Overlooking Autoroute 20 on Angrignon one July afternoon, my friend Elizabeth and I decide it would be a good time to dismount our bikes and document our relative danger. As more and more cars rush to the on-ramp leading to the Turcot, the sidewalks and pedestrian lights seem increasingly out of place in the blatantly car-oriented area. But it’s not just highway interchanges surrounded by industrial parks, barren land, and mega-mallas that are ill-suited to bikes and pedestrians. It’s anything designed beyond the human scale. Riding north toward Montreal-Ouest, I wonder how many four-or-more wheelers even noticed the two non-motorists crashing their hurried, gas-guzzling routine.
Any trip beyond the extended McGill bubble reminds me that this is exactly what has defined Canada’s (predominantly sub)urban landscape for the past 60 years. While trekking around Montreal for the better part of the summer and fall conducting a walkability survey of neighbourhoods in nearly every borough, I was struck by how much of the city resembles the stereotypical suburban layout I thought I’d escaped after bidding farewell to the sprawling, monotonous blob that is “outside Toronto.” This would be far less important if the issue was purely one of aesthetics. However, as study after study shows, the way we build our environments can have a significant influence on our health.
Sprawling cities have lead to sprawling waistlines. Our reliance on cars as opposed to our feet or pedals is central to the decreasing rates of exercise – especially that which is incorporated into the daily routine. Automobile emissions in turn affect air quality, leading to smog days in cities and respiratory illnesses in residents.
“It’s probably not that my grandparents went to the gym more, or that our genetic disposition has changed significantly over the past 30 years,” explains University of Washington pediatrics professor Brian Saelens when I ask him why he focuses on understanding the built environment’s effect on health. “If I’m to explain increased rates of obesity and inactivity, the only plausible thing is that we’ve changed our environment.”
The transition from dense, streetcar-connected cities to ones with segregated land use patterns, a hierarchy of streets, single-detached homes set back from the often sidewalk-free cul-de-sac, and the low-lying strip malls and parking lots on which they depend (and the traffic congestion they cause) has been anything but accidental. Interestingly, the types of environments partly responsible for North America’s obesity epidemic – and associated conditions like type-2 diabetes and heart disease – were initially built to curb the spreading of infectious disease. Yet chronic diseases have long since surpassed them as the greatest killer of North Americans and Europeans.
In Health and Community Design: The Impact of the Built Environment on Physical Activity, lead author and prominent public health researcher Lawrence Frank outlines this unwitting irony. Citizens of industrial cities were plagued by infectious disease that thrived thanks to unsanitary and cramped quarters situated next to smoke stacks. First, the rich were privy to new developments in pastoral settings that allowed for air flow – the presumed remedy for most urban ailments. Post-WWII suburbanization only intensified this trend, as strict zoning bylaws kept homes away not only from industry, but from every other type of land use, such as commercial, institutional, and office. Hence the drive to work – and school and the grocery store.
“A fantastic amount of energy has gone into making the cars happy and providing capacity for more traffic, as if there were no other important issues in the city,” explains architect and urban designer Jan Gehl. Recorded by CKUT-Radio, Gehl’s talk at McGill this past July draws heavily on his experiences making Copenhagen one of the world’s most people-oriented cities, as an example for Montreal to follow.
The urban designer also emphasizes the role that quantitative traffic data collected and analyzed by traffic bureaus plays in putting the interests of the car above those of the people. “People who use the city have been invisible and poorly represented in the planning process,” Gehl says. This may explain why, to reduce traffic congestion, cities choose to add a lane – which only invites more traffic and more fumes to the area – as opposed to eliminating parking spots. Quoting his traffic engineer colleague, Gehl says, “If they can’t park, they won’t drive.”
Businesses, however, often claim that if customers can’t park, they won’t shop. Though this line of thinking is often used to derail the installation of bike lanes, data proves these fears illegitimate: other modes of transport increase the number of passersby – to the tune of 8,000 more per year on some Copenhagen streets, Gehl says.
Remarking on the removal of parking spots at a gradual rate of two to three per cent each year starting in the seventies, Gehl told the audience that he has witnessed the adjustments Danes have made to access and experience Copenhagen’s city centre. The latest numbers show that only 30 per cent of commuters drive to work, while 27 per cent take public transit, 37 per cent bike, and the rest walk. Compare that profile to Montreal – often considered one of North America’s most walkable cities – where about 74 per cent of morning commuters drive or take other motorized transport, 19 per cent take public transit, and 10 per cent walk or bike, according to a 2003 origin-destination survey.
Understanding the vital role that data plays in influencing policy and planning circles, public health researchers started amassing it in hopes of pinpointing structural features that influence healthy, active lifestyles. Saelens explains, “We got tired of doing interventions that didn’t modify the environment, that tried to modify attitudes and preferences.”
