The missing steps to support walkability



TYPE Prevention Centre News

Half of all Australians do not get enough physical activity and this is likely to have an enormous impact on chronic disease prevention efforts we are all working to identify and implement. Despite walking being the most prevalent form of non-sport physical activity and a priority in most metropolitan strategic plans, more robust statutory mechanisms and legislative support may be needed to incentivise and ensure the delivery of healthy built environments.

Although much is known about the built environment design elements that promote walking, and tools have been developed to assess walkability, there is limited understanding about the statutory components of the ‘system’ that direct and regulate changes to the built environment in Australia.

Research Officer Tracy Nau used her legal background to tackle this issue in An analysis of the legal framework influencing walking now published in Australia Public Health Research & Practice. Fellow authors included Professor Adrian Bauman AO, Adjunct Professor William Bellew, Distinguished Professor Billie Giles-Corti and Professor Ben Smith. The project was also supported by a Prevention Centre Emerging Leaders Seed Funding Grant awarded to Tracy.

At a conceptual level there are several ‘walking needs’ or environmental factors influencing walking decisions. These are basic to higher-order needs: accessibility, safety, convenience, comfort and enjoyment. A person deciding to walk may be less likely to consider a higher-order need if a more basic need is not satisfied.

When it comes to planning, the issues of access and safety are top of the list but it is often comfort that will trump convenience for the community and this can’t be overlooked. COVID lockdowns were an opportunity for local communities to pay more attention to just how much the built environment impacted their walkability.

Tracy Nau, Research Officer and lead author

Built environment interventions such as increasing residential density and access to parks can contribute to greater physical activity and statutory components of policy making may be leveraged to influence the planning sector’s activities and shape the ‘walkability’ of the built environment. The authors found that jurisdictions use various legal instruments and approaches to promote walkability. The approaches differ in specificity and measurability, ranging from high-level objectives and principles to outcomes-based and rules-based criteria.

Often a combination of approaches are used, but the relative emphasis for each jurisdiction was not investigated and may differ between them. For example, the existing ACT planning system has been described as ‘prescriptive’ with an emphasis on rules and agreed norms, in contrast to the outcomes-based approach adopted in jurisdictions such as South Australia and Victoria. How laws can be designed and enforced to optimise the walkability of built environments, needs further investigation.  

The study findings provide a foundation for public health law research to understand and assess laws that influence walking and enable health policy makers to become more informed and effective partners for healthy planning policy in Australia.

The report found the variability in jurisdictional approaches poses challenges, and raises uncertainty, about the scope and strength of legal support for creating walkable environments at the national level. Future policy surveillance and epidemiological analysis will be needed to refine the specifications of laws that influence walking in Australia.

This is an issue that will no doubt grow with significance. The Prevention Centre has been exploring the role of the built environment for walkability for several years in research projects on liveability. More recently our Community of Practice for Citizen Science in Prevention looked at how citizen science was used to investigate how the built environment impacted walkability in rural towns in Tasmania.

(Image Interloop architectural installation)