Over half of the world’s population live in cities, and rapid urbanisation is only expected to increase in the coming years. By 2050, large cities in the USA, China and India are predicted to see their populations increase by 33 per cent, 38 per cent and 96 per cent respectively. Population growth in cities means increasing demands on transport systems.

What health gains could be achieved if cities shifted from private car use to cycling and walking? What if a “compact city” model was promoted, where distances to shops and facilities, including public transport, are shorter and within walking distance?

The University of Melbourne is leading the study, which has some revealing results.

The proposed could achieve “significant reductions” in non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes — as well as increasing physical activity and reducing pollution. Importantly, in cities with high levels of private car use such as Melbourne, researchers say that promoting walking and cycling must be matched by improvements to infrastructure that separate motorised transport to protect cyclists and pedestrians from road injuries.

Sprawling residential developments in the USA, Australia and New Zealand limit the ability of people to walk or cycle in their daily commute and make public transport expensive to deliver. Private car use has increased dramatically in Brazil, China and India leading to declines in physical activity, increases in air pollution and increased rates of road death and serious injury, all of which combine to increase overall levels of chronic disease and injury.

“With the world’s population estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050, and three quarters of this population living in cities, city planning must be part of a comprehensive solution to tackling adverse health outcomes,” says University of Melbourne’s Professor Billie Giles-Corti.

Melbourne's skyline at dusk.

Melbourne’s skyline at dusk.

City planning was key to cutting infectious disease outbreaks in the 19th century through improved sanitation, housing and separating residential and industrial areas. Today, Professor Giles-Corti says, there is a real opportunity for city planning to reduce non-communicable diseases and road trauma and to promote health and wellbeing more broadly.

Encouraging walking, cycling and public transport use — while reducing private car use — is the goal. Ways to do this identified in the study include having shops and services within walking distance, a mix of employment and housing across the city, reducing the availability and increasing the cost of parking, infrastructure that supports safe walking and bicycling, open spaces, reducing distance to public transport, and making neighbourhoods safe, attractive and convenient for public transport.

Professor Mark Stevenson from the University of Melbourne designed a ‘compact cities model’ where land-use density was increased by 30 per cent, average distance to public transport reduced by 30 per cent, and diversity of land-use increased by 30 per cent. They also factored in a 10 per cent shift from private cars to either cycling or walking — a target similar to that of policies in many European cities such as Zurich.

These targets were selected on the basis that they are pragmatic in most cities — for instance in Melbourne approximately 14 per cent of private motorised vehicle trips are for trips of less than 5km so a shift from car to active commuting (walking combined with public transport) for example would be feasible.

The model was applied to six cities: Melbourne, London, Boston, Sao Paulo, Copenhagen and Delhi. Health gains were predicted in all cities, with the greatest effect on reducing rates of cardiovascular disease. In addition, all cities saw increases in physical activity and reductions in air pollution from transport emissions.

In Melbourne, the model led to an estimated reduction of 19 per cent in the burden of cardiovascular disease and 14 per cent in the burden of type 2 diabetes. The model also predicted an increase in road traffic incidents for cyclists and pedestrians — an increase of approximately 6 per cent in Melbourne (257 additional road injuries and 10 deaths per year). However, separating pedestrian and cycling from cars was found to offset the increased road injuries and deaths.

Several cities have made progress in increasing walking and cycling including London, Stockholm and Bogota — for instance, motor vehicle traffic volumes across London decreased by 7 per cent between 2004 and 2014 and cycling has increased, despite a growing population. But the researchers warn that much more should be done to improve the health of cities.

Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University calls the study “a powerful new statement” on the need for cities to reduce automobile dependence.

“The days of urban sprawl are over. We must regenerate our cities and ban any further outward sprawl.”

Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director at the Centre for Urban Research says the study shows a clear need for improved urban policy to ensure cities are healthy and sustainable.

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Australia is among the top 10 healthiest countries in the world, according to the most comprehensive analysis of burden of disease and living standards to date.

