Bad planning in the design of modern suburban neighbourhoods in Australia is leading to an unhealthy and socially isolated population, says Mike Day, co-founder and partner at Hatch RobertsDay, an award-winning urban planning and design consultancy.
Australian suburbs that have come up in the last couple of decades have become increasingly car dependent, dominated by separated land uses and streets with limited access for pedestrians, despite the fact that around 40 percent of the population don’t have access to a car.
Inability to access their daily needs within walking distance is leading to a feeling of being marooned, which is impacting their mental and physical health, says Day. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has also increased their loneliness and social isolation.
“Most suburban town planning not only separates land uses and people from each other, it has tended to discourage physical activity with a lack of cycle paths or connected walkways, leading to rising rates of obesity,” says Day.
Obesity in Australians aged 18 and above living in regional areas has risen to 70 percent in recent years – higher than for those living in cities.
Day argues that effective town planning in Australia’s suburbs can improve and enhance the health and wellbeing of their residents. For instance, dedicated footpaths that encourage walking along with alternative and more sustainable forms of transport such as e-bikes, push bikes and public transport options will not only reduce congestion and pollution, and save costs on building roads solely for cars but also create a healthier population while bringing people closer within the community.
“The 20-Minute Neighbourhood concept is where we should be heading. It’s an urban design and health and wellbeing strategy that gives people the option to meet their daily needs within a 20-minute return walk from home, with access to safe cycling and local transport choices. The policy promotes sustainable transport, mixed-use, the UN Sustainability Goals and local workplaces.”
In addition to the young and elderly who find themselves cut off from their peers in these poorly planned neighbourhoods, the working population is impacted by a lack of jobs or job creation initiatives in suburban areas, forcing them to commute long distances to work.
“We need to emulate what our forebears have laid out and design places that are akin to those cherished, timeless inner-city neighbourhoods. Places that are compact and intimate, with a diversity of spaces that encourage and promote an inclusive community – we need to urbanise the burbs,” says Day.
For instance, children should be able to walk to school, much like their counterparts in Scotland and Canada where car-free zones have been dedicated within the walkable catchments around primary schools.
The growth in Australia’s older population, consisting of people with physical and cognitive impairment, and living alone, will be one of the major challenges facing urban planners and designers in the years ahead. With many among the elderly preferring to age ‘at home’ within their neighbourhood, creating homes and neighbourhoods that support them, physically, mentally and socially will be paramount, says Day.
Additionally, the outer suburban population in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth is projected to more than double in the next decade, and nearly triple in Brisbane, according to ABS. This makes it imperative for designers and town planners to collaborate closely with councils and developers to shape a better future for our communities.
Tips for creating suburban towns that prioritise health and wellbeing:
- Walkable environments that reduce the need for cars.
- Separate cycle pathways and connected walkways.
- Micro-mobility such as e-bikes and scooters
- Public transport options including buses and trams.
- Town or village squares located within walking distance of most residences to provide a sense of place and belonging.
- Parks and other green spaces such as community gardens and rooftop gardens.
- Tree-lined streets with wide footpaths and cars accommodated at the rear of houses.
- Mix of housing options such as terraces and townhouses to encourage a multi-generational population.
- Increased vertical density and mixed-use amenities such as schools, community centres, leisure centres and shops.
- A variety of curated community events and programs.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/overweight-and-obesity
 Sustrans, 2020, https://www.sustrans.org.uk/our-blog/news/2020/august/parents-urged-to-ditch-the-car-for-the-school-run-ahead-of-new-term
 Living Streets, 2020, https://www.livingstreets.org.uk/about-us/our-work-in-action/car-free-zones-trial-in-edinburgh
 Regional Australia Institute, 2019, http://www.regionalaustralia.org.au/home/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/RAI_2019_RegionalPopulationGrowthReport_WebFinal.pdf