Big Urban Data
Research in Brief.
New research from Vancouver provides some of the firmest evidence yet on how the design of our cities impacts our health, mental wellbeing, and social connections.
The study is remarkable, because it shows the breadth of benefits when humans are able to walk to do useful things. It shows how one single factor — walkability — impacts many seemingly unrelated aspects of human wellbeing. Studies like this make clear that walking is not just another form of transportation, but something critical to human wellbeing.
The researchers, based in UBC’s Health & Community Design Lab, categorized neighbourhoods throughout the region of Vancouver on a scale from “walkable” to “car dependent.” A walkable neighbourhood is one where it is possible to walk from home to a vaierty of destinations, such as transit, stores, work, or parks. The study used indicators to identify walkable places that have been validated in previous studies: residential density, the mix of retail and other destinations, and whether pedestrians can get to most places in a roughly straight line, thanks to a tight street grid. With just these ingredients, a large proportion of people tend to choose walking over driving.
The most-walkable areas are in the cores of Vancouver and North Vancouver, unsurprisingly (see photo above). There are, however, pockets of medium-walkability in some suburbs. Outside these pockets, the region is largely car dependent.
The study confirmed that residents of walkable communities do walk more: they were 45% more likely to walk or bike to do useful things, such as buying groceries or going to work, and were 17% more likely to meet weekly physical-activity requirements. Residents were also 42% less likely to be obese, probably thanks to having more daily exercise and greater access to healthy food. These impacts are enormous, demonstrating why urban design is a critical solution for Canada's public health problems.
The study was also able to measure health improvements directly. They found residents living in walkable communities have a 14% lower risk of facing heart disease and a 39% lower risk of developing diabetes. Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada, and diabetes is number six.
The health outcomes of walkability was particularly pronounced for low-income people, who were were 54% more likely to meet physical activity recommendations when they lived in walkable neighbourhoods with parks. In places wehre it's impossible to walk to do useful things or buy healthy food, this hurts people the most who cannot easily afford to drive to buy healthy food or the gym.
But the impacts go beyond health. People who have to drive through heavy traffic daily are found to experience levels of stress comparable to fighter jet pilots. It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that people living in walkable areas of Vancouver report experiencing 23% less daily stress than those living in car-dependent places.
Walkability impacts our social life as well. On days when people drive directly from home to the office and back, there is often little-to-no chance that they will randomly see friends outside of work. Walking to work therefore tends to build social connections. When people spend less time commuting, they also tend to spend more time participating in community life. In Vancouver, people living in walkable areas report 47% stronger sense of community.
This study lends credence to the idea that walking is not just another form of transportation. When communities are designed to enable people to walk to do useful things, it benefits all aspects of their wellbeing. It makes health and social interaction a part of life — not something extra that needs to be scheduled. And it removes the stress from daily tasks like buying milk or bread. All these things are critical for supporting good mental health. It is encouraging to see a study measure all these outcomes in one place, because it helps demonstrate how they all come back to one source: humans being able to do useful things with their feet.
Being able to walk is a critical for human wellbeing. The many downsides of building car-dependent communities should make one thing clear: enabling humans to walk to do useful things is not merely a good idea. It is a foundational requirement for human flourishing.