Taking out 10th place among 188 countries, Australia was just four points behind top-ranked Iceland when benchmarked against 33 health-related indicators linked to the UN’s sustainable development goals.

The US trailed in 28th place with an SGD index of 75 compared with Australia’s 81, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study published in The Lancet. A suite of perfect scores buoyed Australia’s performance, including top marks for indicators associated with war, malnutrition, water access, sanitation and malaria.

But its result was dragged down by lower scores for suicide, alcohol, smoking, overweight, HIV, violence and disaster (defined as the death rate due to exposure to forces of nature per 100,000 population).

Australia is among the top 10 healthiest countries in the world.

Australia is among the top 10 healthiest countries in the world.

The US’s comparatively poor performance will come as a surprise to many, considering its socio-economic heft, wrote the research coalition of more than 1870 international researchers who analysed the performance of countries between 1990 and 2015.

The superpower’s lacklustre scores for maternal mortality alcohol consumption, childhood overweight, and deaths due to interpersonal violence, self-harm, and unintentional poisoning compared to other higher income countries dragged down its overall ranking.

Overall, the most pronounced progress internationally was among the universal health coverage indicators, largely thanks to anti-retroviral therapies and widespread use of insecticide-treated nets in malaria-endemic countries since the early 2000s.

And while there were also substantial improvements in childhood stunting caused by malnutrition, childhood overweight rates had worsened considerably over the past 15 years.

The SDG targets have been a source of intense debate, with critics arguing they were too vague, unrealistic, poorly measured, or missing key indicators – for instance, banning forced labour or mental health improvements.

The SDG agenda replaced the Millenium Development Goal framework, which expired in 2015.

The scores routinely inform decisions concerning which countries may be most deserving of aid funding, as well as national and international policy and strategies.

The latest analysis was a step towards a more cohesive approach to understanding the interaction between SDGs, targets and indicators by comparing the relationship between education, income and fertility, the authors said. It also raised questions about the impact of other drivers on health and living standards across the globe.

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Australia’s major cities are in danger of becoming miserable metropolises full of unhappy residents unless more investment is made in public transport and there’s some relief from the high cost of living.

The country’s capitals are also ill prepared for natural disasters and would struggle to cope in the face of a major terrorist attack.

That’s the conclusion of an innovative study that ranked 100 of the world’s cities according to how they fared when it came to social, economic and environmental factors — or, as the research lists them — people, profit and planet.

Canberra is Australia’s happiest and most sustainable city.Source:News Corp Australia

Canberra is Australia’s happiest and most sustainable city. Source:News Corp Australia

And unlike many other surveys of global cities, the Sustainable Cities Index placed Melbourne below its archrival of Sydney.

“A lot of people get confused with sustainability being just about the environment but, by our definition, balancing immediate needs of the population without compromising the needs of tomorrow is the heart of a sustainable city,” said Greg Steele, chief executive officer of design and consultancy firm Arcadis’ Australia Pacific arm, which commissioned the research.

The world’s most sustainable city was Zurich, which scored highest on environmental metrics for being a profit centre. But it fell because of the lack of work-life balance and high prices in the Swiss city.

Singapore, Stockholm, Vienna and London were also in the top five.

Asked which global city balanced profit, planet and people most successfully, Mr Steele highlighted Canberra, which is the highest ranked Australian city and the 18th most sustainable city worldwide.

Mr Steele said the ACT’s single level of government meant things got done quickly and initiatives, such as Canberra’s new light rail, were going to keep it on top.

But just like Australia’s other major cities, a lack of affordable housing had dragged it down.

And if Canberrans think they’ve got it bad, just head up the road.

Sydney scored well as an economic hub and clean, green city. Picture: Gregg PorteousSource:News Corp Australia

Sydney scored well as an economic hub and clean, green city. Source:News Corp Australia

Despite the multitude of catastrophic events, from floods in Brisbane to bushfires on the outskirts of Melbourne, the report found dealing with disasters including possible terrorist attacks, wasn’t a priority.

