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An epic tour of towns and cities, mapping health benefits and challenges

Last week at Croakey’s rotational Twitter account @WePublicHealth, Dr Jason Thompson, a Senior Research Fellow at the Melbourne School of Design and Transport, Health and Urban Design (THUD) Research Hub at the the University of Melbourne, took us on an epic #HealthyCities journey across Victoria and many public health issues.

It was a tour de force of public health issues, data visualisation, and communication skills. This post aims to capture some of its main takeaways.

Meanwhile, Croakey readers can follow this week’s @WePublicHealth guest tweeter: @adampulford from the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) (@healthy_climate), tweeting on the #ClimateHealthEmergency in the leadup to this week’s National Climate Emergency Summit in Melbourne.


Global analysis on urban design and transport injury

Thompson has a background in psychology and medicine, and his work is focused on the translation of research into practice across the areas of transportation, heavy-vehicle safety, public health, post-injury rehabilitation, and system design.

His week at the helm of @WePublicHealth coincided with the release of research he co-authored being published at The Lancet: A global analysis of urban design types and road transport injury: an image processing study. You can hear him talk about his work here on ABC 774, starting at about the 1:05 mark.

In outlining the work on Twitter, he said a common question in among urban design and health researchers is, ‘What does healthy city design look like?”. That’s not he said, pointing to the  image above, an easy question to answer.

He said:

In particular – road trauma is directly related to the way in which we set up our cities. The vehicles we use, the mix of vehicles, the public transport, the speeds, our behaviour all contribute. And road trauma takes ~1.3 million lives each year & injures 50+ million.

So we wanted to investigate whether city and urban design types affect road trauma.

To that end, his team had a computer built that could do it.

We called it Hal. We collected 1.7 million map images from 1692 cities around the world – 1000 neighbourhood-sized maps from each place. We fed the images to the computer until it got good at recongising city maps – 86% good

Now most models like this are interested in getting the model really accurate – but we were interested in when the model got it wrong. Why? Because … when the model got confused between two cities, it showed the cities had similar urban design features…

Eventually after millions of images, predictions and confusions, this graph built up, featuring every city in the dataset and their relationship to one another. Using some fancy stats, we were then able to classify them into 9 major ‘modules’ or city types.

But what features of the maps were related to road trauma and injury rates? To find out, we (or @mothlight ) counted the colour of every pixel in each map. More black pixels = more roads More orange pixels = more railed public transport


Starting with #HealthyTowns

Thompson took us on Day 1 on a #HealthyCities tour of rural Victoria, tweeting from Dja Dja Warrung land, and “starting our quest from the place all big cities start – as small towns.”

Heading toward the tiny town of Guildford in Victoria’s central region. First, let’s pull out onto this 100kph stretch, which is the DEFAULT speed limit for rural roads in Victoria. What?! https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/sharp-rise-in-rural-road-toll-sparks-pleas-to-fix-dangerous-roads-20191231-p53lse.html

He talked to local community store worker Declan about why the local stores is so important and ran into a members of the Historic Railway group who were replacing the lines between Maldon and Castlemaine and talked about the line, why it used to exist and why it shut down.

He checked out the local tennis club, where there were 56 people playing social tennis on a Monday evening, saying that he misses such “good quality (usually empty and cheap) sporting facilities” when he’s away from the country – though he missed out on a game.

And he raised the not so healthy elements of sporting clubs:

I was chatting with someone the other day about drinking culture and the huge impact from family and parents. It dawned on me that my parents didn’t drink at all, but I learned to drink through country sporting clubs – cricket and footy in particular.

The drinking culture at the sports clubs I played at was rife. Some of the most dangerous, stupid, and unhealthy experiences of my life were weaved into it. And it was totally normal and accepted. Has that been anyone else’s experience, too?


Features of #HealthyCities (and not so healthy ones)

On subsequent days, he tweeted from across Melbourne.

