The community we live in has a great bearing on our daily lives from transportation infrastructure, provision of utilities, emergency services to even garbage pick-up. And while not as obvious, communities also play a role in our health and can impact our risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
In recent decades there has been growing interest in what is termed the built environment (the human-made community design and buildings) and how it relates to health and health behaviours. For example, in communities with sidewalks, residents are more active than in communities without sidewalks. Likewise, communities with mixed density (a mix of retail, commercial and residential areas) lead to more walking as people can walk to do things like shopping. Living in these areas has also been associated with a lower risk for obesity and diabetes.
The importance of community design and its influence on activity was no more obvious to me than during my recent holiday trip. For the first week I was in Niagara Falls and the second week in New York City.
In Niagara Falls I found it extremely challenging to get in as much walking as I’m used to and I also spent far more time in a car than usual (so more sitting). A lot of it had to do with the way the city and the communities are designed.
In Niagara Falls residential areas are sprawled out and separated from retail areas. This means that to get simple errands done, like get some milk, require getting into a car. Even the community centre and many parks are in different areas from where people live. From where I was, the closest non-residential destination was 1.6 km away, to a strip club nonetheless. Needless to say, I didn’t walk (or drive) there.
In addition, the communities are made up of streets that meander around with many dead-ends. This increases distances between destinations from how the crow flies. So even visiting a neighbour that is only 80 metres away may entail a 500 metre walk.
In order to get in my regular activity, I had to set aside time to go out and be active. While that helped, it wasn’t nearly as efficient as getting in my activity while commuting to work by bike or walking to do errands.
While pretty much all of the neighbourhoods had sidewalks, the only people I saw walking during my stay were those people walking dogs. It’s probably not surprising that dog owners are more physically active than people without dogs. This is not to suggest that we all go out and buy dogs, but it is interesting when we consider that we know enough to recognize that dogs need a good amount of activity, but yet we don’t realize it in ourselves.
In contrast, in New York City, I was getting about three times the amount of walking than in Niagara Falls and more walking than I do back in Vancouver. A lot of that was doing sightseeing, which was pretty easy to do either by foot or by transit as things like stores and other destinations were mixed in with residential places (people who use transit are also more active than non-users). The streets are also set up in a grid-like pattern reducing distances between destinations. Getting to that neighbour 50 metres away may only entail a 75 metre walk.
There were also many parks around making it easy to get out and walk in green space. Besides creating an attractive place to walk, run, bike, play sports, etc. having access to green space such as parks, hiking trails and fields is associated with lower stress levels and greater well-being.
The differences between these two areas is also exemplified by their difference in Walk Score (a measure from 1 to 100 of the walkability based on whether things like schools, stores, parks and other destinations are within walking distance). The Walk Score for where I stayed in Niagara Falls was 1- Car Dependent, while in New York it was 94- Walker’s Paradise.
While it is possible to be active in communities that are not walkable, it is just harder and more conscious thought and planning needs to go into it. It means purposely going for a walk after you’ve come home from grocery shopping in the car, and in some cases having to drive to a place to get in your activity. This takes more time, and given that lack of time is often cited for why people aren’t active, we need to minimize as many barriers as possible.
Most people in society have some flexibility in choosing where they live, and making that decision involves a number of factors. Younger people have different preferences than people with families who differ from retired people. A report in the UK cited the main reasons for choosing a place to include proximity to family and workplace, the cost and the type of housing. Factors such as the quality of the built environment and being close to schools and shops were rarely considered. These latter features are hallmarks of a walkable community, and given that many people drive to work, wanting to be close to work does not mean within walking distance.
It may be that most people aren’t aware of how their neighbourhood may impact their health, and it isn’t obvious that having or not having a sidewalk in your neighbourhood may relate to your risk for diabetes. However, the desire to live in a walkable neighbourhood was indicated by a majority of older adults in a recent survey.
Planning communities to be walkable also has other benefits, it reduces the amount of motor vehicle use making it environmentally friendly, reduces the burden on city infrastructure and can reduce criminal activity as it increases ‘eyes on the street’. Fortunately many cities are now taking into account walkability and health when designing new communities.