The Importance of Neighborhood Walkability

Mother and daughter walking to school.
Betsie Van Der Meer/Getty Images

The cities that rank highest on the list of “fittest cities” are all full of walkable neighborhoods. There are reasons, for this, of course: neighborhood walkability has been associated with higher rates of physical fitness and lower rates of cardiovascular disease and obesity.

What Is a Walkable Neighborhood?

“Neighborhood walkability” refers to how likely it is that you are able to walk to local shops, schools, and parks in your own neighborhood.

Can you walk to the grocery store from where you live, or do you have to get in your car to get to the store?

What are known as active modes of travel—walking or cycling, for example—have greater potential health benefits than driving a car, and greater potential to prevent obesity.

Link Between Walkability and Obesity

Several studies have now found that neighborhood walkability is associated with lower rates of overweight and obesity as compared to the same rates in neighborhoods that are more dependent on cars for transportation.

In one study that looked at self-reported commuting mode (categorized as private transport, public transport, and active transport) in over 15,000 residents of the United Kingdom, those who traveled to work using active and public modes of transport had significantly lower body mass index (BMI) than those who used private transport. (Private transport may include driving one’s own car and car pooling, for example.)

Not only did those who walked or cycled all or part of the way to work--as one might do by necessity when using public transit--have lower BMIs, but they also had lower percentages of body fat compared to those who got to work using their own private cars. Both men and women were found to reap the benefits of a more active mode of transportation.

Another study that looked at over 100,000 people living in urban and suburban Ontario, Canada, categorized neighborhoods based on the Street Smart Walk Score®, which the study authors describe as a “composite measure of neighborhood walkability.”

Based on this Walk Score®, researchers placed neighborhoods based on postal codes into one of five walkability categories, “ranging from very car-dependent to ‘Walker’s Paradise.’” Study participants who lived in the very car-dependent areas were found to have significantly higher odds of being overweight or obese as compared with those who inhabited “Walker’s Paradise” areas.

Furthermore, residents of “Walker’s Paradise” areas reported walking more for utilitarian rather than leisure reasons—walking to get groceries, for instance, rather than just out for a stroll. These residents were found to weigh an average of 3.0 kg (6.6 lbs.) less than those who lived in the very car-dependent areas.

The “Active Design” Movement

Findings like these have given rise to a new movement, the “Active Design” movement, in architectural, interior design, and city planning circles.

The idea is to design neighborhoods, communities, and even individual buildings such that people are encouraged to be more active in their daily lives—as with the principles of neighborhood walkability, for instance.

For more information on the burgeoning Active Design movement, check out the Center for Active Design’s “Active Design Guidelines” and other resources at: http://centerforactivedesign.org/guidelines/.

Sources:

Flint E, Cummins S, Sacker A. Associations between active commuting, body fat, and body mass index: population based, cross sectional study in the United Kingdom. BMJ 2014;349:g4887.

Chiu M, Shah BR, Maclagan LC, et al. Walk Score and the prevalence of utilitarian walking and obesity among Ontario adults: a cross-sectional study. Health Rep 2015;26:3-10.

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