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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Walk21: Public health and urban design

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Today’s Walk21 post brings you some findings from a fascinating session on the relationship between public health and urban design as they affect and are affected by walking.

At this session, we learned that the evidence that urban design — such as suburban sprawl — has a powerful impact on walking behaviour, and therefore on public health, is becoming stronger and stronger (despite some occasional early skepticism).

In Edmonton, the local regional health authority, Capital Health, has realized that a key part of public health is fostering health-promoting environments, notably ones that encourage people to walk. They have started to make connections with planners and engineers to push for the development of walking-friendly built environments, and at the same time have started to educate health professionals of the crucial role of urban design on health. To demonstrate the point, they have developed a “foundation document” which outlines the key studies and data that demonstrate this relationship — it should be available within a few days on the Capital Health website.

Another example of this relationship was presented by a Toronto researcher, Gillian Booth. Her team has developed a Toronto Diabetes Atlas, which correlates diabetes cases with how walking-friendly the local urban environment is (on the hypothesis that less walking leads to more obesity, which is a key risk factor for diabetes). To measure walkability, they created an “Activity-Friendly Index” which incorporated statistics about population density, the proximity of retail (taking into account the accessibility of walking routes), car ownership, and the prevalence of crime. These factors by themselves made for fascinating maps that make a significant contribution to our understanding of Toronto’s walkability. When overlaid with a map of diabetes incidence, there was a strong correlation between low AFI (i.e. walkability) and high rates of diabetes, especially in Toronto’s north-east and north-west quadrants. Ethnicity and low income levels also showed a correlation, but it was accentuated by walkability — for example, low-income immigrant areas in the walkable downtown had noticeably lower levels of diabetes than areas with poor walkability but a similar socio-economic profile in Etobicoke and Scarborough. The report will be published at the beginning of November on the website of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Science.

The most action-oriented presentation came from VicHealth, the public health department of the State of Victoria in Australia (equivalent to the Ontario government’s Ministry of Health Promotion). They have taken a remarkably active role in making people aware of the connection between how cities are built and health, for example building a relationship with the Planning Institute of Australia, which led to that organization adopting a national position that “Health needs to be at the centre of planning considerations.”

I was also particularly struck by their awareness that walking is important for sustaining good mental as well as physical health. It was a message conveyed in a plenary session in the morning by Nova Scotia researcher Catherine O’Brien, but in Canada this concept is still in its initial stages, and public health departments are only just beginning to realize that maintaining good mental health can be as important as maintaining good physical health. Apparently they are way ahead of us in Australia. For example, VicHealth funds public art projects in low-income areas that will draw people into public space, to enhance mental well-being.

But VicHealth’s most striking initiative is a very heavy emphasis on walk-to-school programs for children. The ministry has set a goal of doubling the number of kids walking to school in the state from 30% to 60%. To achieve that goal, it provides full funding for these programs (such as the “walking school bus”) for two years (to the municipalities who manage them), which then evolves into an ongoing shared-cost structure. In rural areas where walking was not practical, they are developing equivalent cycling programs.

It’s such an obvious and easy way to massively increase walking. Imagine if Ontario’s Ministry of Health Promotion began this kind of program across Ontario, and set that kind of ambitious goal. It would be fairly simply, and yet hugely effective.

The program had other benefits beyond healthier kids. Once volunteers and kids began organized walks to school, they noticed deficiencies in the pedestrian infrastructure, such as dangerous crossings. They became eyes on the street, and powerful advocates, for a better walking environment. Once children and parents got involved, local councils scrambled to fix problems that had persisted, ignored, for years. One crucial issue was crossing times — children take longer to cross intersections than adults, and therefore need extended signals in order to cross safely. VicHealth funded research that led to the implementation of extended crossing times at important intersections used by children.

Finally, the department funded an interesting online Active Transport Quantification Tool to help quantify, in monetary and other terms, the various benefits to self and to society of programs that get people walking and cycling instead of driving to and from school or work.

photo by Adam Krawesky 



  1. the big fly in the ointment remains motorholics’ claim to own the road and their willingness to brandish a few tons of steel intimidation if any pedestrian or bicyclist dare challenge that facet of neo-reality.
    tragedy starts when they make good with that threat and all too often one of their numbers will.
    as long as our elected officials are unwilling to address what is essentially assault and/or homicide and “our” enforcement officers are willing to dismiss that reality for the CAA and other sundry motormayhem insidioustry mouthpieces empty promises of a bigger brighter parking lots pedestrians and cyclists will remain so much roadkill at the expense of yet another $100 fine (if that).
    what happened to the concept of “the driving privilege”? why is this “privilege” so reluctantly revoked? why are pedestrian and cyclist lives so cheap? why is our minister of transport so unconcerned that motorists continue to usurp cyclists and pedestrians safety for what is essentially motorist convenience?
    WAKE UP!!
    time to ban car advertisements. the manufacturers and promo houses are not willing to use this tool responsibly.

