Sick suburbs

Poorly planned new housing estates on Melbourne's fringes are causing an outbreak of anxiety, diabetes and obesity among residents.

Poorly planned new housing estates on Melbourne's fringes are causing an outbreak of anxiety, diabetes and obesity among residents.

ONE wet Saturday morning, Loren Bartley bundled her three young children into their waterproof jackets and packed their towels and bathers into a bag. Despite the torrential rain, they were making a trip on public transport from their home in Point Cook, a growth suburb in Melbourne's outer west, to their nearest indoor public swimming pool.

A member of the Point Cook Residents Association, Bartley wanted to use the expedition to demonstrate to Wyndham Council the need for an aquatic leisure centre in her suburb, which the group says has a dearth of indoor recreation facilities.

Even her low expectations weren't met. The trip to the leisure centre in neighbouring Hoppers Crossing - a 15-minute car drive - took them almost 1? hours. It included a 40-minute bus ride and a long walk in the rain carrying a grumpy toddler on her hip and shepherding the other children across two major roads.

All-up the bus tickets and pool entry cost $22 and the whole experience left the family so disheartened that Bartley rang her husband for a lift home.

''When we bought [six years ago] we knew there was going to be a pool two blocks from our house, but that got deleted off the plans. Now we still haven't got an active community or leisure facility, somewhere you can go with your family,'' she says.

There is overwhelming evidence that we are planning and building new suburbs in Victoria that are bad for people's health: they make residents more isolated, more harried, increasingly unwell and much, much fatter.

Experts say our state is facing an epidemic in chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease and there is a large and growing body of evidence - both in Australia and internationally - that poor urban design is partly to blame.

In many new estates on Melbourne's fringes there is a paucity of public transport, parks and open space. Schools and services are too far to walk to, large houses have swallowed backyards, commuters sit for long periods in traffic and fast food is often the only offering at the local convenience store.

Less visible, but just as insidious, is the rise of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety and the higher reporting of family violence in growth areas, which experts say can be exacerbated by financial stress, mortgage stress, isolation and a lack of community infrastructure such as women's health and community centres.

Such is the concern about the legacy of Victoria's population boom that the inaugural task of the state government's environment and planning committee has been to hold an inquiry into the relationship between environmental design and health, with its report expected in June.

''When it comes to urban planning we are building suburbs that in 20 years will be ghettos of ill health,'' says Dr Margaret Beavis, a Melbourne GP who is doing a master's degree in public health and who appeared before the inquiry.

Building car-dependent suburbs in the name of cheap housing is a false economy that will create massive health and economic liabilities, she says.

''They are being built as 'affordable' but not only are they expensive in terms of money, with travel costs and such, but they are expensive in terms of health because people spend so long sitting in their cars.''

FROM the air, Point Cook looks like a half-finished mosaic. Black-tiled roofs sit side by side in neat rows, rimmed by a grey grouting of roads and to the south is a tan expanse of former farmland.

On the ground, the scale of development in this pocket of Wyndham is more tangible: land has been neatly divided into blocks for sale, a real estate billboard promises a quality of life ''more presidential than residential'' and the wind carries the shrill beep of bulldozers.

Wyndham Council, which includes the suburbs of Werribee, Hoppers Crossing, Point Cook and Tarneit, told the parliamentary inquiry that the rate of growth has stretched it to breaking point.

The fastest growing municipality in Australia in percentage terms, each week there are 60 babies born, 120 new requests for a bin service and 100 new building permits issued.

The boom has been fuelled by young families and new migrants drawn to the area by affordable housing on the city's fringes.

Every six weeks the council holds a citizenship ceremony for 250 people, an occasion that other councils might organise every few months, for a dozen people at a time. But many new residents soon find life in Melbourne's growth areas is not what they expected. The council says Wyndham residents are in the midst of an epidemic in obesity and diabetes.

Bill Forrest, the city's funding strategist, says years of poor planning have created a city where a high dependency on cars is creating an ''obesogenic'' community - one that promotes major weight gain rather than reducing it.

According to the council's submission to the inquiry, more than half of Wyndham residents do not eat the recommended amount of fresh fruit and vegetables - similar to the rest of Australia - most places have poor ''walkability'' and there are no, or very poor, public transport links.

Mental health disorders are the largest contributors to disease burden in the area but at times there has been no psychiatrist working in the municipality, says mayor Kim McAliney.

''What outer suburbs fear is that we will see a two-tiered city in terms of opportunities and quality of life,'' McAliney says. ''Our bike lanes are still paint on the roads where cars go past at 80km/h and we wonder why people won't let their kids ride bikes to school.''

Other councils in Melbourne's growth areas report similar problems. Whittlesea council told the inquiry it expected a 90 per cent increase in population in the next 20 years, and Casey reported poor levels of support services and general wellbeing in comparison to the state average.

