Research and discussion for citizens and decision makers

Ivan Semeniuk

Urban design’s health impact

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As a behavioural psychologist, James Sallis started out trying to understand how to motivate people to become more physically active. But, like many of his colleagues, he soon found that whatever worked only worked a little, on a few people, for a short time. Soon, Dr. Sallis came to see the modern urban environment as a big part of the problem. Place matters, he decided, and he set about investigating the design of public spaces and their influence on physical activity and the obesity epidemic.

A professor at the University of California San Diego’s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, Dr. Sallis also runs a foundation that has doled out about $28-million over the past decade to help foster a better understanding of how physical environment affects health with hard data that can guide urban planners and policy makers.

This week, Dr. Sallis also becomes the latest winner of the Bloomberg Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health, a $50,000 award administered by McGill University. On his way to receiving the prize Dr. Sallis stopped by Toronto’s Metro Hall to share his ideas and findings with city officials and to talk about the significance of place with The Globe and Mail.

How does the design of a city affect how healthy its population is?

Throughout our whole history, people have walked for transportation. We’ve deleted that. We’ve designed that feature out of the world for many, many people and we now have the evidence that our planning and community design decisions and our transportation decisions are reducing activity and contributing to chronic diseases.

What does the research show?

You can’t do randomized controlled studies with this sort of thing, but we do have natural experiments – cities that are designed well for pedestrians and cities that are not. And when we do comparison studies that adjust for socioeconomic status and other factors we find, over and over again, that people are much more active in walkable cities. Many of those studies show that people in more walkable cities are less likely to be obese. We’ve done studies that show this across all age groups. We’ve done a study in 11 countries showing the same thing internationally. So the evidence is really adding up.

Are some cities better at others at being walkable?

Every older city is walkable, period. If they were built before cars they had to be. So we know how to make walkable cities that are fantastic and beautiful.

How does this translate into healthier behaviour?

The brain is not our friend when it comes to physical activity. We are kind of programmed for slothfulness. As we age, some of the neurons that connect movement centres and reward centres die off so we lose our ability to get pleasure from activity. That’s why we need spaces that invite people to be active. We need to feed the pleasure centres of the brain through our designs.

What should cities be doing differently?

First, start building mixed-use places again. Don’t build residential areas that are separate from commercial areas, build communities so that the places where people want to go are in walking distance. Mixed use is the key. And in transportation we’ve got to prioritize pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit, because people who use those for active transportation are healthier.


Isn’t it more costly to build this way?


Is this something only big cities can afford to care about?


Doesn’t climate affect how active a city can be?


Full Story: The city state: How urban design affects our health
Source: The Globe and Mail, January 21, 2013


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