Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Walkerville Diet

I live in Olde Walkerville--an appropriately named community nestled amongst century old trees, beautiful garden townhomes and stately manour houses. It's built in a traditional grid pattern that encourages pedestrian traffic. The homes are built close to the street with large, welcoming front porches, making socializing a natural hobby. I even built a nice little waterfall out front to augment the street life with it's sounds of trickling water. One of my favorite pastimes is to relax on the front porch with friends and my favorite frothy beverage and people watch. I know we're not performing any scientific studies, but the conclusion we've drawn from our many hours of performing these rigorous observations - Walkerville residents are in great physical shape.

Old, walkable communities have long been sought out as vaction retreats in quaint European cities. How many members of your family have saved their pennies for years to afford to visit Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom? Mackinac Island, Greenfield Village - all very popular pedestrian oriented vacation spots that seem to make people forget their daily drudgeries. These locations are sought out for their peaceful environments and postcard-like settings. There's also another je-ne-sais-quoi quality that makes people feel comfortable - the lack of vehicular traffic. So, why is it that we don't demand the same environment in our day-to-day life?

"The evidence is conclusive: our car-dependent habits are killing us," Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson Dr. Anthony Graham said in a
news release. "Simply put, the suburban dream has gone sour," The foundation's first study of urban versus non-urban living shows that car-dependent Canadians are more sedentary and at increased risk of being overweight or obese.

The group's research shows that city-dwellers are much more likely to walk or bike to work or to do their shopping.

"It kind of comes to the fact that if you're a long way form where you want to go, you're unlikely to take your bike or walk," said Dr. Todd Anderson, a cardiologist in Calgary. "You're going to take your car."

In my neighbourhood, we have all the necessary amenities within walking distance, so we tend to use our feet a little more than those living out in Southwood Lakes or Forest Glade.

As reported in
Science News; Lawrence Frank is no couch potato. Taking full advantage of his city's compact design, the Vancouver, British Columbia, resident often bikes to work and walks to stores, restaurants, and museums. That activity helps him stay fit and trim. But Frank hasn't always found his penchant for self-propulsion to be practical. He previously lived in Atlanta, where the city's sprawling layout thwarted his desire to be physically active as he went about his daily business.

"There was not much to walk to," says Frank, a professor of urban planning at the University of British Columbia. For example, he recalls that there was only one decent restaurant within walking distance of his old home. Many restaurants and other businesses in Atlanta cluster in strip malls that stand apart from residential areas.

In Vancouver, by contrast, Frank's neighborhood contains dozens of eateries, and he often strolls to and from dinner. "I'm more active here," he says.

As of late, there has been some serious research behind the notion that a city's urban design will determine the health of its residents. This is important research that Windsor's elected leaders should come up to speed on before it puts any more shovels in the ground.

In September 2003, two major studies linked sprawl and obesity. Since those reports, researchers in fields as disparate as epidemiology and economics have generated a spate of similarly themed studies.

In the first of the 2003 reports, researchers analyzed data from a nationwide survey in which each of some 200,000 people reported his or her residential address, physical activity, body mass, height, and other health variables. Residents of sprawling cities and counties tended to weigh more, walk less, and have higher blood pressure than did people living in compact communities, concluded urban planner Reid Ewing and his colleagues at the University of Maryland at College Park's National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.

In the second
study, health psychologist James Sallis of San Diego State University and his colleagues reported that residents of "high-walkability" neighborhoods, which have closely packed residences and a mix of housing and businesses, tended to walk more and were less likely to be obese than residents of low-walkability neighborhoods.

In 2004, Frank and his colleagues produced additional connections among urban form, activity, and obesity. The data on more than 10,500 people in the Atlanta area indicated that the more time a person spends in a car, the more obese he or she tends to be. But the more time people spend walking, the less obese they are.

Frank's team, like the other groups, found that areas with interspersed homes, shops, and offices had fewer obese residents than did homogeneous residential areas whose residents were of a similar age, income, and education. Furthermore, neighborhoods with greater residential density and street plans that facilitate walking from place to place showed below-average rates of obesity.

Still, institutional hurdles remain. Many developers prefer to do as they have always done: build horizontally -- an approach that allows them to build in phases and to cut and run if the economy turns sour. (Such strategies don't work so well when you're building vertically.) Many transportation engineers also have a stake in maintaining the status quo because funding for transportation has generally been geared toward moving cars, especially via highways. Since changing road standards and zoning is difficult and time consuming (because these laws tend to be local),as Sallis puts it, our city's "DNA just keeps replicating itself."

With a generation raised in sprawl, eating fast food and driving long hours, is it realistic to assume that people's behavior will change if the environment changes? Some studies suggest no -- that less-active people will naturally choose communities that allow them to be less active. However, another study showed 30 percent of the respondents reporting that they wanted to live in walkable neighborhoods but were unable to afford them. Luckily, here in Windsor, these walkable communties (the ones that are left, that is) are not yet held as valuable as the fringe-built suburbs. Many experts agree that this will change, and as gasoline prices continue to climb into the stratosphere, these old pedestrian-friendly communities (Olde Walkerville, Sandwhich Towne, etc.) will once again be a preferable environment to raise a family.

In 2007 however, when many families choose a suburban life, they make a clear-eyed choice: to sacrifice the adults' health and well-being (with a longer commute, fewer cultural attractions, etc.) for the children's well-being. The suburbs are presumably built with children in mind - with crime-free residential neighborhoods, backyards and cul-de-sacs to play in and better schools. But studies have shown that the new suburban realities may be affecting children's health as well. Currently, an estimated 20 percent of school-age children are obese. And only 13 percent of children walk to school, compared with 66 percent in 1973. Sometimes even those playful, active creatures for whom the suburbs were made find themselves stranded like commuters on a long ride to an unhealthy adulthood.

So, want to appear as the "Next Biggest Loser" in future Windsor Star "Fit City" reports? Chose your next neighbourhood wisely.


Fresh Prince said...

Since Legacy Park and all the Walker Road development came to be several brand new Urban neighbourhoods have sprung up nearby. Like they salways say: "Build it and they will come".

Topher Holt said...

I think the definition of the term "urban" would have to be modified significantly to apply to anything around the Legacy Park development. What neighbourhoods are you speaking of?

Fresh Prince said...

Just across 46 for one. And the infill immediately west of the place off of Provincial and 6th concession.