Fatter, sicker, sadder. It’s a phrase planning and design expert, Dr. Tony Matthews, doesn’t particularly like, but one which quite accurately captures the way modern, urban environments are impacting our children’s health and wellbeing.
“Just a few decades ago, the air was cleaner, the streets were safer and children were able to enjoy a more free-range lifestyle. They were happier, fitter and healthier”, says Dr. Matthews, ahead of the School Infrastructure Summit.
Nowadays however, Tony highlights how urban consolidation, denser environments and the growing popularity of vertical construction has created ‘urban canyons’ and, in turn, toxic air.
“Urban canyons (caused by long stretches of high rise buildings) reduce airflow and trap toxic emissions from vehicles in the surrounding atmosphere. These pollutants are undetectable by scent, but can be powerful enough to stunt the neurological development of young people, whose brains are still highly plastic”, he adds.
“Combine this with the less active, more indoor lifestyles children are now living (additional byproducts of urban life), and we have a serious public health concern”.
In Australia, this issue is set to worsen. As it stands, almost 9 out of 10 citizens live in an urban area with more than half of the national population residing in just three major cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
To accommodate an 11.8 million population increase and steep rise in urbanization over the next thirty years, city and school planners are increasingly opting to build upwards rather than outwards, creating yet denser and more polluted urban environments.
“The vertical school agenda is really making headway; however, the research agenda isn’t”, says Tony. “While I agree vertical schools are a tempting way of managing urban sprawl, I feel we need to be having more conversations about the impact these new school design standards might have on the health and wellbeing of young people”.
“We owe it to our children to give them the same basic privileges that we ourselves enjoyed when growing up. Looking back in ten years-time and saying ‘oh dear, perhaps we should have thought of that when we were designing vertical schools’ isn’t, in my opinion, the right way to address such a potentially significant public health issue”.
Dr. Matthews became interested in the link between urban design and health outcomes early in his career, during which he worked with CSIRO on a high-profile project. His growing knowledge of urban environments later earned him a regular radio segment on the ABC – the award-winning Urban Squeeze.
“The links between urban design and health resonate with a lot of people. We know that children need outdoor recreation in (real) natural environments for their development, health and wellbeing, yet sadly modern life is steering us away from this vital remedy”.
“Placing astro-turf on the roof of a high rise school and calling it a ‘play area’ isn’t going to solve the problem. Children need to be playing and exercising in and amongst nature, breathing in fresh, clean air if they are to have the best potential for normal cognitive development”.
Dr. Tony Matthews will address school leaders and planners at the School Infrastructure Summit, opening up discussion and offering his expert recommendations on how as a nation we can effectively manage this growing problem, particularly in relation to the vertical schools agenda.