Sydney is in the grips of “motorway madness” and needs a planning overhaul if it’s to become a healthier city, experts say.
The government’s “incomprehensible” spending on improving and building roads came under fire at FitNSW this week, a forum for planning and health experts on designing healthy cities.
“We’re actually seeing a return to 1960s’ motorways, which is absolutely crazy, no other city globally is [being so foolish]… it’s incomprehensible,” City of Sydney councillor Philip Thalis said in a panel discussion about the effect of the built environment in Sydney.
“We need to really re-orientate the entire framework on post-war planning [towards the public interest], we’ve been incredibly biased towards the car,” Mr Thalis said. “This motorway madness, this mania … is the biggest threat the city has had.”
Instead of spending big on roads – which encourage urban sprawl – Mr Thalis told Domain the government should be increasing investment in public transport and infrastructure which improves cycling and the city’s walkability – and consequently the health of Sydneysiders.
Part and parcel of this is boosting density around train stations, according to Peter Newman, a professor of Sustainability at Curtin University.
“Urban sprawl is the basic problem,” Dr Newman told Domain. “We need to bring our cities back in and to build around quality transport with walkability in those areas the highest agenda.”
Dr Newman, who delivered a keynote address at the conference, said projects like WestConnex were “a big step backwards” for Sydney.
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“We’re pumping billion and billions into really wasteful roads that do not fix the problems we’re facing,” he said. “It’s such a loss of opportunity, for that money could have gone into other better forms of transport.
“More walking is what we desperately need to maintain our health, the big threat to life expectancy in the developed world is a lack of walking and the obesity issues.”
A Transport for NSW spokesperson defended the state government’s spending on infrastructure, stating more than $40 billion allocated towards transport “was almost evenly split between roads and public transport”.
He also said that Westconnex was “more than just a motorway”.
“[It] will also deliver more than 18 hectares of open space for local communities in the inner west and around 23 kilometres of new and improved cycle-ways and walkways.”
As Sydney increasingly moves to higher-density living, to house its surging population, the expert panel said it was crucial to increase community spaces and greenery in the public realm.
Just over half of the NSW population currently meets the recommended level of at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week.
“As you knock down houses and put up townhouses and apartments, you have fewer backyards and people are more reliant on public spaces, parks and walkways,” Mr Thalis said.
Well-planned environments where people can walk, cycle or enjoy green space can make a big difference in the rates of chronic diseases, and also mental health, said Julie Anne Mitchell, cardiovascular health director at Heart Foundation NSW.
“People who live within 400 metres of public open space are more likely to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity than those who don’t,” she said.
NSW Government Architect Peter Poulet said while Sydney was at a “tipping point” statewide policies such as Better Placed and Greener Places would encourage better design outcomes and an increase in the community and green spaces needed for healthier communities.
“Sydney is growing, let’s make sure it grows well not just big. To do that we need to offset some of the negative impacts of development with good development, and good design.”
Meanwhile, Stephen Moore, urban design director at town planning firm Roberts Day, said it was important for planning legislation to recognise how the built environment could assist with preventative health measures.
While building infrastructure to encourage more activity would be costly, Mr Moore noted it was better than the alternative – increasing pressure on our health system.
“In Western Sydney, for example I think you need about $600 million to build a protected bicycle network …people say we can’t fund that today, but by 2026, 6000 more people will have diabetes and for one year of quality-adjusted life there’s going to be a rolling cost to tax payers of $700 million every year.”