The Relationship Between Walkability and Public Health

New research indicates that improving public health requires targeted investments in more than just pedestrian facilities.

2 minute read

March 2, 2022, 9:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

walkable street

Dewita Soeharjono / Flickr

Nikita Amir reports on a recent study of public health outcomes from the MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto which reveals that "walkability isn’t just restricted to elements of infrastructure—it’s also mediated by racial injustice, food supply, and pollution."

The study's authors evaluated existing research linking physical activity and disease "to understand how a resident’s ability to walk around their neighborhoods is linked to the likelihood of obesity and diabetes," writes Amir. Gillian Booth, a scientist at the MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and her co-author Nicholas Howell created a "walkability index" that combined a variety of factors that affect whether residents of an area can safely walk around their neighborhood and access businesses and transit.

The researchers found that public health metrics varied across neighborhoods, and that  pedestrian infrastructure (such as sidewalks) alone don't indicate a healthier neighborhood.

"For example, Booth and her co-author learned that in places with higher air pollution or traffic congestion, it wasn’t as beneficial to be able to stroll around as in cleaner, quieter neighborhoods. In the more polluted areas, residents had a higher risk of illnesses such as heart disease or dementia. In essence, any gains made by being able to walk around the neighborhood were washed away by the increased concentration of fuel emissions in the air."

Additionally, "Factors like food apartheids with a lack of healthy eating options or access to green spaces can also be traced to systemic social and racial inequities. Many low-income communities live in places that have been intentionally designed without walkability or abundant resources like parks and grocery stores in mind." The study's authors acknowledge the limitations of their research, which often didn't include socioeconomic factors.

The study could play a role in figuring out how cities can design healthy, sustainable infrastructure that addresses public health from all angles including walkability, air quality, stormwater management, open space, and transportation.

Monday, February 28, 2022 in Popular Science

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