Health

Discovering the G Spot

Riding a bike - it should be as simple as, riding a bike.

Riding a bike – it should be as simple as, riding a bike.

No, I haven’t gone completely mad and started writing editorial pieces that focus on female sexuality. But I do want to speak about a sweet spot, so it’s kind of the same. And it does with the letter G. And hey, the title got you in, didn’t it?

Sure, I’ve written about a similar topic before here, but this time I’m taking a different tact. To not do so would be, well, boring.

Over a year ago, I started my Masters in Urban Planning, with a pretty simple goal – I wanted to design and plan spaces for people so that they could ride a bike. I wanted to eradicate (or at the very least mitigate) the nagging insistence of obesity and, perhaps more alarmingly, childhood obesity. I spent 6 months signing on to workshops, forums, short courses, conferences and took time off of work to speak to everyone I could in the profession of planning to see if it was what I wanted to do. I read the various prospectuses, I pored over numerous websites and I gobbled up their promises of planning utopias. A sample of their assertions as to what a Planning course would entail are below:

RMIT: This program combines studies in urban planning with the social, economic and political environment and creates efficient, interesting, practical, healthy and sustainable places for people to exist.

Melbourne Uni: Urban Planning promotes the establishment of economically viable, socially just, environmentally sustainable, and safe and healthy human settlements. It has never been more timely than now, as we adapt to global changes that impact our cities.

And Deakin Uni: Deakin’s Bachelor of Planning (Honours) is a distinctive course that brings together the disciplines of planning, design, urban studies and society in a single degree program.

I applied. Needless to say, I was accepted. And needless to say I was excited.

My first year has produced good results – HD’s for everything, except Economics (but I was only 2% off a HD so, you know, let’s be gentle). Throughout the year, many conversations were had, many thoughts formed and numerous opinions argued. All so far so good. But…there’s a little irritation nagging away at me. A little annoyance, a little inconvenience that won’t shift. It’s to do with governance. I have done a little searching for the best definition of this and it is, perhaps alarmingly, from good ol’ Wikipedia. It claims: Governance refers to “all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through laws, norms, power or language.”

Largely then, governance is the how rather than the who.

In terms of Planning as a discipline, a student’s head can be filled with the most delightful notions of best practice, wonderful stories of success from afar and quotes from respected journal articles (that have all been judiciously peer reviewed, obviously). But then I want to ask: And then what? Do we go out into this world equipped with enviable evidence of how we should be planning our places but really have no capacity to implement it? If the laws (and norms) that govern the country are the same that govern planning, what capacity is there for change? In short, to encourage a lifestyle that is (at the very least) not beholden to the car? What is the point of this knowledge without good governance and a system that will utilize these learnings? Is it not, in fact, callous to dangle delights in front of a prospective student and say “Look at all the things you will learn” but leave out the bit that says “you will never have a chance to employ them”. Planning is perhaps the cruelest course in the university’s prospectus.

Conferences suffer a similar fate. The minds of the best planners, engineers, designers, health professionals and academics often meet throughout the year either through formal associations such as the Planning Institute of Australia or at conferences such as the Liveable Cities Conference, to be held later this year in Melbourne. Who are these people going to these events? Sure, there’s an element of networking and seeing old faces, and that’s lovely, but in my experience, and during all the conferences and forums that I attended as part of my research before committing to study, not once did anyone remain in the room who actually had the ability to change anything. In other words, the Mayor or otherwise appropriately elected official would ‘open’ the conference, say a few words and then they would leave. All that was left was a bunch of people who would be receiving information about how to do their job better but have no ability to put this knowledge into practice. If I was 15 I would be saying “Hashtag frustrating”, round about now.

Finally, the cost to attend these conferences is prohibitive for most people. If we take the Liveable Cities Conference as an example, it costs $1,055 for the two days to attend. Who else is going to go to that aside from people who are getting paid to go by their place of employment, even though their place of employment is simply feeding into that complicit world of not challenging the governance structures that prohibit change. If liveable cities are for everyone, shouldn’t anyone be able to attend? I’m beginning to feel like it’s some sort of conspiracy and that the prices are such that the average person’s attendance is precluded. If people could attend and see the broken system that is currently plaguing planning decisions in Melbourne, they would undoubtedly demand better. They would at the very least expect the Mayor to stay until the first coffee break had commenced.

But I’ll persist. I will get my Masters. I will maintain my grade average and I hope with it my motivation. I just want people to be able to ride a bike and to live in a city that supports that. Hopefully somewhere I will discover the sweet spot of governance that allows me to do that.