In the global rankings, Sydney was the world’s 21st most sustainable city, Brisbane the 30th and Melbourne 32nd.

The harbour city’s collection of world class universities and its generally healthier population pulled it in front of Melbourne and Brisbane. The Victorian capital also scored worse on the environmental front than Sydney.

Yet last month, the Economist Intelligence Unit found Melbourne the world’s most liveable city with Sydney kicked out of the global leaderboard due to the “heightened perceived threat of terrorism”.

He also said that the Arcadis survey measured something else: happiness — or the lack of.

A successful work life balance as well as a quick commute were factors that helped residents get happy.

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In the weeks leading up to last year’s United Nations General Assembly, world leaders and activists were united in their optimism about launching a new set of global goals that would set a bold direction to 2030. One year on how are we doing? In short, not well enough. These inspirational goals require us all to stretch, but far too many are hunkered down in business as usual.

While celebrating the successes of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we knew that we could do better. MDG achievements were impressive, but generally limited to those groups who were easier to reach. MDG progress was based in averages and masked inequalities. Less privileged groups did not see the same improvements, excluded from progress by their gender, ethnicity, caste, and place of birth, among other factors. Countries in conflict also saw few improvements. According to the World Bank in 2011, “No low-income fragile or conflict-affected country has yet achieved a single MDG.”

United Nations Headquarters

United Nations Headquarters

Recognizing the need for bolder action, the UN orchestrated one of the most participatory projects in its history to define 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed to move everyone, both in developing and developed countries alike, toward a better future by 2030. Embedded in this new framework was the transformational commitment that “no one would be left behind.”

One year on, overall progress toward the 17 goals in support of reaching everyone is already off track. Research from the Overseas Development Institute suggests that only three of the goals, including ending extreme poverty, are on a path to success with some additional effort, while nine goals, including many affecting children such as reducing maternal mortality, ending hunger, ending child marriage and boosting secondary school completion, are progressing much too slowly and require a major step change. Five goals, including reducing income inequality, are moving in the wrong direction. The Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators has yet to approve a set of global indicators to measure progress on the SDGs, and the promise to disaggregate data by gender, age and ethnic group – so critical to the goals’ transformational impact — does not appear very high on countries’ priority lists.

After their strong launch a year ago, world leaders have missed opportunities to throw SDG implementation into high gear. The World Humanitarian Summit, the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the Financing for Development Forum, and the recent G20 Summit were big opportunities for pushing the SDG agenda forward, yet failed so far to trigger concrete action accelerating progress. As one UN representative said during the HLPF in July, “Leave no one behind isn’t something that will happen by everyone just repeating that phrase again and again at the UN.” The SDGs need to be taken more seriously if the world is to be successful in delivering on these goals.

As new leaders take office in coming months in the U.S., at the UN, and in other countries, we will work to promote increased political attention to SDG implementation, improved data and accountability, institutional changes, and a priority focus on excluded groups. The ambitious commitment “to leave no one behind” cannot wait.

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Sydney is leading the world for its sustainability and natural environment but lags behind in being “tech ready”, a study shows.

The Price Waterhouse Coopers’ global report ranking 30 cities on measures such as health, safety, transport and innovation gave Sydney 10th place overall and equal first for sustainability and the natural environment.


It came third for health, safety and security and ranked in sixth place for economic clout, up seven places since 2014.

London was ranked first for the second time in a row, followed by Singapore and Toronto.

Sydney was ranked third highest of the Asia­Pacific cities, behind Singapore and Hong Kong.

Sydney was the only Australian city analysed in the report.

“What makes a city a strong performer is balance ­ quality of education, transport, health and business growth, combined with cost of living and a sense of safety,” PwC chief operating officer Sean Gregory said.

“Sydney is well placed across many of these metrics, and is positioned in the top 10, but as urbanisation continues, the health of our city rests on continuing investment and innovation by businesses, policy makers and citizens.”

