Section 9.2 Urban Density is Good for Us All

The way we are building cities is changing because it must. Urban planners encourage Medium density – a compromise between urban sprawl and high rise. Medium density housing can make our suburbs more livable.

Urban sprawl has many costs but in Australian cities, it is still the norm, so we tend not to think about the alternatives.

So there are costs, although hidden, from doing what we’re doing now. And what we’re trying to do with our research is make those costs explicit, so people can actually see it’s not cost free. Doing what we’re doing now, in fact, is very costly. And then what we need to do is actually make that visible.

On NOT Re-inventing the Wheel – Australian Walking & Cycling Conference (, accessed 17 March 2021

Urban Density is Good for Us All

Living in a place where you can get to your work, support services, entertainment and shops without a long car drive is good for the health of individuals, communities and the planet. Professor Billie Giles-Corti is a public health researcher committed to gathering the evidence to drive that change.

On NOT Re-inventing the Wheel – Australian Walking & Cycling Conference (, accessed 17 March 2021

Listen to the audio here.


Interviewer 0:06
Are you trapped in your car? In this series, we explore different ways to step away from the car. Since the time of the Roman city planning has always been about public health, but researcher, Professor Billie Giles-Corti says the issues are different now in the 21st century. And the answer is density.

Billie Giles-Corti 0:33
We are designing our cities so that people drive everywhere, and that means they’re physically inactive, they’re more sedentary. So when we have urban sprawl, people are having to travel further to work. And so they’re spending more time sitting, that I have time when they get home, to do things in their neighborhood. So they’re not even doing recreational activity. So it actually has an impact on physical health, so through their physical activity, but it also has effect on mental health and community health, you know, in terms of people not being socially isolated in interacting with one another. So and of course, it’s got an environmental impact as well. pollution, noise, and climate change are all going to have massive health, public health impacts, stress, respiratory problems, from driving, basically. You know, putting young families out on the fringe of cities where there is no money to because we can’t afford to provide it in a timely way, does not look good for the child development outcomes for those kids. And I think we have responsibility for those of us who live in areas which are more established, I’ve got all that amenity to make sure that those people have actually access to amenities. I do think that we’ve got a climate crisis. And I do feel that we need to reduce the amount of driving there do. I’m a values driven researcher, my value is health, that what we should be doing is designing our cities to make people healthy. And so that’s really what my works about is, how can I help city planners, transport planners, urban designers, landscape architects create the sorts of cities which are healthy and more sustainable. We need integrated planning across all the systems. What happens is, you know, the transport planners do their bit and the land use people do their bid. And we’re starting to change, so we’re starting to see transit oriented developments, oh, how sensible is that, that you have urban design around the train station that makes it walkable so local people can walk locally and locally, and perhaps even better if it had cycle facilities, infrastructure, higher density housing on the train station itself, which means that you’ve got more people living closer to that and but as long as it’s got amenity. Now, I want to really emphasize that when I’m talking about the need for density, in cities, it really isn’t just density, but density sake, it’s I call it delightful density, because it has all the things that make a place livable amenity shops and services, we need to have the integrated planning, transport, land use and infrastructure with the idea that we create places where people can live locally and not have to travel so far to get to work.

Interviewer 2:59
You’ve also talked about biodiversity being part of that delightful density?

Billie Giles-Corti 3:03
Absolutely. I mean, I think one of the biggest challenges we’ve got is the way we’re doing our density at the moment is often a battle ax block, or it’s redeveloping a housing block, and then putting apartments on it. Well, that takes away all the greenery. It’s bad from the point of view of biodiversity, it’s also affecting heat island effects. So it makes a plate the area’s hotter. So we’re losing biodiversity, because of our push to have density, and I’m a big proponent of density, but it needs to be density done well. And I call it delightful density, because it takes into account that we need to be planning and designing with biodiversity in mind, but also the the destinations, because if you’re going to start putting density in and still people having to drive, well, that’s kind of what more cars on the road. And it’s going to be counter to what we’re trying to do here to promote health and wellbeing for individuals and the planet.

Interviewer 3:57
So that’s where the jobs come in having employment around the places where people live.

