Walkability imperative for Toronto neighbourhoods

With all the talk of attempts to bring jets to Billy Bishop Airport, gridlock in the city’s core, and the Downtown Relief Line subway proposal, it’s easy to forget the development and infrastructure issues facing those in Toronto’s suburban regions.

Areas such as Scarborough and Etobicoke have problems that deserve attention too, particularly when it comes to the walkability of neighborhoods in these out-of-the-core areas.

Indeed, while downtown Toronto grapples with overcrowding, many living in the city’s outlying regions have difficulty just walking from one place to another.

Whether it be a result of cul-de-sacs, a lack of sidewalks, or simply an unattractive streetscape, there are many parts of the city that don’t encourage walking.

A report from St. Michael’s Hospital’s Centre for Research on Inner City Health suggests car-friendly suburban sprawl may be more than just inconvenient and discouraging for pedestrians – there could be serious health risks involved.

According to the report, “living in sprawling low-density communities marked by a heavy reliance on cars and lack of walkable destinations is related to heavier body weights, lower levels of physical activity and increased risk of certain chronic conditions.”

In Peel Region, where sprawling low-density communities “have become a growing trend” in recent decades, researchers found the diabetes rate to be higher than in the rest of the province.

About 10 per cent of adults in Peel Region had diabetes in 2007, the report found, compared to the 2010 province-wide number of about 8 per cent.

While demonstrating a direct link between diabetes – or other conditions – and a region’s development may be all but impossible due to the number of factors involved, the health effects of our surroundings are worth careful consideration.

As possible solutions, the report recommends redeveloping parking lots, abandoned industrial and commercial sites, and increasing zoning density. It also advises consideration “be given to the ways in which physical barriers (such as parking lots, major highways and noise walls) and uninviting pedestrian-level aesthetics may discourage walking and bicycling in many areas of Peel.”

The Et Cetera supports these recommendations and believes the City of Toronto should consider them as well. Through consultations with researchers and experts such as those behind the St. Michaels Hospital Peel Region report, the City should work towards creating a healthier built environment, with special attention paid to areas outside the downtown core.

Even relatively minor improvements, such as beautifying pedestrian spaces, can go a long way towards encouraging healthier lifestyles.

Over time, the importance of improving walkability in communities will only be exacerbated as our population ages, resulting in a growing demographic who are unable to drive. This older demographic will require safe and accessible pedestrian infrastructure – but they aren’t the only ones. As the price of oil increases, driving will be a less viable option for the province’s population at large, meaning more and more Ontarians will rely on public transit and their own two feet to get around.

Whatever action is taken, it’s important for policy-makers, planners, and developers to remember that creating walkable environments isn’t just a whim of latte-swilling elites – it’s a matter of public health and, potentially, life and death.