University of Sydney Robinson Fellow at the School of Architecture, Design and Planning,Dr Jennifer Kent has been researching the ways in which urban structures and governance influence human health.
Many of the chronic and costly diseases facing Australia are related to the way we live in cities. The speed of modern life clashes with increasing inequity to ensure the promotion of good health. Urban planning is increasingly recognised as an effective mechanism to shape and manage built environments so that they encourage and support physical activity, social connection and access to healthy food.
Australian urban planners are at the frontline of the way our cities are shaped and managed and therefore play a pivotal role in addressing modern health issues. Dr Kent’s research delves into the solutions to this complex issue and the challenges faced to provide a clear and theoretically sound framework to inform planning in the future.
My research was driven by a need to discuss some of the ways better urban planning can promote health, proposing key changes that need to occur in Australian cities. I believe that Australia, in many ways, is at the forefront of highlighting the intersection between health and the built environment.
The book, Planning Australia’s Healthy Built Environments, is the result of Dr Kent’s research into this area and is the first text to look at the way Australian urban planning influences human health, covering topics as diverse as access to healthy food, opportunities for physical activity, social interactions and mental health, as well as equity, time use and diversity in our cities.
While Australian governments and associated stakeholders regularly acknowledge the potential for built environments to promote health, changing political priorities, complex regulatory systems and difficulties associated with working across disciplines continue to threaten realisation of this potential.
Dr Kent’s research combines quantitative and qualitative data with understandings from policy science to trace the practical, cultural and political barriers to healthy cities.
Key issues examined to date include the links between health and higher density living, the interpretation of health evidence into urban planning policy, the health impacts of extended commute times, and cultural and structural barriers to sustainable transport use.
Australia has a unique population geography, and maintains a series of complex political and land-use planning systems. Research uncovered that although different levels of government, NGOs and the tertiary and private sectors are embracing and championing this potential there are still many challenges faced. This is particularly so in relation to uncoordinated and inconsistent political commitment.
In the Australian experience, the crucial ingredient for successful translation of enthusiasm into action is the development of genuinely interdisciplinary working relationships. These must be based on mutual understanding and respect, where key champions are encouraged, and political support is realised.
Turning the advocacy, enthusiasm and evidence into real change in Australian built environments is a continuing challenge.
“We look forward to the time when Australian urban environments are consistently characterised by both,” she says.
Rising rates of many non-communicable physical and psychological conditions in urban populations - particularly cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and depression - are causing global concern. At the same time, there has been increased focus on how a city's structure impacts collective well-being.