Sustainability, health and urban planning are more closely linked than might be apparent at first thought. An example is the public handwringing about the ‘obesity epidemic’ and the plethora of public programs designed to get us off our collectively expanding rear ends and into some form of physical exercise. Our most immediate environments, however, our streets and neighbourhoods, are not always designed or maintained to facilitate the most basic health step we can take – to walk more.
The ACT Government could take a very simple step in assisting its citizens to take more steps. It wouldn’t cost any money and the regulation is already in place. In order to encourage people to walk, improve public health and build sustainable communities in Canberra all the government needs to do is enforce a rule of urban planning that already exists but is being systematically ignored in our suburbs.
The ACT Department of Territory and Municipal Services – that’s the local government arm of the ACT Government – has a very clear rule on pedestrian access on suburban nature strips:
A strip of grass or stable surface must be maintained at a minimum of 1.2 metres wide from the back of the kerb for pedestrian access directly off the roadway, even if a footpath exists near your lease boundary. Foliage or structures must not cause a line of sight problem for vehicles or pedestrians when using, entering or exiting an intersection, driveway or footpath.
Despite this, there is a growing trend for householders to extend their garden beyond the front of their yard and encompass the entire nature strip with landscaped garden. This implies a claimed ownership of public land and makes pedestrian access difficult or impossible. Pedestrians are often elderly people or children who are forced to walk on the road where thoroughfare on the public nature strip is impeded by someone else’s idea of what nature should look like.
In my street of about 40 houses, at least a dozen have blocked pedestrian access with their own garden extensions, or, in one case, by a miscellaneous and mostly dead pile of vegetation. Some of these footpath gardens are beautifully tended and very attractive, but that’s not the point. My neighbour (one of the offenders but an otherwise nice person and good neighbour), told me that she landscaped to the kerb deliberately to keep people off ‘her’ footpath and to discourage the postman from riding on it. I’m sure a lot of the offenders are simply not aware of the 1.2 metre pedestrian access rule.
If the ACT Government is serious about health programs to combat obesity and encourage physical activity, they could do worse than to promote and enforce their own planning regulations. A gardening competition for people to incorporate pedestrian access into kerbside landscaping would go a long way towards encouraging keen gardeners and giving neighbours reasons to work together. It would also support those who prefer to walk as their means of transport or who have no other choice, encourage more to do so and ensure that those do are not forced to share space with cars.
More info on the Territory and Municipal Services Nature Strip regulations
Below: nice gardens but walkers have to take their chances on the street