By Richard J. Jackson with Stacy Sinclair . Published by Joessey-Bass and APHA Press 2011 . ISBN 978-111803-3661 ; 366 pages . RRP $50

Reviewed by Priscilla Robinson1 and Cybele Heddle2

1 School of Public Health and Human Biosciences, La Trobe University, Victoria; 2URS Australia

Designing Healthy Communities is a companion book to a series of documentaries produced in the United States by the Public Broadcasting Service. The key author, Dr Richard Jackson, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles. His origins as a traditional physician are reflected in the structure of the book's chapters, with sub-headings such as ‘prevention’, ‘diagnosis’ and ‘cure’ dotted throughout the book.

Overall, Designing Healthy Communities focuses on the need to incorporate good urban and suburban design into the planning process. The book is divided into ‘thirds’, with the first third focusing on ‘why?’–why should we be so concerned with urban space, design and environment? In this overview, Jackson makes use of some terrifying statistics that show the rate of increase in Type 2 diabetes, obesity levels and cardiovascular disease among adults in the United States (US) over the past few decades. He also explores the impact that the built environment and urban design have on community and health (both mental and physical).

The central portion of Designing Healthy Communities is devoted to a series of case studies. These are fascinating, and, while US-centric, the ‘diagnosis’ and ‘cure’ sections of each chapter can readily be applied to Australian examples. This central section of the book contains some really interesting examples of both urban decay and the impact that this has on communities and health, and also the impact that improving public facilities (e.g. increasing bike paths and pedestrian access while reducing car access) has on the use of public space and the community as a whole. Throughout these case studies, the author draws parallels between his experience as a physician and the ‘health’ of individuals and communities. While this may be familiar territory for some, it was something one of us had not previously considered in quite this way.

The final section of Designing Healthy Communities contains a sort of self-diagnostic check-list for determining the health of the reader's neighbourhood (or any other urban area in question). This contains questions like “does your neighbourhood have adequate and safe provisions for bicycling and public transport?”. These sorts of questions would seem at first to be self-evident, but even a cursory glance at Victoria's local news services suggest that, in Victoria at least, the dire need for adequate infrastructure (public transport to Melbourne's outer suburbs or airport, anyone?), appropriate planning (Exhibit A: The Docklands Precinct) and the dominance of developer wants at the cost of public services and needs suggest that perhaps this book should be put on the ‘essential reading’ list for councils, planners, public health officials; anyone who has a vested interest in preventing the suburban blight associated with poor planning and resulting impacts. Perhaps then we can look forward to a reduced dependence on cars, an increased sense of community and an enhanced quality of life.