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The walkable city

Billie Giles-Corti has advice for people wanting to buy or rent a home. And she’s not thinking about the price tag or how many bedrooms to look for.

Giles-Corti wants people to think about whether an area is made for walking. Some Australians may think they want a large house in the outer suburbs – but a smaller home within walking distance of shops and jobs could actually be a better option.

 “My challenge to people is to really think about the lifestyle that they want,” she says.

Giles-Corti is an expert on the built environment and public health; how to make cities better for people’s health and wellbeing. While billions of dollars is spent on medical research in Australia, Giles-Corti’s prescription doesn’t involve any drugs. She just wants people to walk for half an hour a day.

The research team is sending local councils a walkability map of their area to diagnose problems and help pedestrians, for example by putting in cut-throughs and increasing housing density.

“If there’s one thing that people could do to benefit their health, for chronic disease, heart disease, diabetes, it’s to be physically active,” she says. “Being inactive as well as sitting all day is actually very detrimental to your health.”

She also notes that walking is more environmentally sustainable, cushions against higher oil prices, and cuts traffic congestion.

To help get people moving, Giles-Corti and her team from the University of Melbourne’s McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing developed a “walkability map” for the city. First they researched what makes an area suitable for pedestrians. Three key factors are how connected street networks are (big blocks and cul-de-sacs are not helpful for walkers, while the old grid street pattern is great), density (low density doesn’t help), and the presence of shops and jobs. “There’s got to be somewhere to walk to,” Giles-Corti says.

The team then sourced data on these factors and layered the results onto a map of Melbourne, using GIS and the AURIN urban intelligence team. Researchers coded up different parts of the city as green, orange or red for walkability. The map shows the inner city is very pedestrian-friendly – but there’s a lot of yellow and red elsewhere.

The map was posted online in early 2015. Giles-Corti hopes people will use it when thinking about where to live. “It’s seen as a tool for democracy, people have a right to have access to data,” she says.

The research team is sending local councils a walkability map of their area to diagnose problems and help pedestrians, for example by putting in cut-throughs and increasing housing density.

The research team is working on similar maps for Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. The study could eventually lead to US-style discounted mortgages for people who buy in walkable areas, a recognition they’ll save money on car travel.

The next project is to map the liveability of cities – whether conditions are good for human health. Is an area safe, is there affordable housing and public transport, are there shops and jobs? And what are the consequences for health and wellbeing? The National Liveability Study, led by Dr Hannah Badland, will be developed in 2015 and city-specific maps released in 2016.

It’s all part of Giles-Corti’s vision: public health is not just the preserve of medical researchers, it’s also the responsibility of planners and decision-makers on land use, transport and food. She’s lead researcher on the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Centre for Research Excellence in Healthy, Liveable and Equitable Communities.

As for Giles-Corti herself, who has published more than 200 articles and reports and is ranked among the top one per cent of researchers in the social sciences by citations, is she practising what she preaches?

She walks to the shops, cycles to work, and takes the stairs up to her office. “I try once a day to walk up the stairs, five flights. I usually puff a lot but I feel better for doing it,” she says. “I’m trying to walk the talk.”


Listen to Billie Giles-Corti discuss her work

Watch this short video of Billie discussing the importance of good data












The Age, 15 March 2015 'Melbourne's most liveable suburbs are right at your feet'