Walkable cities lead to healthier residents

28 September 2022

Higher density neighbourhoods can help create vibrancy and lead to benefits for the environment and public health, argues a University of Canterbury academic.

  • Tom Logan

    Dr Tom Logan, a Lecturer in the University of Canterbury’s Civil and Natural Resources Engineering Department, says higher density neighbourhoods can bring environmental, health and economic benefits.

SDG 11

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities

Dr Tom Logan, a Lecturer in the University’s Civil and Natural Resources Engineering Department, says Aotearoa New Zealand should be aiming to beat the ‘15-minute city’ goal. This involves creating neighbourhoods where residents can get to shops, recreation areas, services and hospitality venues within a 15-minute walk, bike ride, or by hopping on public transport.

Other cities around the world have set even more ambitious targets with Copenhagen aiming to become a five-minute city, and Melbourne opting for 10.

“Accessible, liveable cities bring significant public health benefits,” Dr Logan says. “When more people can bike, walk or take public transport to their destination, pollution from cars is reduced and there are benefits for people’s physical and mental health.”

Accessible cities are also safer and more appealing because there are more people around, Dr Logan says. Residents are more likely to go out with friends when restaurants and bars are closer to where they live, bringing economic benefits for businesses.

He says local councils can make decisions that contribute to the 15-minute city target. “Each city council has a role to play in terms of how they zone land, where they allow housing developments, and, where they allow supermarkets to be built. Suppliers need to be encouraged to build in a way that enables better access.”

Other organisations such as Kāinga Ora Homes and Communities, the Crown Agency which provides rental housing, and Te Manatū Waka Ministry of Transport, can also feed into planning more liveable, accessible neighbourhoods.

However, Dr Logan says many people are opposed to higher density housing and in September the Christchurch City Council voted against implementing the Government’s intensification policy for main centres.

“It seems to be a scary topic for a lot of New Zealanders and we’re seeing push back from local residents’ associations. But a lot of that is because of density that’s been done badly.

“Density when it’s done right, which we see in parts of Europe, the United States and Asia, is where it can lead to safer and healthier residents and cohesive and vibrant neighbourhoods.

“Creating that is one of our big challenges. Not everyone has to live in this way but it’s about giving people the option, so they can live somewhere where they don’t have to drive all the time.”

He says this is essential if we’re to achieve New Zealand’s emission reduction plan target of a 20 per cent decrease in car travel in cities by 2035 to help mitigate climate change. 

Dr Logan led a research team that evaluated 500 cities in the United States and New Zealand’s 42 urban areas for ‘walkability’. They found that Wellington ranked the highest for accessibility (with 61 per cent of residents living within 15 minutes’ walk of amenities) while Christchurch was 18th in the country (with 39 per cent of residents living in the 15-minute zone).

“There is a lot of car dependency in Christchurch,” he says. “Efficient public transport is important to bridge those gaps. But I think cities need to be designed around active transport with public transport supporting that.

“The key thing is mixed use development where you have not just residential areas but small shops, cafes and other businesses as well. That’s part of what’s now being recognised as best practice urbanism in terms of how you use the streets and spaces. Having that mix means you’re using areas more effectively, people can work and live there so there’s always people around which increases safety and vibrancy.”

Dr Logan will travel to Barcelona, Spain in November to present research at the 2022 Urban Transitions 2022 conference.

“Barcelona is one of the leaders in the liveable cities space so it will be a great experience and opportunity to bring best-practice back to New Zealand,” he says.

Read further stories on how UC researchers are contributing to the resilience of our cities and communities.

Media contact:

  • Email: media@canterbury.ac.nz Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168
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