Cyclists in Copenhagen
Cyclists in Copenhagen

“Compact cities”, city planning interventions linked to health outcomes

New research has quantified the health benefits of living in compact cities where commuting is focused on cycling, walking and public transport.

The health benefits to be gained from changes to urban design and transport systems have been quantified for the first time in a series of University of Melbourne-led research papers published in UK medical journal, The Lancet.

The three-part series was launched at a United Nations Sustainable Development Society Network event in New York in September.

The research sought to identify the sort of health gains that a population could achieve through increasing the use of public transport, cycling and walking, and reducing car use.

To get a wide perspective of this, it looked at six cities globally including Melbourne, London, Boston, Delhi, Sao Paulo and Copenhagen.

The first paper identified eight interventions found to help get more people away from a reliance on using cars and towards walking, cycling and using public transport.

Its second paper proposes a ‘compact city’ model, described as a city of short distances, is associated with a number of health benefits, while the third is a paper about how data can guide city planning and practices.

Having services and facilities within walking distance, a good spread of job opportunities and housing types across a city, reduced parking availability and increased parking costs, nearby public transport options, pedestrian-friendly and cycling-friendly areas, as well as creating neighbourhoods safe and attractive for public were interventions linked to healthier cities, the first paper found.

The second paper outlines how compact cities can be achieved based on increasing land-use density by 30 per cent, reducing distance to public transport by 30 per cent, increasing diversity of land-use by 30 per cent and a 10 per cent shift away from using cars.

Under the model, improved health gains were observed for all cities in cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes.

For Melbourne, a compact cities model was found to result in with a 14 per cent reduction in Type 2 diabetes, a 19 per cent reduction in cardiovascular disease, and an estimated 622 healthy years of life gained for 100,000 residents.

A downside was that serious road trauma rose under the compact city model, with a shift to higher cycling and walking levels linked to an increase in road trauma figures.

Highly motorised cities, such as Melbourne, Boston and London, would require large investments in separated pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

Lead researcher on the series, University of Melbourne’s Professor Mark Stevenson, said the papers had ‘considerable implications’ for policy change.

‘By quantifying the need for integrated city planning and its focus around modal choice for cities, it emphasises the need for sustainable transport that will deliver health gains for the future,’ he said.