US cities I have ever walked in.
We put schools far away from housing and provide no safe routes for children to walk to them.
We have a poor mass transit network, particularly West of Parramatta, when all evidence shows having such a network encourages walkability.
We have an obesogenic city on our hands where walking has been abolished from our lives.
If you think this is an extreme view just think about your own life or place and ask: are there shops I can get to in less than 10 minutes by walking? Can I walk to school with my kids or, better still, let them go alone? Can I get to my job by walking to a railway station or bus service?
Most Sydneysiders will only be able to answer “no” to these questions.
To shift the dial to “yes”, to get a healthy Sydney, requires more than warnings about eating the right foods. It means building a healthy city. And that means we need to ensure that we stop building a sprawling city for the car and start building a compact city for people.
That means a modal shift and a mind shift in transport planning from private to public transport and indeed to active modes from sedentary ones. It means understanding the difference between streets and roads and favouring the former over the latter. It means recovering our town centres as places to work and live and connecting them better by footpath and cycleways to their suburbs. It means placing access to places and place-making over mobility and speed in public policy.
Essentially, that means seriously planning for an urban not a suburban city. In seeking better health outcomes for Sydney can the premier accept the urban policy imperative to achieve them?
Tim Williams is head of cities and urban renewal at Arup and adjunct professor at Western Sydney University.