Healthy Habitats: Rethinking Urban Design for Environmental and Human Health

by Dr Ross Wissing

This piece appears in the June 2023 edition of Science Victoria magazine. All issues can be read online for free at

The 16th of May 2023 was the 30th birthday of WaterWatch ( I tuned into The Past, Present and Future of WaterWatch panel discussion, a program that is close to my heart as it was where I cut my teeth in natural resource management.

My decade working in WaterWatch showed me how to help local communities work with natural resource managers to learn about, understand, and improve the health of their local waterways. Government funding as a holistic program ceased around 2009. Some of the current key issues highlighted during the discussion were the same we encountered, and to a large extent resolved, when there was adequate Commonwealth, State, and local financial support. Many of the mistakes, and lessons learned, in the past have unfortunately been forgotten and are now being repeated.

Over three decades of water monitoring shows that our waterways are degraded and worsening.1 Almost half the basins in Victoria have less than 10% of their major rivers and tributaries in good or excellent condition.2 A central message of WaterWatch was establishing the association between the health of people and the health of their waterways and catchments. I don’t know how many times I mentioned the phrase “wetlands are nature’s kidneys” to kids. Yet while WaterWatch was able to actively engage students and adult rural landholders, we gained little traction with urban adults.

Engaging adults in urban environmental management

Understanding the problem of engaging urban adults was a question I continued to ponder as I moved into urban planning, and a key motivation for me commencing a PhD in 2012.3 Initially, this meant understanding that although adult participation in urban public land management was low, around 70% of our cities are owned, designed, and managed by private residents.4 Home gardens are therefore the most dominant and accessible form of ‘nature’ in our cities. Home is also where two thirds of the average Australian’s ecofootprint is generated and/or consumed. However, once residential areas are built, governments have few levers available to influence how residents design and use their land. Further, there is generally very little understanding by urban planners about how residents design, use, and maintain residential properties, what motivates them, and why Australians overwhelmingly continue to want to live in low-density areas.

Even less is known about the historic reasons for Australian suburbs.

Australia’s low-density suburbs emerged because of problems that the early British colonisers had growing food. Many crops failed. In response, Governor Phillip decreed that town blocks in Sydney be ‘a quarter acre’ (~1000 m2) so that individual residents could grow their own food and treat their own waste. By the 1830’s many British migrants to what is now Victoria were the urban poor, escaping widespread pollution, cramped and unhealthy living conditions. At this time English urban dwellers had half the life expectancy of their rural counterparts. Experiencing such intolerable conditions in cities like London, Manchester, and Liverpool led to the establishment in England of the 1833 Select Committee of Public Walks, and the creation of public parks for the urban poor. Such lived experience heavily influenced the extensive public park network in Melbourne and Geelong that underpin international recognition of ‘liveability’. Immense wealth from the 1850 gold rush enabled many immigrants to buy large suburban blocks, helping to establish Australia’s high private home ownership culture.

Central to creating Melbourne’s private and public landscape was a collaborative approach between public health and what would become in the early 20th century, town planning. Understanding the interconnected relationship between the built environment and human health has a long history in Western society, dating to at least Hippocrates (460-370 BC), the ‘father of medicine’ and the author of On Airs, Waters and Places. Such interconnected relationships existed for tens of millennia longer for our First Nations people, so eloquently expressed in the concept of Country and the notion that the health of Country and health of people are inextricably linked. Aboriginal Australians have planned, designed, curated, and managed the Australian land and sea for at least 60,000 years and probably over 100,000.5 They are the world’s oldest landscape architects.

The landscape ‘template’ consciously established by our First Nations people created the ‘parks’ that many early British explorers and settlers effused about. Many commented on the fine health of Aboriginal people and settlements, with numerous references to their neighbourhoods, hamlets, villages, and towns. Only now is mainstream Australia appreciating and seeking to learn from this.

Managing urban sprawl

Since the beginning of the ‘environmental era’ around 1970, Australian urban policy has identified medium and high-density dwelling, including infill, as the most sustainable response to ‘urban sprawl’. A few Australian urban scholars, especially Hugh Stretton, continued to advocate for retaining low-density urban living to enable resident sustainability, amid recognition that the home economy provided up to half of GDP.

Today, research suggests that few aspects of medium-high density living are more sustainable than low density suburbs. In fact, human society worldwide has overwhelmingly evolved to, and lived-in, low-density settlements. When the British arrived in Australia, around 3% of the world’s population lived in cities.6 Today this is 50%, and projected to reach 70% by 2050.7 Conditions in many cities across the world appear headed back towards the British ones of the early 19th century. The heat island effect, first recognised in England between 1806 and 1830, is increasingly prominent.8 Recent projections in western Sydney suggest that by 2090 there will be over 60 days per year where temperatures exceed 35oC.9 An outcome of increasing density to medium and high levels is reduced existing tree cover and increased hard surfaces. This increases the urban heat effect as well as the impacts of storm events (and resultant stormwater and waterway pollution) and declining soil health. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a Victorian counter-urbanisation movement was emerging with lifestyle (73%) and natural environment (61%) the main motivators.10

The notion of ‘urban sprawl’ is largely undefined. This article follows the The Suburban Reader definition of ‘excessive growth expressed as careless, awkward, unsustainable use of land’, rather than low density living.11 Australian conceptions of urban sprawl are largely borrowed from American ones, where the ‘aesthetic’ appearance is the dominant design characteristic with very little consideration of adequately sized residential land to sustainably meet basic human needs within its ongoing ecological capacity. Yet in Australia, the suburbs arose initially from utilitarian needs, with a more balanced focus including ornamental features prevalent for a century from the 1860s. Since the 1970s the ornamental/visual has increasingly dominated the design of Australian landscape.