  2. These walking ideas are all nice and pretty but nothing will come from this. The people from all over the world attending Walk21 are simply too smart and progressive for Ontario and Canada as a whole. This is all talk and no walk…

    We probably have the most narrow-minded politicians and bureaucrats in the western world. We first have to come to the realization that Canadians are simply too dumb and too lazy to even think that cars are a terrible thing for our society, our leaders are even worst, so sorry about my pessimism (I call it realism), things will only change when they get really, really, really bad. By then we would have lost most of economic competitiveness, our environment will be worst (it is already among the worst in the developed world) and it will cost a huge fortune to change things and to try to catch up to more intelligent countries like Finland, Germany and Japan.

    Let’s face it: we are screwed! I hope the collapse happens after I am able to get the hell out of here and move to this nice place I know; it’s an island in the Baltic Sea which doesn’t allow any cars (with the exception of emergency vehicles, the only good thing that came for inventing the automobile).

  3. Carlos

    Your negativity is understandable, but we’re not *that*
    bad. Look at the examples of edmonton. They are starting to get it.

    Yes our suburbs are in dire need of walkability, but the politicians and ‘crats are starting to figure it out (look at Mississauga’s new plans) and we could be on our way more pedestrian friendly environments. it won’t come quick enough, for your liking or my own, but to paint such a bleak bleak picture is counter-productive if not wholly inaccurate.

  4. Oh we’re not screwed, jeez.

    We would be screwed if everybody in cities decided to move out to an island or some rural place — that would be the most unsustainable phenomenon and likely result in the collapse of civilization.

  5. Cities have to get away from the promotion of the car. Free parking at shopping centres and offices discourages walking. The asphalt desert with their neon cacti and concrete escapements has to be removed from the city landscape. If you get off a bus in the middle of a winter blizzard, you do not want to cross the asphalt desert to get to the entrance of a store, mall, or office building.
    Entrances should be right beside a bus stop. There should not be concrete walls bordering a street sidewalk, but storefronts, trees, benches, and waste containers should be instead. Instead of free parking, meters should be installed in all current shopping centres and start collecting after a 15 minute grace period. Any parking should be behind a building, underground, or away from street walking traffic.
    Streetville is a good and bad example. The older part has streetfront stores with parking behind. However, just north of those stores there is an asphalt desert of free parking. Why did they not build a “town square”? With a park in the middle, stores on the ground level, maybe a library on one side, offices on the second level, and residential on the upper levels. Parking could have been put out of sight behind the building or in a garage.

  6. Dear Shawn (nice picture by the way), if things don’t improve (which the are not) then we are screwed. My decision to live in an island is mine alone and not yours, I don’t think you have enough knowledge about the place I mentioned to make an informed opinion about its sustainability. To me the fact that it has no cars makes its sustainability increase dramatically (much more than the sprawled heaven know as the Greater Toronto Area). I don’t see why I have to put up with a lack of vision and horse shit from people who are supposed to make this a better place to live for the rest of my life. Sure, many people are full of good intentions, but nothing is ever done. It is like they say in the old country “Hell is paved with good intentions, roofed in with lost opportunities”. How many lost opportunities will this city have to go through before things change?

    I’ve traveled enough and know enough people from around the world to realize how bleak things are in Canada’s urban environment. I believe that saying things are nice and rosy is what’s actually counter productive, what needs to be said is how thing are in reality. The reality is that the GTA, at this pace, will never improve or catch up to the levels of more progressive cities around the globe. I don’t care about worst places than Toronto (like Edmonton) I only care to look at places which are in better shape than us (Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Portland, Sydney, Copenhagen) and how their examples can be used into improving things around here, unfortunately we do not have the leadership or a population sophisticated enough to do such a thing. I refuse to be happy with what little crumbs they give us; a bike lane here and there every 5 years, a nice small park by the water, big transit funding announcements that never happen, I love this city too much for that. I want what is rightfully ours, I want a bigger share of the taxes I pay to stay in my community, I want to breath clean air in my backyard, I want to see vibrant communities in Rexdale and Jane & Finch, I want to bike in our streets without worrying getting hit by a car, I want to be able to swim in the lake every day of the summer. Is this too much to ask for? I guess it is according to what I hear from many people…

