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Cooler, healthier and happier cities, naturally

Associate Professor Thomas Astell-Burt
School of Health and Society

Getting nature back into cities to help keep us healthy, happy and out of hospital 

Designing cities around cars is yesterday’s news. Today, person-orientated urban design is bringing buildings and people closer together. This makes walking a safer way to get around for millions. But city densification could have a downside - a loss of contact with nature - if we are not careful.

Research by Associate Professor Thomas Astell-Burt and his team shows restoring parks and protecting tree canopies in cities can help keep us cooler, healthier, happier and out of the hospital.

Photo shows Singapore's Marina Bay Sands hotel from the gardens below. Credit: Jacob Peters-Lehm

Recognised internationally for his research on green space and health, A/Prof Astell-Burt leads a number of projects in this area, including two funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). 

One of these projects is a longitudinal study of over 250,000 adults in Australia to understand how urban greenery promotes healthy ageing, keeps us cooler during heatwaves and potentially reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Funded by an NHMRC Boosting Dementia Research Leadership Fellowship, A/Prof Astell-Burt’s findings have already been used in the development of Wollongong City Council’s Urban Greening Strategy and been cited by the World Health Organization. 

Pro-active partnership building has been key to A/Prof Astell-Burt’s success so far, involving regular engagements and presentations of new findings with decision-makers in the health, urban planning, horticulture, parks and forestry sectors. He co-leads a five-year, $3.3 million project with Associate Professor Xiaoqi Feng with co-investment from Hort Innovation Ltd, which ensures end-users of the research are involved from the start.

A/Prof Astell-Burt was named by Parks and Leisure Australia an Emerging Leader of 2014 for his research and advocacy on the health benefits of urban greening. He is also a member of the Western Sydney Diabetes Leadership Alliance, which won the Western Sydney Leadership Award and the Pemulwuy Prize in 2017.

A/Prof Astell-Burt’s work with Western Sydney Diabetes has previously identified food deserts and food swamps in Sydney - economically disadvantaged areas where healthy food options are scant or non-existent while unhealthy food is easy to purchase.

This partnership fed into another NHMRC-funded project that aims to identify how better urban design can synergise with clinical management to enhance prevention of heart attacks in people with type 2 diabetes.

His work and partnerships extend beyond Australia, including collaborations with institutes in Sweden, the United States, the United Kingdom and China. In 2018 his contributions to population health and environment in China led to his Professorial appointment at Peking Union Medical College.

These engagements have included studies analysing obesity, diabetes and urban planning changes over time in China – where an estimated 100 million people live with diabetes – as well as running seminars and workshops on multilevel analysis of big health data.

He has also hosted visiting statisticians and epidemiologists and is supervising doctoral students from China CDC within the Population Wellbeing and Environment Research Lab (PowerLab), which he co-founded in 2016.