Mr Gregory said community dialogue was appropriately focused on the need for innovation, technology skills, economic growth, infrastructure investment, tax reform and job creation, and a holistic range of social issues.

“We can match it with the likes of Singapore and our national focus on STEM is a step in the right direction. Federal, state and local government support for startups and tech precincts will help to deliver innovative outcomes and we have the opportunity to foster more creative local business and innovative environments, similar to Bold Tendencies in London.”

The report found Sydney has improved on its infrastructure and transport ranking, improving to 10th from 25th last report completed in 2014.

When it comes to tax efficiency, Dubai achieves the top score for a second time in a row, followed by Hong Kong and Singapore, with these cities doing well largely because of having fewer taxes generally, as well as the availability of electronic filing and payment capabilities.

PwC Partner for Cities Clara Cutajar said the federal government, through the release of the Smart Cities Plan, has also recognised the importance of supporting the growth of our cities to the future prosperity of Australia.

“Ultimately the entire ecosystem of a city must work together business, tertiary institutions and government. That’s the lesson from some of our best performing global cities.”

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IT MAY seem obvious that most people live in cities, but it has only been true for less than a decade. Humanity has previously been a rural species.

In 1800 just 3 per cent of people lived in cities, and it was still only 14 per cent in 1900. Cities remain a novelty in the scheme of things, and we are still learning. For all its magic, city life is full of mistakes, mishaps and misery.

When I was a boy living in the country, we thought that technology could bring the urban utopia everyone dreamed of, with all the blessings of living en masse and none of the pitfalls.

It did bring benefits, but Dickens’s 19th-century London lives on in cities everywhere, in the form of isolation, polarisation and inequity. Such human factors are the focus of a big international meeting in October, along with some very 21st-century issues, disaster and climate resilience.

There have been just two previous Habitat conferences, at 20-year intervals. This year in Quito, Ecuador, some 25,000 politicians, mayors, academics, planners, activists, community advocates and business people will put together a new UN urban agenda for coming decades.

How cities look — the grand vistas, monuments and planning schemes so beloved of developers and politicians — is unlikely to figure on the Quito agenda. The focus will be on how cities can better serve the needs of inhabitants, rich and poor.

Its starting point will be 17 landmark sustainable development goals, a 15-year plan signed a year ago by Australia and other UN member nations. Number 11 of these goals aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

Urban ethics are a big talking point, centred on social inequity. In poorer countries, vast and rising gaps between poor and rich have resulted in one in three people living in a slum, while the rich, with government support, turn once-public land into gated communities.

Inequity, exacerbated by harsh treatment of intruders caught in gated suburbs and the touting of slum clearances as developments, threatens a city’s social fabric and economic viability. How cities confront another threat to sustainability, climate change, is also an equity issue. Rich people have resources to fall back on when extreme weather or rising seas threaten a community, but the less well-off are entitled to believe that authorities will look after their interests too.

The cynical view is that all strategic plans, from local government all the way up to the sustainable development goals, Habitat III and the 2015 Paris climate summit, are just devices to help leaders feel good while avoiding solid commitments.

According to this view, while ordinary people may feel they are being represented in the processes, and while governments invite comment on their plans, public thinking that runs counter to a chosen direction is quietly ignored.

But government should not be about self-interest, and the rest of us, armed with high-minded global declarations, are not without power. If ethical urbanisation, ethical anything, is to get its day in the sun, we need to ensure people we elect feel that power.

Peter Boyer began journalism at the Mercury in the 1960s. He has written about climate science for many years. In 2014 he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to science communication.

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The frenetic, isolating nature of city life can be a day-to-day struggle for millions of people. An environmental cocktail of densely packed streets and homes, cramped and lengthy commutes and noise pollution as well as significant pockets of poverty and deprivation can take their toll. As a result, mental ill health and urban life are inextricably linked.

With urban areas expected to house two-thirds of the world’s population by 2050 and some cities, such as in China, undergoing unprecedented expansion, the relationship between urban environments and mental health – and what to do about it – is rapidly coming to the fore.