He headed to the famous Fitzroy Pool, where he met David:

He’s been swimming here since the 1970’s! As well as swimming for personal health and fitness, he says the sense of community he gets from the regulars at the pool is so important. This community theme keeps coming through. Another tick for #healthycities

Aqua Profonda, indeed. This open water pool is an institution. Summer or winter you’ll find it full to the brim with people making the most of @YarraCouncil‘s commitment to #healthycities. And to think it was almost shut down!

I’m told the pool was only saved from demolition by 3 sit-in protestors who lived in the main building for weeks, preventing Council from getting in.

Factors for effective public transport

Next stop was the issue of public transport:

Being able to access safe, reliable public transport is essential for #healthycities. It’s also a basic right that everyone should enjoy, regardless of which suburb you live in.

I can think of four major factors that affect the uptake and experience of PT. 1) Frequency 2) Reliability 3) Crowding 4) Price What have I missed @danielbowen?

Bike paths and bike safety

Are you interested in #cyclist #safety, #urbandesign, or #cycling infrastructure to promote #healthycities? Check out these interactive maps of the relationship between urban design and cyclist safety. bit.ly/2vUpg4u

Soaring house prices encourage more people to think about buying cars.

“Pervasive petrol-powered transport” has to be designed out, believes (Carlos Moreno) to enable “real quality of life.” He admits his is an “ambitious urban policy” that will require a “radical transformation of our lifestyles.”


Sitting pretty in a regional city

Heading to the Victorian regional city of Geelong, Thompson put a call out to hear what healthy stuff is happening there:

But there was worrying food for thought on the way:

To get to Geelong from Melbourne, we take a tour through some of Melbourne’s newest suburbs in the West. Poor, car-based urban deaign in these areas is disadvantaging residents. The issues were covered recently in this great article.

Poor bloke next to me on the train has had an illness. He took some medication for it. It caused him to black out, crash his car. Now can’t drive. Has now lost his job. Lost money. No income. Reliance on driving for everyday life is a big problem.

OK, so I’ve basically been sitting on my backside all day so haven’t burned many calories – but I did manage to submit a new research paper on Autonomous cars and cyclist safety. Time to walk back to the train and head to #Melbourne. So long Gee long.

A big day out with data

On one other desk-bound day, Thompson focused on on city research, visualisations, and maps.

Did you know that if you’ve got an interest in #healthycities, you can make some pretty snappy looking maps and visualisations in Excel these days? All you need are place names or lat / long coordinates and your variables for each place.

And here’s a map of the 5 major urban design types we found in Melbourne as they relate to #healthycities You can read more about them and what they mean here! bit.ly/3biqFSB

And here’s a map of air pollution intensity across the globe – note that it’s all based around cities… Cities can have a huge impact on the health of populations through policies and settings that minimise risk exposure and promote healthy physical and mental health.

And here’s a map of global road trauma rates, broken into quartiles from best (green) to worst (red).

Weekend wandering On the drive around Victoria this weekend we’ve been listening to Bruce Pascoe’s fascinating ‘Dark Emu’. It gives visceral, first-hand accounts of aboriginal farming and sustainable healthy town design as witnessed by early European explorers. Brilliantly perspective-bending.

So after spending the evening at our mate’s place in Central Vic where she and her family farm grain and sheep, we’re headed back to Melbourne to see where some of this produce ends up – the famous Queen Victoria Market! #healthycities Here’s a pic of ‘Bangers’ the pig.

So exercise is one thing for #healthycities, but what about access to healthy, affordable food? Here we are at the Vic Market where it’s in abundant supply. First stop, the meat section (if you’re into that kind of thing). The Market is soooo much cheaper than the supermarkets.

More colours on your plate means healthier, right? Have a look and listen to the sound and energy of the market. All fruit and veg shopping for a week or more done for $47 for 2 people.


Bookmark this link to follow the contributions from @WePublicHealth guest tweeters during 2020.

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Equally Well
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National Commission of Audit 2014
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Pregnancy and childbirth
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PIJ Commissions 2021
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Health in All Policies
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Media Doctor Australia
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Summer reading 2020-2021
Tasmanian election 2021
Testing Croakey News category 1
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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
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AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Impro