Monday, October 16, 2017

This is What Our Cities Need to Do to Be Truly Liveable For All

by Julianna Rozek and Billie Giles-Corti, The Conversation:

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While parts of Australian capital cities are highly liveable, access to the features that underpin liveability is highly unequal. kittis/shutterstock
Julianna Rozek, RMIT University and Billie Giles-Corti, RMIT University
This article is one in a series, Healthy Liveable Cities, in the lead-up to the Designing Healthy Liveable Cities Conference in Melbourne on October 19 and 20.

Urban planners, governments and developers are increasingly interested in making cities “liveable”. But what features contribute to liveability? Which areas in cities are the least and most liveable? The various liveability rankings – where Australia tends to do quite well – don’t provide much useful guidance.

In a recently released report, Creating Liveable Cities in Australia, our team defined and produced the first baseline measure of liveability in Australia’s capital cities.

We broke down liveability into seven “domains”: walkability, public transport, public open space, housing affordability, employment, the food environment, and the alcohol environment. This definition is based on what we found to be critical factors for creating liveable, sustainable and healthy communities.

Each of the liveability domains is linked by evidence to health and wellbeing outcomes. They are also measurable at the individual house, suburb and city level. This means we can compare areas within and between cities.

While all seven domains are important, three are explored here in more detail.


Urban planning that encourages walking is crucial for liveable cities. Julianna Rozek/Author provided

In liveable cities, streets and neighbourhoods are designed to encourage walking instead of driving.

Homes, jobs, shops, schools and other everyday destinations are within easy walking distance of each other. The street network is convenient for pedestrians, with high-quality footpaths, short blocks, few cul-de-sacs and higher-density housing.

Walkability is an important factor in liveability because it promotes active forms of transport. Increasingly physically inactive and sedentary lifestyles are a global health problem, and contribute to around 3.2 million preventable deaths a year. In Australia, 60% of adults and 70% of children and adolescents do not get enough exercise.

We measured walkability using a combination of features that are linked to health benefits. Our “walkability index” included housing density, access to everyday destinations and street connectivity within 1,600 metres of a residence. This is a commonly used “walkable” distance, equivalent to about 20 minutes’ walk, and features within this affect how likely a person is to walk.

However, walkable neighbourhoods achieve their full potential only when residents have easy access to employment – particularly by public transport.

Public transport

Liveable cities promote public transport use instead of driving. Most homes are within easy walking distance of transport stops, and services are frequent enough to be convenient.

Good access to public transport supports community health in two ways: by encouraging walking and by reducing dependence on driving.

Australian cities have largely been designed for cars, at the cost of community health. Each hour spent driving can increase a person’s risk of obesity by around 6%. Road-traffic accidents are the eighth-leading cause of death and disability globally, and one of the leading causes of death in Australians up to the age of 44.

Cars are also a major source of urban air pollution and noise, which are harmful to mental and physical health.

In previous work, our team found that people were more likely to walk for transport if they had a public transport stop within 400 metres of their home. The service frequency was also important – it needed to be least every 30 minutes on a normal weekday.

In Creating Liveable Cities in Australia we used this combined measure to map the percentage of homes in a suburb, local government area, or city with close access to frequent public transport.

Creating Liveable Cities in Australia

Public open space

In liveable communities, most people live within walking distance of a green, publicly accessible open space such as a park, playground or reserve.

Green space has many physical and mental health benefits for people, and social and environmental benefits for communities. Parks provide opportunities for physical activity, such as jogging, ball sports and dog walking.

Increasingly, research is finding clear links between living in neighbourhoods with lots of parks and higher physical activity.

Urban green spaces are also important for plants and animals displaced by urban development and provide other environmental benefits. The cooling effect of trees and green spaces can play an important part in maintaining the liveability of Australian cities, particularly as heatwaves in Melbourne and Sydney are likely to reach 50°C by 2040.

In soon-to-be-published work, having access to a public open space within 400 metres (about a five-minute walk) of at least 1.5 hectares in area was associated with recreational walking.

For this report, we struggled to find a dataset of public open space that was consistent and available nationally. Some areas have high-quality data available from previous research projects or local councils, and satellite imagery provides useful information about tree cover.

However, national data standards are needed to enable cities to benchmark and monitor their progress in meeting liveability targets.

The liveable city is greater than the sum of its parts

The phrase “liveable city” conjures up a vision of leafy streets, happy residents walking, cycling or catching public transport, and children playing in neighbourhood parks. This image, while inspiring, is not useful for urban planners and governments who are working to make cities more liveable.

Distilling liveability into seven domains, which can be measured and are linked to health and wellbeing outcomes, provides policymakers and practitioners with what they need to ensure we maintain and enhance the liveability of our cities as they grow.

