Why do walkable cities matter?

walkable cities

New York, Paris, Melbourne and Vancouver—what do they have in common? These cities are widely regarded as among the most pedestrian-friendly and most walkable cities in the world.

What is a walkable city? Emily Talen and Julia Koschinsky of Arizona State University have this to say: “…a neighborhood type defined by services within walking distance of residents, a pedestrian orientation that minimizes car dependence, and a level of density and land-use diversity…”

Much has been said about the positive association between the walkability of a city to reduced crime, improved real estate values, enhanced creativity and a more socially engaged community.

It has been claimed that walkable neighborhoods played a part in shaping the intellectual ideas of some of the world’s greatest thinkers such as Rosseau, Thoreau, Rimbaud and Kant.

The world-renowned philosopher Kant, whose life revolved around the walkable neighborhood of Königsberg in Germany, was said to have drawn insights walking around town and discussing philosophy, politics and science with merchants and tradesmen.

Healthier communities

There is more to a walkable city than the economic, intellectual and social benefits that it delivers – walkable cities are heart-friendly as they result in better blood pressure outcomes for their inhabitants, according to a study.

The study, published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health by a group of researchers from the University of Hongkong and Oxford University, provided compelling evidence of the beneficial link between neighbourhood walkability and blood pressure outcomes.

This makes a walkable city even closer to people’s hearts. This initially sounds like a cliché, but the way to a safe, sound and healthier community is in and within the city itself.

Drawing data from 429,334 participants aged 38-73 years, the research demonstrated that increased walkability of the neighbourhood results in healthier blood pressure outcomes which ultimately redound to reduced propensity to hypertension and other cardiovascular ailments.

Findings are consistent even when variables such as socio-demographic, lifestyle and related physical environmental were factored in, though the protective effects among female participants aged 50-60 years, in employment, residing in deprived, high density, and greener areas are more pronounced, the study further disclosed.

The reason is quite simple: walkable environments encourage walking, promote physical activities and social interaction, which in turn translates into better health.

This is aptly demonstrated when people who jog every morning benefit not only from reduced weight but also from a sense of community and a feeling of belonging because a well-designed neighborhood encourages not only physical activities but also social and personal interaction which builds social trust in the community.

The findings are relevant when viewed in the context of urban design, public health finance and public policy: around 55% of the global population lives in cities, and the figure is projected to rise to 60% in 2030 according to a 2016 UN Report; cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death accounting for 31% of all global deaths; and health-related ailments put fiscal pressure on public health.

Having said that, urban planners in cooperation with policy-makers should capitalize in the enormous health leverage potential of designing or retrofitting neighbourhoods “to make them more activity-friendly and walkable.” This, according to Dr. Chinmoy Sarkar, lead researcher and author of the study, will result in “significant savings in future healthcare expenditures.”

In the words of Dr. Sarkar: “public health interventions must consider the intangible value of urban planning and design.” This is the catalytic effect of a well-built environment in promoting physical and social engagements towards safer, better and healthier cities in the future.

Indeed, as Dr. Sarkar precisely captures it: “well-designed cities of today will be the healthy cities of tomorrow.”

For all the benefits cited, there can be no good reason not to start building walkable cities. Making a city more walkable today is a great investment in the future of the community.

Sources: The Guardian, The 2017 WHO Report, 2016 UN Report, Culture Trip, A Philosophy of Walking

Photo: deeproot.com

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