Billie Giles-Corti 4:02
Yeah, well, I think in the past, what we’ve done is designed activity centers to be mainly retail centers, and not a true mixed use with different types of commercial housing. In the UK now, at big shopping centers, they are converting them to put housing there so that, the older people who want to downsize can move over to live there, and then that frees up their house for another family to move in that needs a larger house.

Interviewer 4:31
I guess it often comes down to money, doesn’t it? does it pay, people trying to make the buck quickly, either as developers or as people with municipal budgets or whatever?

Billie Giles-Corti 4:44
Why, like the question, what’s the cost of not doing something? So the short term gain is that we spend less money, but the long term costs of those decisions on putting more cars on the road, so we have to build more roads, affecting the environment, which is going to have huge impacts on all. And also social costs. So you build areas affordable housing on the fringe of cities with no amenity, which means that people don’t have anything to do. And you can guess what that when kids don’t have anything to do, they get into trouble. There’s lots of costs of not doing something, even though it might cost more in the short term. One of my some of my team members have been doing some really interesting research looking at the health impact of out of suburban low density environment compared with medium density in the middle ring of a city. And what they found is that there’s a huge health impact from building the out of suburban development. In fact, they found with a population of 21,000, there would be a saving of over the life course of $94 million for that population, if they lived in a high density area with more amenity because of the health benefit. So there are costs, although hidden, from doing what we’re doing now. And what we’re trying to do with our research is make those costs explicit, so people can actually see it’s not cost free. Doing what we’re doing now, in fact, is very costly. And then what we need to do is actually make that visible, because otherwise we think it’s more expensive option, I don’t know that it is. So you can achieve a lot of great outcomes with medium density, you don’t need to go high rise. But in importantly, it needs to have amenity because otherwise it’s just high rice sprawl or medium price sprawl. And so you need to have all the amenity that you need for daily living and good public transport. That’s really critical. And there’s people now putting that evidence out there from the development industry, that there is money to be made from building walkable urbanism. In fact, we estimate that there’s a large number of people living in the suburbs would rather be living somewhere else, we’ve got some figures on that. So I think that it would sell well, if people would be prepared to give it a go and build it.

Interviewer 7:01
The continuing problem really is that we have politicians who work on a short term cycle the immediate costs rather than the long term costs. And often they’re the people who are driving the policy that frees up the money, aren’t they?

Billie Giles-Corti 7:14
We are saying in policies now let us you know, strategic documents for planning of cities, that we do need to think about sustainability and livability. There is a growing awareness about how we need to do it. But I think where we’ve got a responsibility, as you know, people who are trying to change our cities is to work out well how can we do it in a way that benefits people? And I really would love that to get picked up and and made into sort of design guidelines, because I can see why the community gets upset. You see politicians do what the public want. So as members of the community, it’s up to us to be able to advocate for delightful density. Melbourne’s population is going to double by 2050. Do we want to all those people living on the fringe to have no amenity, because we can’t afford to build the hundreds of schools, the hundreds of everything that we need, in one local government area, and Melbourne is 54 babies a week being born. That’s two classrooms of children. That’s childcare, preschool. Its primary schools, high schools, it’s all the recreation opportunities. I think we need to demand that things are done. Well. I think that’s what we should demand. Because it has to be a partnership. We can’t do it by ourselves, but just by putting out you know, save our suburbs, not in this area. It’s a complex thing. But I think putting our hands over our eyes and saying we don’t want this to happen is not the answer. Take responsibility to get a good result and not just make it so politicians won’t act, do act, but do it in a way that we’re satisfied with and bring the industry along with us. The development industry want to sell products, housing estates. And some of the developers want to do a better job, they want to make it better, because I realized that they can also make money out of urbanism, as I call it, replicating some of our old suburbs in the outer suburban areas with good public transport, shops and services nearby. And I think we should be encouraging to do that, because that’s a much more sustainable way of living.

Interviewer 9:13
Professor Billie Giles-Corti, public health researcher from RMIT and a principal Research Fellow with the NHNMRC. You’ve been listening to step away from the car recorded at the 2019 Australian walking and cycling conference by Nikki Paige and Suzanne Reese and produce that Radio Adelaide.

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