The majority of studies attempting to measure the built environment’s effect on physical activity compare the physical attributes of different neighbourhoods with the residents’ walking or biking habits. Though meta-reviews of the research are difficult due to the varying methodological approaches, a small yet significant correlation is consistently found between the neighbourhood’s built environment – land use patterns, transit systems, and design characteristics – and utilitarian walking.
After reading Saelens’s recent review of reviews on the subject, I ask whether studies that seemingly state the obvious – people walk more in walkable areas – are still worthwhile. “Yes,” he says. “There are likely 10,000 built environment factors. There are important levers in a handful of them, some of which are more readily modifiable, and we need to know what those are.” Still, he and co-author Susan Handy, an environmental science and policy professor at University of California at Davis, both emphasized the need to help establish causality.
Studies would involve observing the same group of people living in two different types of environments and monitoring their behavioural change. “I don’t have the resources [to do my ideal study],” Saelens says, jokingly adding, “I can’t assign people to live in certain places – for some reason we can’t do that.”
Longitudinal studies would also allow researchers to test the idea that people self-select certain areas based on their behavioural preferences. The logic goes: someone who loves driving chooses suburbia, while someone who wants to walk to work lives downtown. The problem with that, however, is that with such a large percentage of housing in Canada and the U.S. laid out in suburban tracts, it’s hard for people who want to walk to express that desire. This could be true in Montreal, where more than 80 per cent of trips in West Island boroughs are made by car, and only 40 per cent of trips in the Plateau.
The flaws in the logic of self-selection lead many researchers, including Frank and Saelens, to counter that the supply of housing stock in walkable areas either does not meet the demand or is too expensive. “I love the argument – and you hear it from these building organizations: ‘We’re just building places that people want.’ That’s just not true. It might’ve been true before, but it’s not true now,” Saelens says.
Handy adds that changing the normal course of development is difficult: “I think there’s a lot of inertia in development community.” And even when an ambitious developer wants to incorporate features that will make areas more walkable, outdated zoning bylaws often restrict what they can do.
For now, the majority of longitudinal evidence is anecdotal. Shawn Micallef, an associate editor at the urban design magazine Spacing, blogged about the effect that scale had on his travel habits after returning home to Windsor last Easter. He kept to the usual routine of driving around town to see what has and hasn’t changed (“There’s no other way to get anywhere”) until he drove by the old auto plants.
Driving by the plants every day, he notes, “the thing just zooms by – you never get a sense of its magnitude.” So Micallef had a friend superimpose the areas taken up by GM and Chrysler auto plants over Toronto’s downtown grid to better understand the difference between the layout of his old and new home. When I ask him how much of Windsor’s pride he thinks is tied up in auto manufacturing, he explains the purpose of the project: “This was a way of making that symbolic thing into something physical. Attaching it to downtown Toronto, the Chrysler plant went from Front to Bloor. There’s so much stuff in that area – an encyclopedia’s worth of urban junk in there – but in Windsor it’s one thing. It’s a minivan plant…[which I found] striking and radical.”
Micallef’s take on the difference between city and suburban living resonates with my experience. Referring to the changes he’s experienced from driving around Windsor to walking around Toronto, he says, “I’d never thought critically about how I moved around Windsor until I went back.” Similarly, though I’ve noticed a profound shift in the way I perceive daily travel, growing up in the moribund ‘burbs never demanded I think outside that box on four wheels.
Proponents of more liveable cities can find common ground with environmentalists who decry the increased carbon emissions and energy use predicated by suburban living; so can local food advocates fed up with the conversion of arable land to parking lots, buildings, and chemical-addicted lawns. The same is true for teachers and parents who see a correlation between their child’s health and academic performance. “There’s lots of synergies there, but if [the message is] splintered, it’s not going to be nearly as effective,” Saelens notes.
Since the implementation of all this information produced in academic fields still rests outside institutions, connections between public health researchers and other advocates for liveable cities are key. There are encouraging signs that this message is getting out there: the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recently published 26 different strategies for preventing childhood obesity suggested by researchers, and the Active Living By Design organization links planners with public health researchers to advocate for healthier living through infrastructural change. Further, Projet Montréal’s success in the mayoral elections suggests the growing popular appeal of people-oriented planning.
At a conference discussing the CDC report, Saelens was asked what change would have the greatest impact over the built environment. His response? “Making gas $10-12 gallon, and the reason isn’t because I don’t want people to drive – there is some utility in it.” With people paying the real price for their behavioural choices, Saelens argues, “then you can have serious conversations about land use and true public transportation.”