The urban form can impact health. This is something that researchers, architects and city planners have agreed on a long time ago. Now, a study of two suburbs in western Melbourne has been made and the data shows what professionals know for a while: medium-density suburbs with walking infrastructure has a better impact on health than low-density suburbs.

The study was published on 20th of February in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity. It compares two areas: Truganina, a “greenfield” lower density area and the industrial development site, Altona North that has transport infrastructure and shops.

The study shows that if the residents of Truganina moved to Altona North they will gain a month of full health. Also, there is an economic aspect to the problem. Altona North’s residents’ gain is summed up to $4,500 per person over their lifetime, or $94 million for the current population of the community.

The authors of the study come from a number of universities, including the University of Queensland, RMIT University and Griffith University, and they represent many scientific fields.

Lucy Gunn, a RMIT researcher from the Centre for Urban Research’s Healthy Liveable Cities Group, says that the study has “great potential” and it gives developers perspective on how to use the existing infrastructure.

“If you build a healthier environment there is an economic value that comes back to society,” she said.

She also talked about the health and economic benefits that an urban design should have.

“With Melbourne’s booming population and the state government announcing 50,000 housing lots for 12 new suburbs on the city’s fringe, our study offers support and evidence for rethinking urban design.”

Lucy Gunn continued by saying that these should be key factors in the decision-making process by the authorities.

Truganina has a population of 20,687 and Altona North has 12,159 residents. The environments have developed differently. The Truganina community has grown rapidly over the past decade, and the infrastructure, services and public transportation services are trying to catch up. Altona North, on the other side, is more established so it offers better services to its inhabitants.

The researchers used a qualitative health impact assessment report and have gathered self-reported data on residents’ walking and transportation habits. They also took into account the new “Walkability Planning Support System”.

The new newly developed parts of Altona North, which has more walkable paths, have higher scores for all urban features that were evaluated.

Belen Zapata-Diomedi, a researcher at Griffith University School of Medicine, says that the lack of infrastructure that supports and stimulates the active population has its costs. Chronic diseases which are linked to a sedentary lifestyle and lack of physical activity are costly in for a public healthcare system.

“To assess the health of the 21,000 people across their lifetime, we used health-adjusted life years, which is a measure of health that combines the mortality, morbidity and quality of life typically used in studies such as this,” she said.

The research estimated a gain of “1,600 health-adjusted life years” if planners use the Altona North model, even for communities in Truganina. Even a big city like Melbourne, if the city design would be altered, can improve its residents’ health.

“Investing in infrastructure that supports health makes sense – socially and economically.”

Lucy Gunn is promoting the benefits of walkable residential developments. Unfortunately, authorities don’t take this alternative into consideration.

“Our research could be applied to major infrastructure projects where the economic and health benefits could sway design decisions and the allocation of funding,” she said.