An article in today’s Vancouver Sun (subscription required) reports on a new study showing that, in neighborhoods that are designed to make walking convenient, people do, in fact, walk more.  To wit:

People who lived the most walkable neighborhoods were 2.4 times as likely to walk for 30 minutes or more than those who lived in the least walkable communities.

The study’s authors, led by UBC professor Lawrence Frank, defined walkable neighborhoods as having three core characteristics: they’re compact, so that distances between destinations are shorter; their street grids connect, so that it’s convenient to walk from place to place; and they have a good mixture of stores and homes, so that  people have places to walk to in their daily lives.  In such neighborhoods, people walk because it’s a convenient form of transportation, not simply because it’s good exercise.

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  • The study has implications not only for transportation planning (places that encourage walking usually have less driving, lower per-capita spending on roads and fuel, etc.) but perhaps more importantly, for health.  A related study published last year showed that people who spend more time in their cars are more likely to be obese, compared with those who walk; and Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation warned last week that residents of sprawling suburbs, who depend on cars for virtually every trip, are at higher risk of heart disease than are city-dwellers who are more likely to walk or bike from place to place.

    But the UBC study, for me, raises one other core point: that our physical environments powerfully guide the choices that are seemingly made of our own free will.  Assuming that exercise is simply a matter of personal responsibility misses the point—which is that a poorly-designed place makes unhealthy choices (e.g., driving everyhwere) virtually inevitable.  After all, the people who live in compact neighborhoods are really no different than the people who live in sprawling suburbs:  they’re all making the most sensible transportation and exercise choices they can, based on the options available to them.

    This point—that our environments shape our behavior—is obvious enough, but it tends to get lost in most public debates.  For the most part, public health campaigns around obesity have been designed to educate people about the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet.  But as the rising tide of obesity shows, those campaigns have been completely trumped by an unhealthy human environment—one that offers abundant and inexpensive junk foods, and few good opportunities to exercise. 

    So perhaps the real public health campaign should start with designing neighborhoods where healthy choices are the easy ones, rather than the tough ones.