Where matters: Study shows positive health outcomes in walkable, park-rich neighbourhoods

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      People who live in walkable neighbourhoods are 39 percent less likely to have diabetes than those in car-dependent areas.

      Residents in these complete communities, which have a median housing density of 60 units per acre or 0.4 hectare, are also 28 percent less likely to suffer from hypertension. In addition, they are 23 percent less likely to develop stress than those in least walkable or car-dependent communities, which have a median residential density of five units per acre.

      These are some of the findings of groundbreaking research led by Larry Frank, a UBC professor and director of the university’s Health and Community Design Lab.

      The results of the study, titled Where Matters: Health and Economic Impacts of Where We Live, were presented in a report by Erin Rennie, a senior regional planner with Metro Vancouver.

      The West End neighbourhood of Vancouver, North Vancouver’s Lower Lonsdale, and the downtown area of New Westminster are examples of walkable neighbourhoods.

      The research also showed that people with the lowest incomes or those who earn less than $60,000 a year benefit a lot from living in walkable communities. Low-income earners are 51 percent more likely to achieve the recommended physical activity if they live in complete and compact neighbourhoods, compared to car-dependent localities. People are encouraged to have 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week.

      The study also looked at the health benefits of having access to local parks: residents who can walk to six or more parks are 53 percent less likely to have diabetes than those in neighbourhoods with the fewest parks or those with only one park or none.

      Dwellers in park-rich communities are also 35 percent less likely to have high blood pressure. Moreover, they are 39 percent less likely to get heart disease.

      Access to parks is particularly good for low-income earners. The study noted that the “impact of park access on physical activity was especially high for lower income earners
      (annual incomes below $60,000)”. They are 54 percent more likely to “meet physical activity rates when living close to many parks” than similarly situated residents in park-poor neighbourhoods.

      Rennie’s report is included on Friday’s (July 5) agenda for Metro Vancouver’s regional planning committee.

      Rennie indicated that the research was a pioneering inquiry.

      “While there is a general recognition of the association between walkability and park access and better health outcomes, prior to the Where Matters study the extent of that relationship had not yet been quantified in this region,” Rennie wrote.

      Rennie noted that the study also found that “more walkable neighbourhoods could be associated with lower direct health care costs related to chronic disease.”

      Direct health-care costs in walkable neighbourhoods are 52 percent less for diabetes, 47 percent less for hypertension, and 31 percent less for heart disease than in car-dependent neighbourhoods.

      Similarly, communities with six or more local parks are associated with lower direct health-care costs. These are 75 percent less for diabetes, 69 percent for hypertension, and 69 percent less for heart disease.

      According to Rennie, the Where Matters study has policy implications.

      “The connection between walkability and improved health outcomes demonstrates that local governments have a role to play in supporting health and wellness,” Rennie wrote. “Communities can support better health outcomes by building compact residential areas, increasing intersection density, supporting compact commercial development, building mixed-use neighbourhoods, and improving access to parks.”

      Rennie also noted that the results of the study point to the need for affordable housing in walkable and park-rich communities.

      “Additional regional policies are required to support inclusivity of all income groups in existing and emerging walkable neighbourhoods,” Rennie wrote. “This includes policies that increase the supply of affordable rental and family-friendly housing in walkable centres and corridors. Failing to do so is likely to result…[in] widening inequities in health outcomes across income groups.”

      Rennie recalled in her report that the Where Matters study was funded by Metro Vancouver, TransLink, Vancouver Coastal Health, the City of Vancouver, the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., and UBC’s Health and Community Design Lab.