In my Master’s research I looked at why people chose to live in the suburbs. Nearness to nature and natural spaces featured very high on the list of reasons. In fact, living closer to the green spaces costs more, emphasizing its importance in housing choice. The funny thing about these neighbourhoods though, is that they are not particularly walkable. And, the jobs are typically located elsewhere, requiring residents to spend an extensive amount of time travelling to and from. Subsequently reducing the available time they have to spend in nature.
In a new, multi country research study, researchers have found that neighbourhood design has a significant impact on activity level. So what do you need to be active?
Dense population and interconnected streets that go to shops, services, restaurants, public transit, and parks. This results in an average of 90 minutes of physical activity a week, which is still less than the recommended 150 minutes. This result appeared to go across socioeconomic status and culture.
Within the context of my own research, I see two main points. One, opportunities for activities was mentioned by a lot of my research participants. However, the nearness to the green spaces was really the only criteria that the suburban neighbourhoods I studied actually met. There are some services and retail but they will meet limited needs. The result is that people still did to access services outside of their community.
Two, density of transit was another key criteria identified in the global study. Most of my participants did not use public transit. Transit is okay in the neighbourhoods I studied so long as you are willing to travel to a transit hub, and then to your destination.
Unfortunately, many neighbourhoods that we have to choose from today were designed around the car. This affects how walkable they can be. Different people also have different definitions of walkable. To me a 15 to 20 minute walk is entirely acceptable, if not on the short side. To some of my colleagues 15 minutes is completely unacceptable.
The reality is that we need to be more active in general, so now that we have studies documenting how neighbourhoods can contribute to activity levels perhaps the next step is to identify how we can successfully retrofit and modify car based communities to make them more active.