“Public health is an important component of the built environment, but all too often this focuses only on physical health,” says Layla McCay, founder and director of the Centre for Urban Development and Mental Health. The thinktank was set up in 2015 to bring together researchers, policymakers and planners across the globe to push for urban space designs that create mentally healthier cities.

 Cities have an increased prevalence of acute mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and higher rates of depression and anxiety. Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex Shutterstock

Cities have an increased prevalence of acute mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and higher rates of depression and anxiety. Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex Shutterstock

Projects paving the way

A well-designed urban space can have a positive influence on people’s wellbeing and help prevent mental health problems developing or becoming worse, according to McCay.

“Mental health plays a huge role in the overall burden of disease around the entire world,” she says. “It’s prevalent in every country. The statistics do tell us that people who live in cities have a 40% increased risk of depression, a 20% increased risk of anxiety and double the risk of schizophrenia.”

Urban living takes its toll

There is a considerable body of evidence internationally suggesting that urban living, especially poorly designed environments, can have negative effects on mental health. For example, substandard, overcrowded, damp housing has been proven to affect people’s capacity to cope, while the lack of something as basic as a play area can influence children’s wellbeing.

The role of planners and architects

It makes sense, McCay says, to take into account, for example, that improving street lighting and housing layout might reduce fear and anxiety about safety. The same goes for using urban design to produce plentiful open, green spaces that encourage regular interaction in “pro-social spaces” and “a sense of community” with the goal of reducing isolation.

Experts at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments at the University of the West of England (UWE), which works in tandem with the World Health Organisation’s international Healthy Cities Project, concur that urban planning could have a substantial role to play in cities being designed with mental wellbeing in mind.

According to Daniel Black, an urban planner and fellow at the WHO Collaborating Centre, while planning professionals and researchers are increasingly becoming advocates for prioritising mental health in planning decisions, there is still some way to go before decision-makers in governments catch up.

“Mental health is still lagging behind,” he says. “Even physical health is only beginning to get on the radar. How those in control of urban development are integrating health into development is negligible.”

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For the sixth year in a row, Melbourne has topped The Economist’s list of the world’s most liveable cities.

Lord mayor Robert Doyle said retaining the title was something all Melburnians should be proud of.

Rankings are a highly subjective process, and researchers stress this Melbourne liveability study is about the quality of suburbs and not about the people who live in them.

“We do not take this title for granted and are constantly planning and implementing policies that will continue to improve our quality of life,” Cr Doyle said.

“It is an exciting time in Melbourne: we’ve got many major infrastructure projects underway, including the Metro Tunnel, and the proposed renewal of the Queen Victoria Market precinct.”

Sydney is one of the biggest losers of this year’s report, tumbling out of the top 10 most liveable cities. It fell four places to 11th, owing to a heightened perceived threat of terrorism.

Adelaide has managed to hold onto its title as the world’s fifth most liveable city, tied with the Canadian city of Calgary.

Overall the survey reported increasing instability around the world, including through civil war and other violent acts.

“This has been a year undoubtably marked by terrorism,” the report said.

Crews lining up for the start of the Yarra Head of the River rowing classic.Crews lining up for the start of the Yarra Head of the River rowing classic. Photo: Darrian Traynor

“While not a new phenomenon, its frequency and spread have increased noticeably and become even more prominent in the past year.”

Paris (32nd place) and Athens (69th place) were among the cities that experienced the biggest declines in liveability in the past five years.

Big houses, palm trees - Brighton's beaches are just a short ride from the CBD.Big houses, palm trees – Brighton’s beaches are just a short ride from the CBD. Photo: Michael Dodge

The Syrian city of Damascus – gripped by a bloody civil war – was ranked in last place from 140 cities.

Vienna was ranked the world’s second most liveable city, followed by Vancouver and Toronto, nipping at Melbourne’s heels by just a few percentage points.

RIDING a bicycle is good for you, usually. Riding is good for the health and affordability of the urban environment.

