The built form of our urban environment has a drastic influence on the health and lifestyle of Metro Vancouver residents, according to a new study by University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers.
The conclusion: suburban, car-dependent neighbourhoods lead to unhealthy lifestyles, while dense, walkable, transit-friendly neighbourhoods with plentiful parks encourage residents to be more physically active, among many benefits.
It also means Vancouver and parts of West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster have neighbourhoods that are far healthier than the suburban-dominant areas of the region.
Researchers at UBC’s Health and Community Design Lab partnered with multiple government agencies, local health authorities, and TransLink for their new study called ‘Where Matters: Health & Economic Impacts of Where We Live.’
The team also analyzed two data sets, with a combined statistical pool of over 50,000 individuals.
Until now, according to researchers, “very few studies have examined how transportation investment, neighbourhood walkability and access to green space are associated with less chronic disease and lower health care cost. To date, existing evidence used to inform major transportation investment decisions have rarely accounted for the potential health impacts and related costs of these factors.”
The research was led by Dr. Lawrence Frank, a UBC professor and the Bombardier chair in Sustainable Transportation and Public Health.
“There is an increasing consensus that the postal code of the neighbourhood where we live is as important as our genetic code,” wrote researchers.
“Our findings reveal that the type of neighbourhood you live in matters for your health. For this reason, it is important to recognize that the type of investments we make in our transportation infrastructure, and the resulting land use patterns of our communities, will ultimately impact the money we individually and collectively as a society spend on healthcare.”
The study’s key findings reveal stark contrasts between the lifestyle and health outcomes of the two types of urban areas.
Those who live in a walkable neighbourhood, compared to a suburban, car-dependent area, are:
Additionally, those who live in an area with six or more nearby parks (“near” is defined as within a one-km distance), compared to an area with no parks, are:
Furthermore, residents living within a walkable urban centre generally have lower healthcare costs compared to those living in a suburban area. The findings are also similar for those within a one-km distance of a number of parks.
Through its analysis of healthcare cost data, researchers also determined the following:
In real dollar figures, the differences in healthcare costs are stark — and when multiplied with the population affected, the costs are in the tens of millions. For example, diabetes-related costs are at $38,900 for someone living in a car-dependent area, whereas it is $17,600 for someone living in a walkable area.
Researchers hope policy makers will apply their research findings into policymaking, such as policies that not only expand public transit but also integrate such infrastructure investments with high-density walkable development.
Neighbourhoods should be designed to be oriented around walking and cycling, and entail ample parks, green space, and open space.
Furthermore, land use planning should support increased accessed to shops and services and overall land use mix and densification.
At the same time, however, policy makers of the healthiest areas of the region — specifically the City of Vancouver — are facing an uphill battle with creating a supply of housing that is affordable. The shortage in affordable housing for all incomes is pushing more and more people out of the city and into suburban, car-dependent areas.