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Urban planners urged to focus on health
The West Australian

Urban planning for Perth suburbs should be geared to fight obesity and heart disease in the same way infrastructure development in past centuries was used to combat health epidemics such as cholera, an international health expert said yesterday.

Karen Lee, who has worked closely with the New York City Department of Health on combining public health and urban planning , said Perth could easily and cheaply become a city that helped support healthy lifestyles instead of prohibiting them.

"Today we've got a different set of disease epidemics: obesity, diabetes, heart disease and strokes. Major risk factors for these diseases are physical inactivity and unhealthy diets," Dr Lee said. "We typically think of these diseases as being caused by lifestyle factors.

"But there is more evidence from scientific and health studies that show how we design and build our buildings, streets and neighbourhoods, and the amenities in them, either support people in healthy lifestyle or create barriers."

In New York, officials from a range of city departments had formed a coalition largely credited with reversing rising childhood obesity figures for the first time, cutting pollution in some areas and increasing bicycle use 280 per cent, Dr Lee said.

Addressing a forum of planners and health experts, Dr Lee said many New York initiatives could be implemented here for little cost.

Bicycle lanes that ran between parked cars and the footpath - a limited feature in Perth - had been successful in New York, she said. Other initiatives included offering tax breaks and incentives to open and expand businesses that sold fresh fruit and vegetables, making it mandatory for all new buildings to have secure indoor bicycle parking space, establishing "pedestrian plaza" shopping precincts and scheduled street closures designed to turn roads into exercise and recreation areas. Dr Lee, whose talk in Perth was hosted by the Heart Foundation, said an extensive and effective public transport network was a major factor in creating a healthy city.

The foundation's Active Living spokesman Trevor Shilton said his organisation had plans to develop healthy urban planning guidance for Perth.