Friday, 30 March 2012

Walkable neighbourhoods need more than just paths

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Walkable burbThe CBEH says there is growing concern about the sustainability of low density suburbs and the impact high levels of driving and ever-expanding suburban boundaries have on the environment and our health. Image: Don PughTHE University of Western Australia’s Centre for The Built Environment and Health (CBEH) is leading research on the impacts of urban design on health, in a bid to inform the design of communities to meet the physical and mental needs of various population groups.

According to 2011 survey, Western Australian residents have the highest rate of all states and territories of car ownership with 829 vehicles per 1,000 residents. Given this high rate of ownership, how hard is our environment making it for us to walk, cycle or use public transport?

PhD student Andrea Nathan tried to answer this question by evaluating people’s preference for walking, also called self-selection, when buying a house.

“Trying to understand if people who enjoy walking choose to live in neighbourhoods that are more walkable, or whether walkable neighbourhoods cause people to do more walking is a complex issue because the reasons for choosing where to live are multiple,” she says.

“In an effort to unpack this further, we assessed how walking opportunities are promoted in the marketing materials for new housing development.

“We found that the people moving into these new neighbourhoods, promoted as walkable, say they have a higher preference for walking attributes even though there is no difference in how much they actually walk.”

As bewildering as this results might look, CBEH Associate Professor and Deputy Director Lisa Wood says it can be explained by the fact that new neighbourhoods often lack a mix of walkable destinations that research has shown to be very predictive of whether people walk, and in turn, of their physical activity levels.

“What we find is that the marketing materials put out by developers of new areas, which often promote the 'walkability' of the new area, are not really conducive to walkability in the early years as while they may have roads and footpaths, there is often a very long lag time in community infrastructure, such as local shops, community centres, schools, places of employment, public transport routes with bus-stops, etc,” she says.

“Hence there is not much for people to walk to or that encourages them to get out-and-about walking in their neighbourhood, as they have to get in their car to go to most places.”

The CBEH says there is growing concern about the sustainability of low density suburbs and the impact high levels of driving and ever-expanding suburban boundaries have on the environment and our health.

They say their five-year research will advocate urban planners, developers and government agencies towards optimising the urban environment to suit the health needs of all ages.

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