The ConversationYou can hear more from researchers involved in Creating Liveable Cities in Australia at the Designing Healthy Liveable Cities Conference on October 19-20 in Melbourne. It’s being hosted by the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Healthy Liveable Communities and you can register here.

Julianna Rozek, Research Officer, Healthy Liveable Cities Group, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University and Billie Giles-Corti, Director, Urban Futures Enabling Capability Platform and Director, Healthy Liveable Cities Group, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, October 9, 2017

New Toolkit Connects City Planning and Environmental Justice

(Photo by Der-wuppertaler)

National City, California, which sits just 11 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego County, is characterized more by industrial brownfield sites and sky-high asthma rates than the region’s iconic palm trees and sandy beaches. With demographics that skew low-income and high-minority, two freeways that slice through the metro within several thousand feet of each other, more fast food restaurants than grocery stores, and a port of entry cutting residents off from their waterfront, it’s a textbook example of how land use policies can cement historic health inequities and stymie civil rights.
But National City was also the first city in California to pioneer an innovative environmental justice policy recently mandated for all municipalities throughout the state. SB 1000, approved by Governor Jerry Brown last September, requires that cities consider environmental justice in their planning process — formally, that they create environmental justice “elements,” much like housing elements — as part of their general plan. Spurred in part by childhood asthma rates nearly 60 percent higher than the county average, as well as high numbers of diabetes- and coronary heart disease-related deaths, National City residents began pushing for such an element in 2005. Their success is laid out in a toolkit and guide of best practices released this month by the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), which co-sponsored SB 1000.
The city adopted its environmental justice element in 2012, five years before Brown signed anything into law. Carolina Martínez is associate director of policy at the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition, and she says that the idea originated among community members, not elected officials, and that, in fact, it was the grassroots nature of the process that made it possible in the first place.
“When we originally came forward to council meetings and planning staff, [we saw that] they didn’t necessarily have the tools or the imagination to think of solutions because they were operating in the status quo,” Martínez says. “When you integrate community members who may not have been planners for 10 or 20 years or may not have had access to higher education into the planning process, it creates room for things to be solved in different ways.”
The document that emerged calls for a comprehensive overhaul of business-as-usual zoning, which had allowed auto services, manufacturing centers and warehouses to be mixed with residential neighborhoods. It prioritizes more compact, mixed-use development to foster affordable housing and sync up with public transit; calls for the cleanup of contaminated brownfield sites; directs the city to distribute parks more evenly through neighborhoods; and directs future officials to avoid siting new “sensitive land uses,” like schools and parks, within 500 feet of the centerline of a freeway — unless such a development “contributes to smart growth, open space, or transit-oriented goals.”
But the grassroots zeal for environmental justice that made National City’s update possible isn’t shared by every California city — especially because planning for health equity often means planning for more housing, which can be a tough sell in the density-averse state. And the broader state law overseeing general plan updates is famously light on enforcement.
In 2013, the Orange County Register reported that as many as half of all cities in the state had outdated general plans, meaning that the process through which cities are supposed to consider and mitigate local environmental injustices is, often, just not done. And parts of the plan update process, like the housing element (which requires cities to plan for their “fair share” of growth according to regional estimates) can be politically unpopular. In some cases, that local NIMBYism results in the active obstruction of the update process, which opens cities up to litigation but not much else.
Tiffany Eng, a program manager with CEJA, says that state oversight of the environmental justice element’s creation is similar to its oversight of the housing element update process.
“It’s mostly locally enforced through litigation or community pressure,” she says. “General plans — they’re guidance, they’re visionary, there’s not a lot of enforcement, although I think that going forward the attorney general might get more involved.”
But if there is enough political goodwill locally that an element is created, there are certain things cities can do to make sure zoning policy translates into actual changes in the built environment, Eng says.
“Besides making sure that community voices and visions are the center of all planning processes (which is crucial), it’s also important to include stronger language within the EJ Element (or within EJ policies and objectives)” she writes in an email. “Including stronger language could mean using words such as ‘must,’ ‘required,’ and ‘restricted’ when designing General Plan policies and objectives, that would make a local jurisdiction more likely to abide by the plan’s guidance.”
For now, National City’s experience, as well as the other case studies CEJA highlights from Fresno, Jurupa Valley, the Los Angeles region and Richmond, serve as instructive and inspiring examples for other cities hoping to tackle local health inequities. CEJA’s toolkit also helps cities identify disadvantaged areas in their own jurisdictions, understand the requirements of SB 1000 and locate funding sources. It will no doubt be very helpful for California cities — at least the ones that don’t ignore or willfully obstruct state law.