Friday, October 06, 2006

The latest furphy is High-Density is good for our health

I realise the term "Orwellian" is becoming an overused cliche but there is no better term to describe our State Government's actions. The writer George Orwell is famous for his books Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. He originated the phrases "Big Brother" and "thought police". "Orwellian" has come to refer to government oppression, particularly to euphemistic and misleading language originating from government bodies with a political purpose. I experienced a really chilling example this week.

As part of the SmartGrowth campaign a seminar billed as Creating neighbourhoods, streets and parks that keep us healthy was held in in Angel Place on Monday evening. It featured two "leading experts on public health and urbanisation", Professor Howard Frumkin Director, National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, USA. and Professor Anthony Capon, Visiting Fellow with the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.

True to the form of high density advocates, Professor Frumkin portrayed what we all agree are desirable characteristics of cities:
clean air;
opportunities for physical activity, roads should be for walking and not cars, sprawl is "associated with lower physical activity";
safe from injury;
opportunities for social engagement (which is declining);
aging in place - prevent older people having to leave a community;
income equality - new suburbs segregate people according to income;
freedom from road rage;
need to retain greenery - opportunity for physical activity, cooling, rain runoff, air quality (How this equates with higher densities was not explained. The opposite in fact occurs).

But he was always implying and never providing any evidence that high density will meet these requirements. He also claimed that high density is good for combating obesity. All this was accompanied by misleading images projected onto the screen, in a manner reminscent of TV advertisements for tooth paste, cars or breakfast cereals. Try to buttress what you are saying with an agreeable image, irrespective of any justification.

Professor Capon's presentation focussed on criticizing public transport.

During question time, of the 500 or so strong audience I was the only one who was critical. I asked, in relation to the constant implication that quarter acre blocks cause the obesity epidemic, why during the seminar not one word was said about food consumption? I pointed out the suburbs have been with us for 60 years whereas obesity only really started to become a problem from the 1980's. What is compelling is from that time the evidence shows a substantial increase in the average number of calories consumed by people. Why has this not been mentioned, I wanted to know. Is it houses or hamburgers, I asked. What is more, why was nothing said about the fact that high density is bad for mental health, one of our most serious problems*. I also said that, completely contrary to what Professor Frampton implied, social engagement (participation in community groups, family gatherings etc) is greater in low density than high density (I proved this in a paper I wrote for the journal People and Place).

The speakers were quite ready for this type of question. I am absolutely correct, I was told. People should not be driving to the supermarket and filling the back seats of their cars with food. The audience was left with the impression that my question in no way contradicted what the speakers had said.

It has not taken long for a new line of spin to come out. On Thursday the government started a campaign to encourage exercise to improve mental health (was this as a result of my question?). The implication is that if we all live in high density, we will have to walk to public transport and so solve the mental health tragedy and the obesity epidemic!

We in Save Our Suburbs of course know that the State Government's policy of high-density is completely altruistic and has nothing to do with donations from developers! I suppose we can only say we get the politicians we deserve.

Tony Recsei

* In decades past high-rise developments were also called suicide towers. A study of over 4 million Swedes has shown why. The researchers found that the rates for psychosis were 70% greater for the denser areas and there was a 16% greater risk of developing depression. In confirmation, Professor Cummings in his comprehensive Australian Unity Well-being Index, reports that the happiest electorates tend to have a lower population density.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if our present Planning Minister,who is a big campaigner against cancer because of the death of his first wife,ever ponders whether his present planning policies are actually causing cancers, which in many cases are environmentally caused

Anonymous said...

One thing you fail to mention is the fact that Swedes suffer from SAD due to the harsh winter conditions, leading to a high suicide rate. Also - something you missed off your summation is the fact that New Zealand (a very sprawling country) has a hugely inflated suicide rate. You can use statistics to manipulate your argument in many different ways, however, there is never one particular contributing factor.

I for one prefer high density development and hate driving - give me public transport all the way, however, I have nothing against "urban sprawl" as long as it is handled in a sustainable fashion with good public transport links and initiatives which help to get people out of their cars.

Anonymous said...

Re: Planning Minister & Cancer: The Plasticised Corpse Exhibit of Gunther von Hagens which has been touring Australia shows lungs from 2 non-smokers - one who lives in a city and the other in a rural area - the difference is staggering and shows the severe damage city pollution causes to just one of our organs. Undoubtedly, future research will show that the damage is not only theoretical but also clinically significant. (FYI, I am a qualified physiologist (human physiology)).

Tony Recsei said...

Analysis of world cities shows that air pollution increases with increasing population density. A slighter greater percentage of people use public transport in denser cities. This is more than outweighed by the resulting greater number of people in the area who still have to use their cars for all sorts of reasons. There is more congestion from the greater number of cars and the stop/start traffic flow. Air pollution increases due to the reduced volume available for dilution and dispersion.

Creaking Gum said...

Having moved from a moderate density inner city suburb where I had no backyard for my toddler to play, and where neighbours kept away from each other so as to preserve the small amount of privacy they had left, given the shared walls, I found an incredible relief in moving to an outer suburb where we now have a private garden to pursue hobbies, enjoy the wildlife and have parties for our child. The first few months I did not sleep well as I was so accustomed to mechanical sounds such as circular saws, skateboards and buses - I had to get used to the quieter noises of nature. There are few neighbourhood disputes around me because everybody has enough space. We have to commute to the city occasionally (to see our old friends) but we moved our jobs out here and its easier to get to work. I can honestly say that the higher density living was making me sick - depressed and physically unwell and that I have never been healthier or fitter.