If all this fails, I’ll become the Mayor.

IMG_1673

What everyone should be able to do, safely.

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Doing it with the Danes

Copenhagen: a city that, you know, gets it.

Copenhagen: a city that, you know, gets it.

Facilitate (verb)
From the 1610s, “make easy, render less difficult,” from French faciliter “to render easy,” from stem of Latin facilis “easy” (see facile). Related: Facilitated; facilitates; facilitating. (from online etymology dictionary).

I start this little post with that tiny history on the word of facilitate as it is such a simple word but encapsulates so much about what a city or built environment could (and maybe should) do for its citizens. Depending on how a city is designed, how equitable it is, how healthy, how ‘smart’, how pleasurable, affordable etc. it will enable a citizen to be their best or not. The city, in this sense, facilitates good citizenry.

In Denmark (a place that should be the benchmark of how places should operate, in my opinion), this is evidenced in a myriad of ways, but most notably through policy implementation. Policies on health for example, don’t merely operate in a vacuum as they might in, oh I don’t know… Australia, where they are seen as isolated. They are incorporated into the city itself and the machinations of how that city operates. In doing so, the city becomes a space for policy to manifest, raising otherwise turgid documents from merely aspirational quotes, ideas and stats that no one will ever read.

In a practical sense, an example can be found through looking at the current policy on men’s health in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey published in 2009 (which can be seen here), 68% of males over 15 years of age reported doing no exercise or having low exercise levels (supporting facts and figures can be seen here). Obviously, this is sub optimal and the government of the day instigated numerous policies to address such  pressing – and depressing – health concerns. So far, so good.

One of these policies was the Healthy Communities initiative, whereby local Councils and local organisations received funding to implement exercise, nutritional and behaviour change programs in the hope that such stark statistics would change, for the better. Along with Diabetes Australia, the Heart Foundation and others, one such organisation was Cycling Australia (CA) in conjunction with the Amy Gillett Foundation. It was explained that what CA’s role would be on the government website and for clarity, it is worthy of reading it in its entirety:

Cycling Australia (with the Amy Gillett Foundation) – AustCycle – AustCycle aims to equip people with the skills and confidence to cycle regularly through the provision of cycle training. The types of training courses range from beginner programs through to skills for riding in more challenging situations, including coping with traffic and riding safely in groups. AustCycle training courses are designed to teach participants of all ability levels how to ride in on-road and off-road environments and can be targeted for new cyclists or people who have ridden before and wish to increase their activity and bicycle use. Programs can cater for between three to eight students per Teacher depending on the skill, confidence and attitudes of participants.

The program uses a train-the-trainer model to train people to become accredited AustCycle Teachers who then deliver cycling training to the community through their own businesses or for an accredited AustCycle Provider (e.g., cycling school). AustCycle Providers are independent licensees able to run training courses that their Teachers are accredited to deliver. AustCycle Providers are usually small businesses, but can also include community groups, cycling clubs and local councils.

The AustCycle Teacher training course includes elements on nutrition, achieving a healthy weight through exercise and developing programs for individuals and groups to address healthy weight and fitness objectives.

For more information, visit the AustCycle website.

Now this brings me nicely to my point of this post. Whilst such programs may encourage some people to ride a bike more often, it is unlikely that such initiatives will have long lasting positive health implications on a large cohort if the built environment does not encourage (or facilitate) people to ride their bike. It seems to me that health programs and health promotion in general in Australia goes for the quick fix when it comes to cycling. It is far more effective to build separated bike lanes if you genuinely want your health policies to have desired, long term health outcomes, but it is also far more politically contentious. In annual reports it is easier to say ‘We funded all these organisations to come up with ideas as to how to reduce the inactive lifestyle of most males in Australia’, than it is to say ‘ We have put a lot of people offside by building better infrastructure for cycling, and we probably won’t see any evidence of how this will improve health outcomes for at least 3 more election cycles’.

Unless we have political will to genuinely change the paradigm as it currently stands however, we are simply throwing good money after bad. We know what we need to do. Currently, the built form of a city (and largely suburbia, too), does not facilitate riding a bike with ease and a tension therefore exists between policy, practical implementation and long term behaviour change and I would argue that it is this trifecta of ingredients that is needed for a citizen to be healthy. Unless the built form of a city changes to encourage cycling and make it easy, facilitating positive health outcomes for citizens is stymied by the city itself.

This whole post can be reduced to six little words: let’s just do what Denmark does.