There is increasing awareness that our health is closely linked to the natural and built environments in which we live. There is also strong evidence demonstrating the links between chronic disease and lifestyles characterised by car-dominated transport, reduced opportunities for exercise, increased fast food availability and lack of social connection.

Chronic diseases have overtaken infectious diseases as the leading causes of ill health in Australia. Obesity is rapidly becoming the major health burden for NSW with unprecedented levels of overweight and obesity across Australia. Overweight and obesity are major risk factors for chronic diseases including heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes.

The built environment has a key role to play in supporting human health as part of everyday living.

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How built environments contribute to health and well-being

The built environment comprises physical design patterns of land use, and the transport system; each influencing:

  • physical activity opportunities
  • healthy food access
  • opportunities for social and community interactions.

Physical activity opportunities

Physical activity is an important factor in maintaining good health at any age. Regular moderate intensity physical activity – such as walking, cycling, or participating in sports – has significant benefits for health. For instance, it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and depression.

The built environment can be designed to provide increased opportunities for physical activity through:

  • active transport infrastructure to promote walking, cycling and public transport
  • street connectivity, density, mixed use development
  • public open space/green space.

Healthy food access

Inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with coronary heart disease, some cancers, Type 2 diabetes, overweight and obesity, osteoporosis, dental caries, gall bladder disease, and diverticular disease.

The built environment can be shaped to support healthy eating options. Land use zoning and regulation can be used to influence:

  • food retail environments
  • accessible supermarkets and other fresh food outlets
  • advertising, e.g. like billboards
  • food production systems by:
    • supporting farmers markets and community gardens
    • protecting agricultural lands.

Opportunities for social interaction and community connectivity

There are strong links between good health, a sense of community and social interaction. The built environment can foster a sense of community through enabling day to day interaction with people and nature in safe and accessible environments:

  • people are less likely to interact within or feel part of a community that they perceive to be unsafe
  • green and open spaces facilitate contact with nature as well as community.

Policies and tools to help develop healthy built environments

NSW Health has been developing its capacity to support built environments which contribute to our community’s health and well-being. NSW Health has a range of policies and tools to support the development of environments which reduce the impact of lifestyle related chronic diseases and promote population health and wellbeing.

Healthy Urban Living Development Checklist

The Healthy Urban Development Checklist is a tool which aims to assist health professionals to provide advice on, and participate in, urban development and land use planning.

A range of risk factors and social determinants are addressed in the checklist including, healthy food, physical activity, housing, transport, employment, safety and social cohesion and connectivity.

The checklist is to be used during the development phase of policies, plans and proposals, to assist with commenting on drafts, and to build relationships with planners and agencies involved in planning.

The Effects of Urban Form on Health: Costs and Benefits

The NSW Ministry of Health commissioned a review through The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre to estimate the health-related economic value of changes in urban form that impact on physical activity.

The Effects of Urban Form on Health: Costs and Benefits identified the associated average health-related benefit per adult annually of four built environment characteristics conducive to physical activity:

  • the number of destinations within walking or cycling distance
  • greater diversity in land use 
  • shorter distance to transit
  • neighbourhood walkability​​.

Environmental health

The built environment has an important role to play in reducing community exposure to environmental hazards such as air, water and noise pollution as well as land contamination. For more information, visit Environmental health.

Current as at: Wednesday 10 May 2023
Contact page owner: Centre for Population Health