My husband, a friend and I were walking home from work recently when a truck rumbled by and threw up a spray of slush, salt, and sand that soaked our friend.
Of course this soaking was due in part to the great spring melt that is currently underway in this prairie town. But my friend’s misfortune is symptomatic of other ills. We were walking on a sidewalk beside a busy street. Between the sidewalk and the buildings is about 20 feet of green space. Had the sidewalk been buffered from the street by some of that green space, our friend in turn would have been buffered from the spray.
So maybe you feel bad for my friend. You know exactly what I’m talking about because you’ve been there yourself, but maybe you’re also wondering what this has to do with physical activity, which really, is what this blog should be about.
Well, how that sidewalk is constructed is part of our built environment, a topic that has been under increasing scrutiny as a contributor to physical activity. In particular, the great urban sprawl that is taking over North America has been linked to our deteriorating health. In general, people who live in neighbourhoods with multiple uses (homes and shops all mixed together) and where the streets are well-connected (think a grid) are more likely to be physically active than those who live out in the ‘burbs in what have been termed “lollipop neighbourhoods.” These lollipops have lots of little cul-de-sacs that aren’t very well connected and there’s no way you can walk to the corner store to buy some milk because there is no corner store for miles. Off in the distance, on the other side of a busy four-lane road, past the acres of parking lot, loom big-box stores stuffed full of everything you could ever want. But, really, who’s going to walk there? It’s madness.
Within the neighbourhoods themselves, often little thought is given to infrastructure like sidewalks. Sometimes sidewalks are on only one side of the street or they end suddenly, so that you’re forced to walk along the shoulder, or they’re not maintained and are full of cracks and holes, or you’re so close to a busy road that you get splashed when traffic goes by. Not a very pleasant walking environment, so people jump into their cars to get their groceries and the groceries end up costing them more than just dollars, they end up costing them their health.
A lot of this evidence comes from the work of Larry Frank, a researcher in the area of transportation, urban design and health, who will speaking about this issue at the Alberta Centre for Active Living’s Physical Activity Forum on May 17. In a video co-produced by the CBC and the NFB called The Weight of the World, Dr. Frank states that there might be cause to sue land developers and urban planners over our health.
If developers see proof that how they design neighbourhoods is an essential contributor to our health, yet persist in creating spaces that are not conducive to physical activity, they may very well be setting themselves up for a lawsuit. Provocative thought. But I like it!!
For more information about the May 17 Physical Activity Forum, visit http://www.centre4activeliving.ca. A videotape of the Forum will be posted on the Alberta Centre for Active Living’s website after the event.