Step-by-step approach to walkable neighbourhoods
Prof Billie Giles-Corti
Professor Billie Giles-Corti

Moving from theories about walkability and its impact on health and wellbeing to the reality of more walkable neighbourhoods remains a major challenge, but a new tool now under development could help bridge the gap, leading researcher Professor Billie Giles-Corti told a recent Sax Institute research seminar in Sydney.

Professor Giles-Corti, Director of the McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing, University of Melbourne and a chief investigator with The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, has been studying the impact of the built environment on health and wellbeing outcomes for two decades.

She said there was mounting evidence that the urban sprawl seen on the outskirts of many growing Australian cities was associated with lower walkability. That meant less walking, fewer people using active transport, more sedentary behaviour and more vehicle miles driven. Some studies showed that the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes were increased in environments with low compared with high walkability.

Influencing Policy

“We are trying to take it from measurement and theory of walkability to get that translated into policy and practice,” she said.

“Changing policy is difficult. It requires a long-term view, policy relevant research and partnership with policy makers and practitioners.”

An interdisciplinary approach was vital – involving everyone from urban planners to engineers and computer scientists.

Walkability Index Tool

Professor Giles Corti said the Walkability Index Tool, a demonstration project now under development, was aimed at bridging the gap between theory and practice by enabling the measurement of walkability across Australia.

The open-source tool, developed within the Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN), could be used by policy makers to assess the walkability of areas, or by researchers to access geospatial data to assess walkability. It incorporates data on neighbourhoods, street connectivity, land use and dwelling density.

The tool could be used, for example, by local government to compare walkability between schools in an area.

When fully implemented it could be used to benchmark Australian cities, against which planning and urban design decisions could be assessed, then monitor progress towards achieving policy goals.

There was also scope to use the tool to assess whether neighbourhoods could be “retrofitted” in a way that made them more pedestrian-friendly – for example, by creating more accessible pathways to public transport.

Linking data and policy through measures such as the Walkability Index Tool was a step towards healthier urban environments, she said.

Professor Giles-Corti is currently leading a Prevention Centre project to develop and validate a set of national liveability indicators that contribute to health and wellbeing, including crime and safety; employment and income; health and social services; and transport.

The project, which aims to provide policy makers with evidence for how much liveability affects health, will also develop a national built-environment database from which liveability indicators can be applied to other studies of population health.

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