The chronic diseases of most concern in Victoria are heart disease, diabetes and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. But one of the headaches for health advocates has been connecting the dots between planning and good health, which is also influenced by factors such as socio-economic status and education.

''People often ask why the Heart Foundation is interested in planning, but the built environment can enhance your health or detract from it,'' says Kellie-Ann Jolly, the foundation's director of cardiovascular health.

Some of the evidence is clear cut: the VicHealth submission to the inquiry showed that children and older people living in the state's growth areas were admitted to hospital more often for respiratory problems. This is likely to be related to air pollution from cars and VicHealth has called on the government to plant more trees in new developments to capture pollutants and shade buildings.

As well as concerns about pollution and contamination on former industrial sites, experts say Melbourne has pockets of ''food deserts'', where healthy, affordable food is difficult to buy and the only options are calorie-laden, nutrient-poor junk food from takeaway shops or service stations.

Kim McAliney has noticed a mushrooming of fast-food outlets in her ward: ''I'll drive along and there will be another one they're coming up a lot closer to schools and they're everywhere.''

In response, some councils are promoting a move towards providing locally grown food through farmers' markets and community gardens.

At the Meridian estate in Dandenong, government developer Places Victoria says it will create an ''urban orchard'' by planting fruit trees on nature strips and in front gardens, but this is the exception, rather than the rule.

The slow outward creep of Melbourne's urban growth boundary means that prime agricultural land - from the asparagus growers in Kooweerup to the market gardens at Werribee South - is slowly being rezoned and developed.

''Victoria is known as the food bowl but the decision to sprawl in low-density areas means we're getting more and more developers building the new crop - housing,'' Jolly says.

And it's not just about what you eat. VicHealth wants planning regulations to take account of the risks associated with bottle shops, which are concentrated in poorer communities.

Their research shows that for every 10,000 litres of pure alcohol sold by a liquor shop, the risk of violence in nearby residential properties increases by 26 per cent.

Melbourne University planning expert Dr Carolyn Whitzman says rich countries such as Australia face a new public health conundrum when it comes to urban planning. There has been a shift away from the role of an activist government and an emphasis on two main types of development: sprawl in outer-suburban growth areas and intensive high-rise in the CBD.

NEITHER works, she says: the key is medium-density buildings constrained by a strict urban growth boundary like those in Vancouver or Copenhagen.

''It's like we're in collective denial about what makes a liveable city - we live in one of the most urbanised places on earth, but we still have this notion that we live in rural areas or suburbs.''

But in some places this message might be getting through. The backers of Selandra Rise, a new estate in the south-eastern suburb of Clyde North, say resident health and wellbeing have been a priority from the start. All of the 1180 homes - priced from about $310,000 - will be within easy walking distance to schools, shops and services, a community centre, retirement village, as well as a large park, walking tracks and an outdoor fitness area.

A partnership between the Planning Institute, Casey Council, developer Stockland and the government's Growth Areas Authority, Selandra Rise will be the subject of a five-year longitudinal study by VicHealth to assess its impact on residents.

Karina Carrel, her husband and their young family will move to Selandra Rise next month, choosing to live there because they could afford a larger home and liked the plans for parks and open space.

Carrel, who is a Zumba instructor and recently recovered from Hodgkin's lymphoma, also wants to run a cancer support program from the estate's new community centre.

''As a working mother, I wanted a facility nearby where I could run my business but still be available for the kids,'' she says.

Stuart Worn, the head of the Planning Institute Victoria, says health should be the first consideration in new housing developments.

''We're using market forces to make change [at Selandra Rise], and then it will become easier for government to do the same.''

Some, like Carolyn Whitzman, offer more qualified support to the idea, saying the health focus inside the estate is laudable but city workers still face a long commute.

In 2010 the Brumby government extended Melbourne's urban growth boundary by another 43,600 hectares, despite the city having one of the world's largest geographic footprints, stretching 100 kilometres from east to west.

In Victoria the shape of our cities and towns is governed by the planning act - which makes no direct reference to health - and a mass of guidelines, provisions and schemes that local councils often develop and police themselves.

The parliamentary inquiry was repeatedly told that health should be included as one of the legislation's key objectives and made a fundamental part of other strategies, including the new Metropolitan plan currently being developed by Planning Minister Matthew Guy, which replaces Labor's Melbourne 2030.

The Age tried to contact the minister for comment, but received no response before deadline.

But opposition planning spokesman Brian Tee says placing health at the centre of planning legislation is ''common sense''.

''Everyone from councils through to the health department were saying the current system is broken and we just don't pick up the connection between our suburbs and our health,'' says Tee, who is a member of the parliamentary committee conducting the inquiry.

''This should be beyond politics it's not like the evidence is being brought by people carrying a political axe. We are designing communities that are making people sick and politicians have to listen to that.''

Miki Perkins is city reporter.

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