PEDAL POWER: Riding is good for your health and great for the environment when compared to almost any other mode of transport.

PEDAL POWER: Riding is good for your health and great for the environment when compared to almost any other mode of transport.

Let’s start with the natural environment. The recently developed bike track near Lake Canobolas is a better location than the more ecologically sensitive Mount Canobolas.

Mountain bikes do impact the environment, and I’m a mountain bike rider mindful of this. Compared to motorised bikes the impacts are much lower, but there is an obvious traffic volume-impact relationship with both.

While Earth First might sometimes have a different view to the local mountain biking community, it’s important to recognise the biking community are committed to maintaining the trail environment.

The Lake Canobolas mountain bike track and recent improvements at the bottom end of the Kinross Forest mountain bike track both show this commitment.

It’s also no accident that Western NSW Local Health District was a partner with Orange City Council in helping develop the Lake Canobolas bike track because – as with many forms of physical exercise – cycling is good for our mental and cardiovascular health.

Cycling reduces emissions in urban environments as well as congestion and infrastructure costs.

According to a 2013 Sydney Morning Herald article a bicycle path costs about $1.5 million a kilometre to plan and build. Whereas roads for motorised vehicles cost within $15-30 million per kilometre.

So we’re looking at about 10-20 times more for the standard urban road.

Of course a key aspect of road cycling needs to be safety. From March 1 drivers have had to give cyclists one metre when the speed limit is 60km/h or less and 1.5 metres when the speed limit is more than 60km/h.

There have been increased penalties overall and a need to carry photo identification, but the overall intent of the changed rules are to save lives.

If cycling participation doubles, the mortality risk per rider, per km falls by about 34 per cent according to Jacobsen’s Growth Rule.

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THE world’s most liveable city should be small with a population of around a million and easy to get around.

And that’s not Melbourne.

It’s a city where transport is delayed, urban sprawl keeps creeping further and high density apartments are rife.

Melbourne may be striped of its ‘world’s most liveable city’ title. Picture: Eugene Hyland

Melbourne may be striped of its ‘world’s most liveable city’ title. Picture: Eugene Hyland

According to RMIT environmental planning professor Michael Buxton, these are the things that could cause Melbourne to be stripped of its “world’s most liveable city” title this year.

Melbourne has held the title on The Economist’s liveability rankings for the last five years but Prof Buxton said it could be the end, with European cities doing it better than Melbourne.

“We are moving from a city with a population of four million to six million and that’s putting massive strain on existing services,” he said.

“We need to be building massive new public transport systems and school and social infrastructure.

“Melbourne Metro is a step in the right direction but that’s only a tiny fraction of what is going to be needed.”

Austria’s capital, Vienna, was ranked number two on the liveability list last year and Prof Buxton said Melbourne may be overtaken and never catch up.

“European cities value a high number of amenities and that means a lot to the citizens of these areas and they attract tourism, which is very important. Melbourne is not doing well on that at all,” he said.

“European transport systems also may not be as expensive as Melbourne’s and they function much better.”

Prof Buxton believes Melbourne has held on to its liveability title for the past five years because the city looks good on paper.

RMIT professor Michael Buxton believes Melbourne needs to catch up to European cities. Picture: Josie HaydenSource:News Corp Australia

RMIT professor Michael Buxton believes Melbourne needs to catch up to European cities. Picture: Josie HaydenSource:News Corp Australia

The climate is not as miserable as some European cities and Melbourne’s tram and rail systems appears to cater well to the city.

“But it’s expensive and the problem is it doesn’t function that well,” he said.

Most of Melbourne’s problems came from a rapidly growing population, and smaller scale cities, like Helsinki, Stockholm and Berlin, were more appealing cities to live in.

Prof Buxton said city size had been debated for years and he believed once the population surpassed 1.5 million, that’s when difficulties could arise.

Earlier this year a report from BIS Shrapnel revealed there would be an oversupply of more than 20,000 homes in Melbourne in 2017.

The new liveability ratings are expected to be released this month.

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