Fat of the land: how urban design can help curb obesity

People living in the suburban sprawl walk less, drive more, and spend more time in sedentary pursuits. katie chao and ben muessig/Flickr

OBESE NATION: It’s time to admit it - Australia is becoming an obese nation. This series looks at how this has happened and more importantly, what we can do to stop the obesity epidemic.

Here Billie Giles-Corti and Carolyn Whitzman discuss ways to change our obesogenic environment through urban design while Jo Salmon looks at the role physical activity and exercise play in healthy lifestyles.

Compared with our grandparents, feeding, clothing, and entertaining ourselves has never been easier: a one-stop weekly shopping centre trip in a car, facilitated by convenient parking and light-weight maneuverable shopping trolleys that allow us to whiz around the supermarket with ease.

In fact, these days people don’t even need to leave home to do their food shopping, order takeaway food, bank or pay bills, shop for clothing or household goods, “visit” with their friends, read the newspaper or amuse themselves. Using the internet or telephone, activities that used to involve some level of activity or a short walk, can be done with “anywhere, anytime” convenience.

The internet and telephone have made life easy but it’s not all good news. teoruiz/Flickr

If we couple this lifestyle of convenience with a media environment that advertises and provides an attractive array of easily-accessed, low-cost and tasty, high-fat, high-sugar foods – it’s not surprising that obesity is such a huge problem.

Australia is one of the global leaders in the obesity epidemic, with two-thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of Australian children, overweight or obese. Alarm bells are ringing in health circles about the impact this will have on all the major preventable diseases: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. These diseases will get worse unless we can help people maintain a consistent belt size throughout their life.

Poor diet, lack of physical activity and other sedentary behaviours are the main culprits in the obesity epidemic. People choose how active they are and what they eat. But their local environments – their neighbourhood, local parks and streets, as well as their homes, workplaces and schools - provide opportunities and barriers that affect those choices.

There’s widespread agreement that we’ve created obesogenic environments that encourage both inactivity and overeating. So what can be done about it?

People are more likely to walk and cycle if they live in safe, compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods. Marionzetta/Flickr

For a start, we could improve neighbourhood design to get people out of their cars and onto the streets. People are more likely to walk and cycle if they live in safe, compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods characterised by connected street networks, access to nearby destinations such as shops and parks, mixed uses of building such as housing above shops, and high population density.

People living in the suburban sprawl walk less, drive more, and spend more time in sedentary pursuits, such as watching television or cruising on the internet, than those living in compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods. We need to plan services in new communities so that schools, shops, public transport, and parks arrive at the same time as housing – so that residents can develop good walking, cycling and public transport habits from the outset.

At the same time, we need to share the resources available in established suburbs closer to the city where there’s already good access to parks, jobs, and public transport. This means increasing the number of people who live in inner-city suburbs and giving more people access to existing shops and services.

We also need to think about quality and access to open space: parks, ovals, play grounds, and school grounds. The way open space is designed gives people cues about how it is to be used – is this open space simply for vandals and hoons, or does it say to local residents (regardless of age), “this space is open for active business, come and join in”?

The way open space is designed gives people cues about how it is to be used. Grant MacDonald

Similarly, we need to make the most of what’s called “blue space” – waterways, such as creeks, lakes, rivers and beach fronts. We know that in wealthy areas, blue spaces are opened up and invite the public to be active with walking and cycling paths, but is this true in lower-income areas?

There’s growing evidence that people who drive long distances to work are more likely to gain weight. Reducing commute times would not only be good for the environment, it would also be good for our waistlines – particularly if it involved walking or cycling to rapid public transport. This requires the right types of jobs to be available locally – what type of local business activation models could assist?

We need to give people choices so that healthy options are easy to pick – in neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. Policies ensuring there’s plenty of fruit, water, and healthy take-away food – not just high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar alternatives – give people the opportunity to make healthier choices.

Providing access to community garden spaces encourages children and adults to develop a love of fresh food has the potential to have a positive impact on our waistlines too.

Community gardens encourage people to develop a love of fresh food. RDPixelShop/Flickr

And we need to think carefully, as a community, about how happy we are about the way unhealthy food is marketed and actively promoted so readily to children and young people. This normalises unhealthy food choices. We may need restrictions on the marketing of fast food to children in the mass media, at school and at sporting events.

These are choices to be made not only by individuals and families, but also by society. Planning and policy interventions are crucial to correct a serious market failure that is promoting unhealthy lifestyles, at the expense of the health and well-being of the nation and the future life expectancy of our children.

We have choices to make as a society. We know what we prefer – how about you?

This is part fourteen of our series Obese Nation. To read the other instalments, follow the links below:

Part one: Mapping Australia’s collective weight gain

Part two: Explainer: overweight, obese, BMI – what does it all mean?

Part three: Explainer: how does excess weight cause disease?

Part four: Recipe for disaster: creating a food supply to suit the appetite

Part five: What’s economic growth got to do with expanding waistlines?

Part six: Preventing weight gain: the dilemma of effective regulation

Part seven: Filling the regulatory gap in chronic disease prevention

Part eight: Why a fat tax is not enough to tackle the obesity problem

Part nine: Education, wealth and the place you live can affect your weight

Part ten: Innovative strat egies needed to address Indigenous obesity

Part eleven: Two books, one big issue: Why Calories Count and Weighing In

Part twelve: Putting health at the heart of sustainability policy

Part thirteen: Want to stop the obesity epidemic? Let’s get moving

Part fifteen: Industry-sponsored self-regulation: it’s just not cricket

Part sixteen: Regulation and legislation as tools in the battle against obesity