Experts say suburban living is bad for your health

Jarrod Brown
By Jarrod Brown
6 Min Read

Experts are saying the design of our cities and suburbs is severely impacting the health and safety of lower-income households in Australia. 

After studying the health impacts of our nation’s growing urban sprawl for over two decades, Professor Billie Giles-Corti from RMIT University has found the suburban dream of a white picket fence may actually be hurting Aussies. 

“In the 21st century, the biggest contributor to chronic disease has been how we design our cities,” Professor Giles-Corti told Build-it. 

“The evidence is becoming clearer that chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers are all impacted by the city environment around us. 

“Exposure to noise, air pollution and heat all play a large part in determining the health of Australians. Now, with climate change, that’s going to play an even larger effect.

But while the environment itself can prove dangerous to some, it’s the “social-risk factors” that Professor Giles-Corti says are really impacting Aussie health. 

“There are so many social factors working against people on the fringe of the cities, from underdeveloped public transport and public facilities to a lack of security for neighbourhoods,” she told Build-it.

“These areas almost force people to remain indoors, leading to a large percentage of residents not reaching the national recommendations for physical exercise and hurting their health as a result.

“We also see these areas surrounded by unhealthy food and drink outlets, leading many people to harm themselves with excessive drinking and a poor diet.

“A lot of people out there, even though the housing is more affordable, are under a lot of financial stress, which is also extremely harmful to their health.”

Not-so affordable housing

Often discounted as an issue relegated to social housing areas, Professor Giles-Corti said it’s actually the lower-income families on the fringe of urban sprawls that are feeling the effects the most. 

“In Melbourne, for example, there’s a lot of high-density social housing right in the middle of the city. While you might think that that’s not very health-promoting, they’re right in the middle of the action where there’s very good public transport, public open space, shops and services nearby. There’s a lot of services there supporting lower-income households,” she told Build-it. 

“It’s actually low-income working families that buy so-called affordable housing on the fringe of our cities that are feeling the pinch.

“Unlike if you live somewhere like Fitzroy where you’ve got the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker right next door, people who live on the fringe don’t have all that amenity right near their home. 

“We’ve worked out that people on the fringe have to travel about 1.4 kilometres to a supermarket, so they’re not likely to walk. 

Over 70 per cent of Australians aged 18 and over in these inner-regional suburban areas are now considered overweight or obese — higher than those who live in the inner city.

“They’ve got a big house. They’re running two or three cars because of the lack of public transport, and they’re spending a lot of time in their car commuting, which means that they’re not home in their communities for their children.

“It puts people under a lot of financial stress and means they don’t have a whole lot of social activity.”

“It’s affordable housing, but not necessarily affordable living.

According to the latest ABS data, the average rent in Australia is $600 a week for houses and units, rising 13.2 per cent and 23.7 per cent respectively since September last year. 

The average national weekly personal income was $789, with 6.8 million people (37 per cent of the population) earning less than $500 a week. 

What you can do to improve your health

But all hope is not lost for those stuck in these poorly designed suburbs. Professor Giles-Corti said the most important thing anyone can do to improve their overall health immediately is to get outside and get moving. 

“If there’s one thing that people can do to be healthy, it is be physically active. I think it’s the silver bullet,” she told Build-it. 

“It’s something everyone can do regardless of any other risk factors. So if you’re living in a neighbourhood where you’re travelling to work, you can incorporate simple things like parking your car further away or, if you catch public transport, get off a stop earlier to get a walk-in at the end of the day.

“It’s much easier actually if you can build physical activity into the day, so if you do have the chance, try walking or cycling rather than driving.

“After a whole lot of research, I always tell everyone the same thing for improving their physical activity – get a dog.”

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. He has a strong passion for new and emerging consumer technology within the building sector. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.