Designing healthy urban landscapes for environment and people.

When starting my PhD there was little agreement, understanding, or definition of a ‘sustainable landscape’ in the Australian context. A range of broader green design and sustainable infrastructure assessment frameworks were available, but linkages to the landscape and/or green infrastructure were limited. While such targets have since been incorporated, they remain broad and provide few spatial metrics required to enable sustainable environmental or human health. Those included, such as 40% tree cover,12 now appear to be at least half that required to mitigate urban heat.13 Little research has also attempted to correlate the size of private green space with its use, meaning and impact. Even less linkages exist between landscape health and the broader determinants of human health. Providing these spatial metrics, or rules of thumb, for residential landscapes was a key outcome of my research.

While Australians are living longer, the type of disease burden has changed. Lifestyle diseases dominate. Around two thirds of Australians are overweight or obese, 73% do not meet physical activity guidelines, and almost 95% do not eat the required amount of fruit and vegetables.14 Over 80% of lifestyle diseases are affected by modifiable environmental factors,15 yet the current approach is overwhelmingly targeted towards behavioural change, especially changing habits. Although the influence of the physical built environment is acknowledged, it is often given at best equal weighting with social determinants of health. This is despite recognition by the WHO that human health is dependent on the health of the environment.

Many of Australia’s lifestyle diseases have long gestation periods, often decades. The overwhelming current medical approach to addressing these issues are ‘curative’ and pharmaceutically focused when people present with symptoms. Only around 2% of the health budget is focused on preventative approaches, despite recent Victorian evidence showing a return on investment of $14.30 for every $1 invested in prevention.16 Similar extraordinarily low levels of investment in prevention and resilience exist in addressing climate change.17 While influencing habits is important, most approaches focus on individual characteristics such as values, rather than more influential factors such as personality traits. Further the physical places where people live, and undertake activities, have critical antecedent influences on individual behaviour. Residents have a much stronger capacity to change their private spaces, but very limited influence in the public realm.

The importance of outdoor green spaces, including private gardens, local streets, and public open space, were highlighted during COVID-19. A national survey undertaken in 2020 and 2021 by Macquarie University found that Australians who engaged in activities including gardening, nature connection and recreation in both public and private outdoor spaces had improved mental health, although there were several significant age and gender effects. This research highlights that human needs provided by private and public green spaces are different but complementary and cannot be substituted. Importantly, gardening is regularly undertaken by over 80% of Australians, in contrast to the most popular form of public recreation, walking, in which around 40% of Australians regularly participate.

Housing, which accounts for 20% of the Victorian ecofootprint, provides one basic human need of shelter. Medium-high density housing does not address the broader range of basic needs required for human well-being that the average Australian backyard provides. This includes food production, which comprises 30-40% of the ecofootprint and thermal comfort (especially shade), clean water, green waste management, water storage, soil health, carbon sequestration and physical and mental health. Further, Australian houses today are four times larger than the 1950s per capita and often account for 80% of the residential block, compared to less than 30% in the 1950s.18

Melbourne, like most Australian cities, was selected because of its comparatively rich soils and reasonably reliable supply of fresh water. In their current low-density state, these soils can still provide an adequate substrate for residents to grow most vegetable and fruit diet needs. Food production was a defining characteristic of Australian suburbs until well after World War II as food represented around 40% of living expenses.19 Research suggests that the time required to achieve vegetable and fruit home self-sufficiency is the same amount of moderate physical activity to meet physical health needs.

A way forward?

The current housing crisis, combined with enduring impacts of a changing climate and COVID-19 raise questions about how urban landscapes are planned and designed to prevent, mitigate, and adapt to such changes while sustainably achieving environmental and human health. To this end, I have recently established a range of physical and psychological health indicators and the associated physical landscape requirements needed to sustainably design public landscapes where the government still has significant direct influence. However, much broader conversations are needed, with perhaps the Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-being through Urban Landscapes convened by health, design, and urban natural resource managers in New York in 2007 providing a suitable template.


  • An immediate policy and budgetary shift to preventative approaches focused on working with, rather than against, ecological and human nature.
  • Formally incorporating learnings from First Nations approaches to landscape planning, design and management in a constantly changing climate.
  • Establish contemporary, statutory scientific based spatial targets within the Victorian Planning Scheme to ensure sustainable healthy landscapes for the environment and people.

Dr Ross Wissing works between academia and practice. Geelong/Djillang based, he is Managing Director of Tabayl (meaning Country or ground, in Wadawurrung language), a consulting firm that works with ecological and human nature to create healthy, sustainable landscapes. He collaborates closely with The Connective to enhance nature connection benefits of landscapes.


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