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Obesity: blame the town planners of fifty years ago

By Jago Dodson - posted Monday, 23 August 2004

Obesity has cast a large shadow over Australian public policy. So far the debate has emphasised the effects of junk food, television and computer games on children. Various state and federal ministers have put forward schemes to get kids physically active.

But it is not just kids who suffer from obesity and being overweight. Australian adults are increasingly pulling their weight around, literally, and this trend is set to accelerate in coming years. Queensland adults are the most overweight in Australia.

This obesity trend is starting to alarm the many health professionals who describe the problem as an epidemic. The bean counters who run our health system are in for a scare when they add up the future costs of obesity.


A recent report by the UK House of Commons expects that treating obesity will add billions in additional costs to that country’s National Health Service. If replicated here, such patterns will give new meaning to the term “bulk billing”.

So what is causing society to pack on the lard at such a rate? So far the public finger of blame has been pointed at unhappy diets and the demon TV. But the UK House of Commons report also castigated town planning agencies for the past fifty years of policies which have entrenched car dependence at the expense of walking and cycling.

By re-designing cities so that cars are the only viable means of transport, the Committee found, planners effectively eradicated the main forms of passive exercise which for centuries helped keep urban populations trim. This conclusion has been backed up by recent research from Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, which found that the greater an individual’s car use, the higher their likelihood of being obese.

Australia’s planners and developers have designed our cities for car dependence. Public transport is abysmal and pedestrians and cyclists are treated with contempt. Car dependence is now the real driving force of the obesity epidemic. Kids who used to walk or ride to school are now driven by parents. Busy roads make residential areas dangerous thus forcing children indoors while low-density living requires long trips to centralised shopping malls. And our new sprawling suburbs are often built without back yards or bus routes.

Unfortunately Brisbane’s current transport plans will induce more obesity. By making car travel easier, super-size road projects such as the North-South Tunnel will merely encourage more driving. This in turn will detract from public transport use or the dismal efforts to improve walking and cycling.

The result of these plans will be a fatter Brisbane, with the costs borne by the city’s children through shorter lives, and by taxpayers, through the heavy burden of obesity-related medical costs on a straining healthcare system.


State and local governments can manage this road-induced bloat by making healthy transport choices easier. First, they need to scrap their mega-road plans and impose tolls on existing freeways to fund high-quality public transport for all suburbs. Next, they need to introduce “health impact assessment” as a basic element of transport planning.

Third, walking and cycling need to be given top priority through pedestrianisation schemes which promote local shops over regional malls. Finally, a network of designated off-road school routes for walking and cycling needs to be created, to get kids back on the streets under their own steam and out of mum’s taxi.

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This article was previously published in The Courier Mail on 3 August 2004.

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About the Author

Jago Dodson is a Research Fellow at the Urban Policy Program, Griffith University.

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