For once, I am actually using a paper I wrote in university!
Environment greatly effects our physical activity behaviours. There are many studies showing that if physical activity is convenient, there is a greater chance that people will partake in some form of physical activity. Because if the gym is right there, and the park is right there, it’s harder to talk yourself out of going to them.
One of the biggest environments that each of us is a part of is our neighbourhoods. This is where we live! But is it where we shop, work, play, exercise, and interact? And does it really play that big of a part in our physical activity behaviour? Back in my university years (now I sound old. I swear I am only 24!) I was part of a group that actually wrote a paper on the topic of walkable communities. While working on this paper, I felt I learned a lot about designing and creating walkable communities. I even was the one to build the Lego model for our presentation! We talked about green spaces, house design, community layout, and social interactions between neighbours. We had done our research, used the theories we learned in class, and came up with convincing points. (Pretty sure we did well on this paper too.) But these were just theories, and I didn’t have much real world experience with living, working, and socializing in a walkable community.
Four years and a country change later, I live in a walkable community! At least I think and feel so. But does it fit the research? Time to dig up the old paper, dust of my researcher’s hat, and get back to academia. Here is how my real life walkable community stacks up against the research! (Also, these are things you can look for when rental/apartment/flat/house shopping if you are looking to lead a more physically active lifestyle.)
1. Individuals living close to office buildings and farther from health clubs were less physically active (Handy et al., 2007). – In my community (well, technically city since that is how Perth is really divided), we don’t really have many office buildings. Offices that we do have are either built into the ground floor of apartment buildings or the second story above shops in the shopping district. So we don’t have the highly dense offices that are often seen in business districts. We also have roughly 8 gyms, yoga studios, crossfit boxes and martial arts studios with our city. (This is off of personal knowledge and a quick google search.) So there is choice for gym lovers without having to go far. So far, I think my city is doing well!
2. Those who perceived physical activity options, social environment, attractiveness, and/or who perceived stores within walking distance tended to engage in physical activity more frequently (Handy et al., 2007). I agree with this completely! I do perceive the shopping center in my city to be an easy walk from my flat (a leisurely 10 minutes), so I often walk to the shops if I just need to grab a few groceries instead of taking the car. There is also lots of well-maintained green spaces and beaches, houses are up kept, and there are always people out walking, no matter the time of day. I do believe that all these positive attributes do contribute into the factor of me being more physically active, verse the city I originally moved into in Australia.
3. Providing green spaces within a community provides social opportunities and enhances people’s perception of their neighbourhood (Edwards & Tsouros, 2006). In my city, we have 16 parks and reserves. Not bad for a city 516 hectares (5km2) large! It does create the perception of open space and a place to organically met your neighbours. The parks are often used for picnics, sports camps, personal training, puppy play groups, and special community events, such as Christmas markets and concerts in the park. Especially with my puppy, I have met many other dog owners, and now feel like I am an integrated part of my community. This is something that I was missing back in my original Australia residence. So I think my city is doing well on this front.
4. Providing a clean and attractive environment invites residents to be active in their neighbourhood (Bergeron & Craigg, 2009). The parks are well maintained, the garbage cans are regularly emptied, and they even provide free doggy poo bags in all the green spaces in the city! Further, I believe that with all the maintained there is opportunities for the community to come together in gorgeous spaces, thus promoting everyone to spend time in the greater community, not just in their house.
5. In a study conducted by Brown and Rhodes (2006), dog owners were found to walk 300 minutes per week in comparison with 168 minutes per week for non-dog owners (Brown and Rhodes, 2006). These statistics should be taken into consideration during urban design. Communities should be built so residents can safely walk their dogs and off-leash areas should be provided where owners can participate in active play with their dog. I have touched on this a bit already, but we do have a strong dog friendly neighbour. We have three dedicated off leash areas, which is perfect for any dog that loves to run and play. At all the garbage cans in the parks, they have doggy poo bags, meaning that most owners pick up after their dogs. I do find that I often see dog owners walking their dogs, but that is because they are easily recognized by the furry friend! I am not sure if that all dog owners end up walking more, as many often gather in groups in the parks in the evening, allowing their dogs to play together and exercise while they just stand around and chat. At least the dogs are physically active!
Another great resource that one of my friends from university that worked on this paper with me pass on was the website Walk Score. (https://www.walkscore.com/cities-and-neighborhoods/) Great for cities in Canada, Australia and the US, it ranks cities on walkability, transit, and some cities even have a bike score! While it can be a bit skewed, it does offer a good overview of many communities and where amenities are located. I wish I had remembered this when I did move to Perth, as I knew nothing about the city before getting into apartment hunting. So if being able to walk to get food, go to restaurants, or transit is important to you, check out Walk Score next time you decide to move!
Overall, I think walkability does contribute significantly to my personal happiness. I like being able to not have to hop in a car to grab a few things from Coles, having multiple parks to take the puppy to, and generally seeing people out and about in my city. After growing up in a car-dependant city, this feels like I am living the walkable dream!
Special thanks to my partners who wrote the original paper with me, Theresa, Andrea, Calandra, and Bryanne. Without you, this blog post wouldn’t have happened. Thank you!
Bergeron, K. & Craigg, S. (2009). Making the case for active transportation: Bulletin #8 role for municipal decision makers. Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. Ottawa, Ontario. [News Bulliten].
Brown S.G., & Rhodes R.E. (2006). Relationships among dog ownership and leisure time walking in Western Canadian adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 30, 131–136.
Edwards, P., & Tsouros, A. (2006). Promoting physical activity and active living in urban environments: The role of local governments. The solid facts. World Health Organization. Retrieved March 10, 2012, from http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/98424/E89498.pdf.
Handy, S.L., Cao, X., & Mokhtarian, P.L. (2008). The causal influence of neighborhood design on physical activity within the neighborhood: Evidence from Northern California. American Journal of Health Promotion, 22 (5), 350-358.