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ELISE STOLT: Researcher bets new infill design could make entire neighbourhood healthier


Does your neighbourhood sabotage efforts to get fit?

One Calgary study found residents living in neighbourhoods with grid streets and shops nearby were up to six centimetres thinner around the waist, on average, than peers living in suburban car-dominated communities.

But that effect was only found when comparing low-income neighbourhoods, and no one could answer the chicken and egg question: Did people move to the neighbourhood because they already liked walking, or did the neighbourhood itself get them reaching for sneakers?

That’s why the University of Alberta’s new research partnership with Christenson Developments piqued my interest.

On Tuesday, public health expert Karen Lee received a $4.4 million grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada to study which physical changes in two new developments will make the biggest difference to residents’ health, and to measure the residents’ health before and after the projects get built.

One project is the Southwoods townhouse site in Hazeldean, where developer Greg Christenson says he hopes to start construction on a new dementia centre and second low-rise apartment building this fall. Project 2 is his new seniors-focused development in Whitecourt.

Waist circumference is just one measure of health, but obesity is a major risk factor for all sorts of chronic illnesses, from heart disease to diabetes and some cancers. In addition to the Calgary study, dozens of research projects have found similar ties between neighbourhood design and physical activity in the last decade, and it’s easy to picture why. Getting active is hard when it requires a special trip to the gym.

Lee’s team will be surveying and working with residents, not just in the new buildings, but throughout the neighbourhood to see if better paths and nearby destinations get them walking. She’s also hosting workshops with the architects, designers and bureaucrats from both the province and city so that the lessons learned can be incorporated into broader design guidelines.

Christenson already has some ideas for the 19-acre infill site. He’d love to add heated sidewalks on key routes and wants to convert a townhouse at the corner of 66 Avenue and 96 Street into a cafe. That would support the small commercial centre already across the street, at the heart of Hazeldean. Gradually, the hub would be redeveloped to support a whole row of shops with at least three-storeys of condos above, creating a village centre and destination for walkers.

It would be similar to Ritchie Market, one neighbourhood north. But that’s intentional. It would support a pattern in Edmonton — village centres spaced just far enough apart to be easy to walk to, supported by medium-density development ensure a good customer base for small business.

People would still drive or take transit to travel across the city, but small errands could be done on foot.

As a side benefit, the mix of housing styles means seniors, empty nesters and low-income residents all have space in the same neighbourhood as families in single-family homes, says Christenson. That’s a “complete community.”

Lee just moved back to Edmonton after working as an advisor in New York on its active city guidelines. She sees this as the next health frontier after smoking, where government regulation has already made a dramatic difference.

Current medical consensus recommends 70 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, at minimum, says Lee. For children, it’s 60 minutes of moderate exercise a day. But some studies suggest just five per cent of children meet those recommendations.

People know they need to do better. That’s not the issue, she says. “These are top New Year’s resolutions. But people are failing because our environment is not supportive enough.”

That’s why I love this idea. I’ve had those resolutions. I don’t always make it to the gym, but when I can build exercise into my daily routine, I thrive. My whole outlook on live improves.

Each time I write a column in support of council’s goals to densify the city, I hear from residents frustrated with the very idea. But when density is done well, this is the type of outcome we can get. It’s not banning vehicles or cramming people in like sardines. It’s creating a village to give people healthy options and a place to belong.

estolte@postmedia.com

twitter.com/estolte

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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