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Greenfield developments offer opportunity to increase active school travel

Introduction by Croakey: Half of all Australian adults have at least one chronic health condition, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s National Health Survey 2022 released last week.

The survey also showed that almost one-quarter of Australians 15 years and older meet the physical activity guidelines.

Highlighting the importance of addressing the social determinants of health and equity, people living in most disadvantaged areas are less likely to meet the physical activity guidelines or engage in “some type of physical activity” than people living in least disadvantaged areas, the survey found.

In a statement following the release of the National Health Survey, Public Health Association of Australia CEO Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin said:

We cannot lose sight of the importance of daily physical activity and a whole-foods diet, which protect us from chronic disease.

We can make inroads into worrying physical activity trends through Government action which supports healthy living, such as investments in active travel, and making it easier for people to incorporate physical activity into their day.

There are compounding benefits, since active travel improves peoples’ physical and mental health, and takes much needed action on climate change.”

New greenfield and urban developments offer a “unique opportunity to design school environments that support active travel”, according to Master of Urban Planning student Ellen Martin.

However, “increasing active school travel requires an approach that goes beyond physical infrastructure”, Martin said in her submission for the Public Health Association of Australia’s Student Think Tank competition. A whole of community approach involving schools, parents, children and local governments are required to enable success.

The National Public Health Student Think Tank Competition run by the Public Health Association of Australia is a chance for students to showcase their innovation and enthusiasm for the field of public health.

This year, students were invited to submit a written response to address the following prompt: Describe an innovative approach to tackling a public health threat for young people in Australia. How can public health professionals drive meaningful change in the face of this challenge?

Croakey is publishing a selection of edited Think Tank submissions – bookmark this link to follow the series.


Ellen Martin writes:

With new greenfield developments in Adelaide and Melbourne’s ever changing urban growth boundary, it’s time to take stock of the “Great Australian Dream” and its impact on children. The goal of a quarter-acre block with a backyard for kids has led to sprawling cities, congestion and poorer health outcomes, a far cry from Melbourne’s famed liveability.

It represents a source of spatial inequality in our cities and is impacting the health of the next generation. Urban sprawl impacts children’s play opportunities in their neighbourhood, as well as rates of children’s independent mobility and active school travel.

However, urban sprawl is not a dirty word – we just need to take a health in all policies approach and plan transport and infrastructure policy with the goal of healthy cities.

Creating supportive environments

Active school travel in particular represents an opportunity for children to partake in physical activity up to ten times a week. By targeting this, we can reduce a child’s risk for obesity and other related health concerns later in life.

Changes to the physical environment around schools are an intervention that has the potential to impact all students and promote health, however other social determinants of health and equity must also be considered.

Currently, there are many programs designed to increase active school travel. In Victoria, the Department of Transport began the 2021 program of Safe Routes to School which took inspiration from similar programs overseas.

Popular community-led walking school buses in Western Australia is an example of another initiative.

My suggestion for active school travel looks in particular at new greenfield developments occurring on the urban growth boundary of Melbourne. Although this proposal only considers new developments, the principles can be applied to existing suburbs that are facing the same challenges.

Precinct structure plans are high-level strategic plans that coordinate the spatial location of land use, infrastructure and sequencing of the development of new communities on the urban fringe in Victoria. They are developed in coordination with the Victorian Planning Provisions and integrated with strategic plans like Plan Melbourne: 2017-2050. Despite this, precinct structure plans are currently a missed opportunity to encourage children’s active school travel.

My recommendation is to better integrate the precinct structure plans for new developments to incorporate the street topography guidelines recommended in the Safe Routes to School guide.

Changing street environments around schools through traffic calming measures, as well as reducing overall parking availability and discouraging through traffic increases active travel.

Whole of community approach

Generally speaking, unlike public transport, active travel infrastructure for precinct structure plan developments is usually already in place when residents move in to new developments. This is because the new development is built alongside roads.

However, although the precinct structure plan transport guidelines aim to promote Plan Melbourne’s dream of the 20-minute neighbourhood, there is no discussion around initiatives that particularly focus on active school travel.

The Department of Transport’s guide suggests that schools in new developments should be prioritised for the program, in order to encourage active school travel from the beginning.

This is supported by research showing that moving home weakens people’s travel habits for a short period of time. The time when people are moving into new developments presents a window of opportunity for policy makers to implement policies to encourage new active habits in residents.

Increasing active school travel requires an approach that goes beyond physical infrastructure. School policies, community culture and parental attitudes are key determining factors in the success of this plan. Recent government initiatives like Play Streets are a whole-of-community approach that gets everyone on board.

Greenfield developments provide a unique opportunity to design school environments that support active travel. This capitalises on behavioural change after moving home, sets up lifelong habits of active travel to school and work and improves physical and mental wellbeing.

Planning for health means prioritising active travel over cars, and governments need to take bold step in this direction to support the health and independence of young people.

About the author

Ellen Martin is currently studying a Masters of Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne, after completing a Bachelor of Arts in geography. She is interested in exploring how policy can shape the urban environment to create places that are environmentally sustainable and promote people’s health and wellbeing.

She is also a 2024 Wattle Fellow at The University of Melbourne, and will be pursuing a project related to equitable low carbon transport solutions. In her free time, she is also involved in community campaigns related to public transport and bike infrastructure.


See Croakey’s archive of articles on youth health.