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Liz Banks-Anderson

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Urban planners have a bigger role to play in fighting obesity according to health and urban research experts at the University of Melbourne.

Public health researcher Professor Billie Giles-Corti said the data, maps and tools exist to improve ‘walkability’ in Melbourne, and Friday’s Walk to Work Day presented an opportunity to consider how to make suburbs more walkable.

“The way we design cities has a major impact on the health and wellbeing of residents,” she said.

Professor Giles-Corti is leading a project to develop databases and analytical tools that make it easy for local government urban planners to check ‘walkability’, the extent to which a suburb’s urban design encourages walking as a mode of transport or for recreation.

The Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN), Walkability Tool, available here, allows users to measure, model and visualise the consequences of planning decisions before building work even begins.

“Being physically active is like a silver bullet for public health. Walking is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to be active,” Professor Giles-Corti said.

“Inner Melbourne has the local services, land use mix, density and public transport options that make neighbourhoods more walkable. Council has improved walkability by widening footpaths and improving connectivity through features like lane ways.

“In contrast, outer suburban are less walkable because they are low density and spread out, with limited public transport options and few shops in walking distance of most homes. Despite the importance of walkable neighbourhoods, we’re still seeing low density, car-reliant new suburbs.”

Director of AURIN Professor Bob Stimson said awareness-raising initiatives like Walk to Work Day were important because they focussed attention on how we might better plan for and build our neighbourhoods across Australia’s cities to make it easier for people to walk and gain the benefits of exercise to enhance health outcomes.

“The automated walkability tool provided through AURIN is a great case study of how federal government investment in research infrastructure can enhance smart evidence-based urban planning,” he said.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter said the organisation was committed to funding research and developing tools and campaigns that encourage Victorians to get active and lead healthy lives.

“If implemented, interventions like this walkability tool will ensure that Melbourne continues to live up to its name as the world’s most liveable city!” she said. 
The AURIN Walkability Tool was developed in collaboration with the University of Western Australia, VicHealth and The University Of Melbourne.  

AURIN is funded through the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and associated programs.