Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning
All infrastructure projects affect the liveability of a city by changing the determinants, or ‘the causes of the causes’ of good health. And all infrastructure projects, but particularly those that are publicly funded – like Melbourne’s level crossing removal (LXR) projects – should contribute to equitable and demonstrable improvements in public health that are proportional to the scale of the investment.
Indeed, government investment in health through improvements to the built environment is both an ethical responsibility and a prudent social investment. Improvements to the built environment that make engaging in healthy behaviours the ‘easy option’ are generally more effective, equitable and can yield sustained benefits that are beyond the capability of behaviour change programs.
Rail upgrades and increased active transport opportunities
The Bell to Moreland LXR on the Upfield train line is a major new infrastructure project that involves removal of four level crossings, the creation of a ‘sky-rail’ over a 3km stretch of railway and the redevelopment of two train stations. When LXR is achieved using sky-rail, the land below becomes available and can be repurposed for linear parks, recreation and active transport. While such uses are emphasised by the government, they appear to be incidental rather than a primary reason for LXR: 'level crossing removal', rather than, for example, 'rail upgrade' or 'linear park project', suggests that the primary purpose of the investment is to alleviate car congestion.
The problem is that infrastructure projects that attempt to alleviate congestion often have unintended rebound effects that actually increase car use, which is associated with increases in sedentary lifestyles, overweight and chronic disease. Will the benefits of the new open space areas, and the potential for better transport interchanges at Moreland and Coburg be realised and outweigh the negative impacts? How can we be sure that major infrastructure, like the Upfield LXR, constitutes a prudent investment in public health?
Liveability determined through a Health Impact Assessment
Researchers in Architecture, Building and Planning in collaboration with the Australian Catholic University intend to find out through a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment (HIA) that measures the project’s effects on the determinants of health. Liveability is increasingly used in urban policies and plans to promote Melbourne to the world, so by using an evidence-based liveability framework for the HIA, the team will be able to detect the unique opportunities for and threats to health of this project. They will conduct extensive empirical research, consultation and modelling to understand how this piece of major infrastructure will alter transport, public open space, the local economy, the natural environment, social cohesion, local democracy and other domains of liveability, all of which play a role in determining health.
Aligning with the SDGs
The research contributes to SDGs 3, Good Health and Wellbeing and 9 Industry Innovation and infrastructure because it sensitises decision-makers to the pervasive, yet subtle impacts of major infrastructure projects on public health, with initial scoping showing that most domains of liveability will indeed be affected by Upfield LXR, both positively and negatively.
Closer examination of Upfield LXR in the forthcoming HIA will provide valuable evidence for enhancing the public health benefits of this project and others like it, locally and internationally. Importantly, demonstrating the links between liveability, the determinants of health, and major infrastructures will help government decision-makers understand the importance of well-designed major projects for creating healthy and sustainable transport systems and communities, consistent with SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities.
- Browne, G. R., & Lowe, M. (2021). Liveability as determinant of health: Testing a new approach for health impact assessment of major infrastructure. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 87, 106546.
- Lowe, M., Whitzman, C., Badland, H., Davern, M., Hes, D., Aye, L., . . . Giles-Corti, B. (2013). Liveable, healthy, sustainable: What are the key indicators for Melbourne neighbourhoods? Melbourne: Place, Health and Liveability research program, McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing, The University of Melbourne.