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Sydney's Olympic Legacy - Sustainable Development?
Finding a cure for our sick cities
Anthony Capon Professor Anthony Capon is a public health physician and a visiting fellow with the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. He is a former director of public health with Sydney West Area Health Service.
14 August 2006
The Sydney Morning Herald
THERE has been much debate about the legacy of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the first so-called "green Games". Would getting Sydney on track as a healthy and sustainable city be an appropriate Olympic legacy?
The discussion among health professionals about cities often focuses on urban penalties - the disease epidemics associated with rapid urbanisation during the industrial era in England, or epidemics of obesity, depression and asthma associated with urbanisation in the US, Australia and elsewhere.
Similarly, when environmental professionals discuss cities, they often focus on consumption and measures such as the urban footprint, the amount of land required to serve the resource and waste management needs of the urban population. For Sydney, this is about seven hectares for every resident. Cities can be seen as voracious consumers and unhealthy places to live.
It need not be so. Cities can be healthy human habitat. During the first half of the 20th century, Sydney's development was based on a rail network. The location of employment, schools, hospitals, shopping and services was aligned with public transport. With the advent of the affordable motor vehicle in the middle of the century, urban development decoupled from mass transit. The city became more spread out and it was difficult to provide infrastructure close to where everyone lived.
From the 1970s, we saw the emergence of large, stand-alone shopping centres which drew shopping and services away from residential areas and concentrated them in regional areas.
The areas of Sydney that developed after cars and then large shopping centres became popular lack mass transit, local shopping outlets and other services.
For Sydney to be healthy and sustainable this must change.
A check list for healthy and sustainable urban environments includes: less than 500 metres (via paved footpath wide enough for a wheelchair) to a bus, train or tram stop with regular services (at least every 30 minutes, off peak); less than 500 metres to shops; less than 500 metres to parks; less than 30 minutes by mass transit to a range of employment, education, social and cultural opportunities; safe walking and cycling paths to a primary and secondary school; mix of housing types and prices, suitable throughout the life cycle; housing built, or adapted, using environmental principles; good outdoor and indoor air quality; sense of community in the neighbourhood; tolerant and safe environment.
How might we make the transition to a healthy and sustainable city? Apart from addressing water, energy and environmental building issues, there are additional priorities: investment in infrastructure for mass transit and paved paths and cycleways, balanced with investment in high-quality roads and motorways, along with planning for the dispersal of shopping and services across residential areas.
There is a role for large, stand-alone shopping centres, but they should not be where we shop for daily grocery items, fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, newspapers and the like. For such businesses to flourish in neighbourhoods they need a market. This can be achieved by locating them on transport routes and increasing residential density.
For the sake of the health of future generations, governments must invest profits from the resources boom in urban transport infrastructure to support health on an environmentally sustainable basis.
The Australian Government response to the Sustainable Cities 2025 inquiry is an important opportunity to move to a path for healthy and sustainable cities.
In 2004, The Lancet published an editorial titled "The Catastrophic Failure of Public Health" which argued for urgent attention to be paid to urban planning for health. The health and wellbeing of urban residents should be viewed as a central outcome of urban development in our cities. More than 90 per cent of Australians live in cities. We live these issues every day: sedentary lives, traffic congestion, rising petrol costs and increasing carbon dioxide emissions. In the next round of national and state elections, we should require candidates to put these issues at the top of the public policy agenda.
As with the successful Sydney Olympics, if we are to move Sydney onto a path to be healthy and sustainable, we will need an effective partnership between governments and the private sector. Additionally, we will need effective engagement with the wider Sydney community.
Together, we can deliver healthy and sustainable cities.