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A Walking Tour of Toronto

A new study by the Board of Health shows that Torontonians value walkable neighbourhoods—but lots of us can't afford to live in them.

Toronto’s Board of Health meets today, and on their agenda is a new major study which examines the question of walkability—how conducive our neighbourhoods are to pedestrian activity—and the relationship between walkability and health.

Unsurprisingly, the study (available online [PDF]) found that walkable neighbourhoods are healthier neighbourhoods. Also unsurprisingly, it found that there is a significant number of people who wish they lived in more walkable neighbourhoods than they do—that walkable neighbourhoods are generally attractive. But perhaps the most interesting discovery is that neighbourhoods shape our health regardless of how we feel about them: whether or not you value walkability, whether or not you state a preference for walkability, if you live in a walkable neighbourhood you will walk more, and be healthier.

Last week we chatted with Dr. David McKeown, Toronto’s medical officer of health, to learn more about the relationship between our neighbourhoods and our health.

Torontoist: What is “walkability”?

McKeown: Walkability refers to features of neighbourhoods that make it easier for people to get around on foot. We’re not talking about recreational walking—where you might go to a park and take a walk with your children—we’re talking about walking to get to school, to get to work, to get to the store.

That sounds like the sort of thing an urban planner or a designer would look at. Why did Toronto Public Health decide to look at the question of neighbourhood design?

There’s been growing evidence that the shape of our neighbourhoods makes a difference in some of the behaviours that are important determinants of health. Today in most populations in Canada the big health problems, the ones that are the leading causes of death and hospitalization, are chronic illnesses—cardiovascular disease and cancer and respiratory disease. We know that what we eat and how physically active we are are very important risk factors for those diseases. Features of our neighbourhoods, research has shown, are very influential in how physically active we are, and as well in terms of how much access we have to services like food stores. It influences our weight and our health both through physical activity and nutrition… There’s no question that people who live in less walkable neighbourhoods, on the kind of measures that were in this study, are less healthy. They drive more, and they weigh more, and they exercise less in terms of utilitarian walking. That was true independent of people’s attitude or feeling about it—they may well enjoy the neighbourhoods that they live in, but it is nonetheless associated with a health impact.

One of the study’s findings is that people who don’t currently live in walkable neighbourhoods often wish they did. Another finding is that there is significant overlap between neighbourhoods with low walkability scores and those with low-income residents. Could you describe the correlation between walkability and affordability, and is there some sort of necessary connection between the two?

We certainly do see a pattern. We know that people who live with a low income have poorer health—lots of previous work has documented that. It’s apparent that in addition to all of the other impacts that having a low income has, it also means you are more likely to be living in a neighbourhood which is not very walkable. I would mention previous work by the United Way looking at the prevalence of poverty in high rise buildings in the inner suburbs as an example of places where a lot of low-income people are living, particularly newcomers to the city, which are not very walkable at all. They’re not walkable in terms of the proximity of services that people would need to get to; they’re not walkable in terms of street patterns—all of the features that make a neighbourhood walkable.

Is there a necessary connection? I don’t think there is a necessary connection, but there is an unhealthy correlation between low income and low walkability urban form.

I suppose that leads to what I’ll call the gentrification question. Features that make a neighbourhood walkable also tend to make it more attractive, and neighbourhoods that are more attractive also tend to become more expensive. How do we enhance neighbourhood features that increase walkability without pricing lower-income residents out of those neighbourhoods?

Clearly affordability is a clear issue—in fact, respondents said that affordability was one of the key issues in their choices of where they were able to and wanted to live. But when we asked people about trade-offs—we asked “for the same price, would you prefer to live in a neighbourhood with larger lots and larger houses and quieter streets or would you prefer to live in a neighbourhood in which all of the things you do every day are closer, so that you can walk to them, even if it means that you have a smaller house, or maybe not a house but an apartment, and less property?”—in a way the differences in affordability were factored into the way in which we asked people about their preferences. Even taking into account the impact of less affordability, people still had a strong preference for more walkability.

There’s been a recent upsurge of downtown vs. suburbs rhetoric in Toronto politics. The study shows that while Torontonians in every part of the city value walkability, it ranks higher the closer you get to the urban core. How do you avoid the charge that this is yet another case of urbanites telling suburban residents how to live?

I think what you’re seeing is a preference for walkability in neighbourhoods that are more walkable. Really that’s just an expression of people living where they want to live, and actually the majority of people living in low-walkability neighbourhoods, the majority were quite happy, and they valued different things: they valued larger homes and quieter streets and that’s fine. But what the study shows is that it does have an impact on their health—there is a health impact of urban form despite preferences.

This study is not trying to tell anyone what to think, but it is trying to point out that there is a relationship between the kind of neighbourhood you live in and certain important aspects of your health that affect chronic disease—and that’s something that we should think about not only as we plan neighbourhoods but as we choose neighbourhoods.

What steps should Toronto be taking to facilitate walkability?

There’s not an easy short list of the top three things you should do. There’s a lot of small changes that can be made. I think the Official Plan has the broad strokes roughly right but when you look at how it’s implemented, that’s when there’s an opportunity to make decisions that support health. Fundamentally it’s important for planners and developers and residents to understand that you can only be as healthy as the neighbourhood you live in, and the decisions that we make about those neighbourhoods are really health decisions.

We talked earlier about low income tower communities. There are some rules about how those neighbourhoods are treated in relation to the development of stores and services. That would be an example—what the City says about what sort of services can be in those kinds of residential neighbourhoods. That would an example of an implementation issue that would actually change the walkability.

This interview has been condensed.