Pedestrian-friendly city should be priority for all


Walkability needs to be an issue for consideration in the suburbs as well

By Daphne Bramham,
Vancouver Sun October 8, 2011

Fact fatigue. I’m suffering from it after three days at the international Walk21 Conference and don’t quite know how to knit it all together.

So, here are some of the things I jotted down during the downtown meeting of 540 planners, physicians, engineers, architects and advocates.

It’s chic to be carless. People are willing to pay more – a lot more – to live in neighbourhoods where they can either walk to every imaginable amenity (including work) or have easy access to transit. Look no further than Yaletown, Coal Harbour, Gastown or most of Vancouver for proof. It’s happening worldwide.

But Daniel Sauter of Zurich’s Urban Mobility Research warned that as richer people crowd into city centres, the poor are pushed to where housing is cheaper in suburban areas that are generally badly served by transit, and often have fewer parks and amenities.

“The more successful we are [in promoting urban walkability], the more crucial it is that we think about the counter-effects of gentrification,” he said. “We have to think about that even as we advocate for improvements. Walkable cities are not just places for the well-to-do and tourists.”

The poor gain the most health benefits from walkable neighbourhoods. Low-income people have the highest rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity and chronic stress. That’s why British physician William Bird said poor neighbourhoods are most in need of retooling. Recognition of that fact is the primary reason the 2012 Olympic Park is being built in a financially disadvantaged, East London neighbourhood, he noted.

Inactivity accounts for four to six per cent of health care costs in Canada and the United States. That means health care spending could be reduced by five per cent if only people started walking.

350 calories. That’s how many there are in an apple tart or a pizza slice, according to Larry Frank, a professor at University of B.C.’s school of community and regional planning. He said it’s also the amount of energy a cyclist needs to travel about 16 kilometres (10 miles), a walker uses over 5.6 kilometres (3.5 miles), and an automobile needs to go 30 metres (100 feet).

Only 15 per cent of the suburbs are truly walkable and most North American development is suburban. Changing that means creating transit nodes, walking corridors, and increasing density with more infill housing and multifamily housing, according to Alex Taranu of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. But people will only walk if they have a sense of place, he said. That means to be successful, retrofitting the suburbs also means preserving green space (including agricultural fields) as well as heritage buildings.

Ninety-eight per cent of urban infrastructure is built at the time of development. That makes retrofitting communities more expensive than building new ones. It’s also more disruptive. The governments as well as Cambie Street merchants and residents learned that during the Canada Line construction.

By 2026, there will be an estimated 10.4 million seniors in Canada. That’s nearly five times the current number. And, as Daryl Rock of the Rick Hansen Foundation noted, seniors are four times more likely to have physical disabilities.

One challenge in preparing for the grey wave is that Canada’s accessibility standards are outdated, he said. Drawn up more than 30 years ago, they’re geared to wheelchairs and walkers, not electric scooters.

Design – not height – matters. Daniel Fusca, a planner with Project-Walk Canada, studied more than 60 highrises in the Toronto area. What he found is that if buildings have shops or homes at ground level, if they have few blank walls, if they’re set back further from the street and designed to minimize wind, the pedestrian’s experience is no different if the building is 10 storeys or 100.

Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council has a high concentration of staff from Vancouver and Seattle. That’s how Rory Renfro and his consulting firm from Portland, Ore. ended up designing three cities in the United Arab Emirates that are pedestrian, cyclist and even jogger-friendly. They used sustainability principles pioneered on North America’s West Coast and adapted them for the heat by using more covered walkways and siting buildings to maximize breeze and shade.

Inactivity costs B.C.’s health care system $573 million a year. Despite fact fatigue, I went looking for this statistic after the conference because of the concurrent debate about raising the gas tax by two cents a litre to pay for SkyTrain expansion and more buses. I also went looking for this.

Over the next three years, more than twice as much will be spent on highways than on transit. Between 2011 and 2014, the B.C. transportation ministry will spend $1.75 billion for highway construction and road maintenance. The Crown-owned Transportation Investment Corp. will spent $1.37 billion on the Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 expansion. Transit spending for this time period is projected as $1.126 billion.

With so many facts available, all levels of government should maybe reconsider the metrics they use for evaluating projects. It might change the conclusions they reach about their spending priorities.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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