Our health is affected by our environment, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soils and climate that grow our food, and the spaces in which we live and work. Our environment can help us maintain—or create challenges to—good health. 

Natural environment

The natural environment underpins human health, but is under pressure from human activity. Increasingly, our natural environment is being affected by climate change. Some people are affected more than others, including those living in rural and remote areas, those in low-lying, flood or bushfire-prone areas, and people who work outdoors. Older people, children, people with existing health conditions and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are also at increased risk.

Extreme weather events—such as heatwaves, drought, bushfires, violent storms, heavy rainfall and flooding—can affect a person’s physical and mental health in a variety of ways. For example:

  • a person may be injured in a bushfire or a violent storm
  • droughts and floods can lead to higher rates of some vector-borne and gastrointestinal diseases
  • weather conditions may affect the availability, variety and price of food
  • bushfire smoke can cause significant air pollution leading to respiratory problems
  • existing health conditions such as heart disease, respiratory conditions, kidney disease and diabetes may be exacerbated by extreme events.

The built environment

Most Australians live in in urban areas. The way these areas are formed and laid out—including whether there is adequate housing, opportunities for exercise, and access to healthy foods—can affect health and wellbeing. When well planned, the built environment — which includes housing, public spaces and transport, water and energy — can protect people’s health and wellbeing and encourage healthy lifestyle behaviours. However, for many people, the built environment can also present barriers to good health.

In Australia, there can be great distances between where people live and where they work. This can lead to greater use of cars, long commutes, and fewer opportunities for physical activity. However, good urban design and planning of suburbs can improve ‘walkability’ for residents. For example, if shops, schools and other services are within a short distance of people’s homes, there are more opportunities to walk to these services.

Thoughtful design can also improve access to green and public open spaces, further supporting physical activity and significantly improving a person’s physical and mental health.