The neighbourhood I live in isn’t great for walkability. There are sidewalks but they are often close to major roads. There are trees along some of the bike paths, at least the ones that haven’t been torn out, but they do little to shelter you from the noise. It is also definitely easier to make a single weekly trip to the grocery store via car than the extra smaller trips I have done when I lived in more walkable spaces. I don’t mind walking in the area, but one of the things I like about my bike is I can get to real greenspaces where I want to spend extra time on a ride because it’s just nice to be out.
Based on my own experiences, I wasn’t surprised to read that Marquet et al (2022) found that women who had access to greenery in areas with high walkability did more physical activity. After controlling for self-reported health, socioeconomic status, and demographic characteristics more than 300 women from four different areas in the US showed that walkability counts, the amount of nature counts, and the two together does more than either on its own to keep people active.
The activity levels were determined through GPS data and what’s particularly interesting is that it is moderate to vigorous activity levels that increased. This is important because so few people meet their daily and weekly recommended activity levels. This research shows that shaping the landscape through urban planning is likely to impact overall health as well. Which means, spending more designing communities that people want to walk in could result in financial savings on healthcare.
There’s an important equity conversation as well. I’ve run enough programs in low income communities to know that, while I might not be satisfied with the amount of green I have access to, I have a lot more access than many residents in my city and others. In fact, increases in greenspaces are one of the factors that contribute to gentrification and pushing lower income residents out of an area. So not only are these areas less likely to have greenery but they are likely to become unaffordable if we add greenery in.
I hope that cities and urban planners take note about combining greenery and walkability. But I also hope that we pay attention to how this impacts lower income communities. Everyone deserves to be able to walk to the majority of what they need and to enjoy the benefits of nature along the way. Just because someone can’t pay for the privilege does not mean they aren’t deserving of that experience and it’s associated benefits.