    I might sound negative, but I still have some hope that by the time I am able to leave I will not have to because things around here will improve. Maybe by then I will not see the TPA demolishing iconic places for parking spots, we will have a functional city council, we will turn our backs to the car, there will not be so much useless bureaucracy in city hall, we will have a beautiful waterfront (almost 100 year in the making), we will stop sprawl, there will not be ghettos in the inner suburbs, there will be lots of efficient good transit, pedestrians and cyclist will be 100 time more important than cars and the rest of the country will not hate Toronto anymore. Until all of this comes to fruition and the tremendous potential of this city is put to good use I will keep dreaming about my island.


  7. One thing I’ve learned this week is that it’s simply not true that all our politicians and bureaucrats are narrow-minded. It was our city bureaucrats who specifically brought the conference to Toronto, and this week our politicians approved the first step towards a series of innovative initiatives to support walking, cycling and transit. While they may seem like small steps, I’ve also learned that Copenhagen’s transformation into a city where two-thirds of trips are by foot or cycle happened over a series of small steps that took over 30 years of constant struggle.

    And there are lots of citizens of Toronto who are, rather than complaining and promising to move to far-away islands, working hard to make positive change happen that will transform Toronto. It will be hard and there will be lots of setbacks, but it is achievable over time. But it will never happen if people just bail. It’s easy to sit in a corner and complain and then run away. It’s much harder to stand up and fight, and face the complexities and compromises of making change happen.

    So I urge you to come out of your comfortable everything-sucks corner, absorb the full complexity of the situation with an open mind, and start working on the small steps that will lead to the big steps towards making Toronto the city we dream about.

  8. I am sorry Dylan, but you don’t know me and I don’t know you. For all you know I am very active in trying to improve the city. I don’t make judgements about you so don’t do it to me, it makes you sound pretty lame, maybe I find you just as narrow minded as you think I am (who knows who is right?).

    I know that there are many good people doing good things, but I also know that they are a minority and it is not enough to change things, I still appreciate them trying and I do think they should keep trying.

    I believe I do my part to make Toronto better, maybe not to your standards, but at least I am trying. I have a dream in living in a place without cars, if it can’t be in Toronto it will be somewhere else, what is so wrong with that? I could have “bailed” a long time ago, but I am still around and I invested a huge part of my life by owning a piece of this city. If it took Copenhagen 30 years it will take us a least twice as long, by then I am old or dead and I don’t see what the problem is in enjoying my twilight years in an island away from all this crap.

    One more thing; I am sure there are good bureaucrats doing a good job at City Hall, but unfortunately from my own experience there are many more that are useless morons only interested in protecting their puny little corner, it is just my opinion, nothing more.

    I find that being nice and believing things are improving (when they clearly aren’t) hasn’t worked to make this city move forward, so maybe a bit of noise will be for the best. One of the definitions of stupidity is trying the same thing over and over again even if it never works.

    Maybe if Torontonians became the assholes people believe they are we would get our fair share of the pie, being nice and rosy sure as hell hasn’t helped…

  9. Carlos, please have somebody in your caring household vet your comments before post ’em. You need some sober second thought. You might be on the “right side” but holy cow, the world is not coming to an end and you undermine everything with your simplistic chicken little arguments. We may not know you, that is ture, but we sure get to read what you write an judge you on that.

  10. Narrow-minded, simplistic chicken little arguments et al…

    At least I know I am not a know it all, and that is why I come here, to use Spacing for information and referencing. If you don’t like my opinions, that is fine and I respect that, but I didn’t attack anybody or their ideas personally in here by saying how “simplistic” they are. I am sorry if I don’t run in your artsy-fartsy circles, I am sorry I am not sophisticated, I am sorry I am too direct for your taste and I am sorry I don’t show the finesse you are probably used to. But I still do have a valid opinion just like any citizen, it doesn’t matter if they are right or left-winged, artistic or technocratic, a simple brick layer or a university professor.

    Show a little consideration when dealing with people, there is no need to be insulting. You wouldn’t like it if I did like you and posted “simplistic chicken little arguments” about what I think of your ideas and opinions.

    Be happy! 😉

    P.S. I still think that this Walk21 conference was a waste of money and time because nothing is going to come out of this, it never does…

  11. That is until Segway’s become a consumer device that allow those who couldnt be bothered moving, motoring along the walkways.