I love cities. In fact, given the choice, I would always take a bustling, noisy, chaotic city vacation over lying on a beach. I love cities for their arts and culture and overall crazy personalities, but through my work in health promotion, I have also come to love cities for their impact on how (and how much) we move.
Cities can be good and bad for health. Of course, if you are living in one of the cities in the world that has significant levels of air pollution, your chronic disease risk is higher than your suburban neighbours. There is also the issue of the impact of city living on mental health. Some studies indicate that those living in urban environments have less access to protective mental health factors (such as opportunities to be in nature, more privacy, less noise, and better sleeping conditions) than their rural counterparts. We also can’t ignore the fact that cities can be inherently more stress-inducing because of the issues related to working and living so close to one another other. But well-designed cities mitigate a lot of negative health impacts and can instead have an overall positive influence on your health.
Well-planned cities first and foremost encourage walking. Walkable communities are not only those that entice you to walk by way of beautiful seawalls and parks, they’re also those that encourage you to do more “utility walking” (walking to catch transit, buy groceries, go to restaurants etc.)
There was a recent analysis done on walkable communities and their impact on overall health outcomes. Here were some of the more notable results:
– For those living in areas of higher walkability, rates of obesity and diabetes are almost cut in half, and heart disease and high-blood pressure risk also drops substantially.
– Even with the demands of city life, those who live in walkable areas are 23 percent less likely to report having stressful days.
– People living in areas with access to greenspaces (think city parks) are more likely to walk for leisure, and they tend to meet physical activity guidelines more often than their suburban counterparts.
I feel so lucky to live in one of the most well-designed cities for physical activity in North America. Vancouver doesn’t just promote leisure opportunities (which are plentiful), but very purposefully invests in city design that encourages you to chose to leave your car at home. As a result, I work almost every day to interact with my city through movement.
Remember my post on forest-bathing? Let me introduce you to my city version: urban immersion. Whether you are a committed urban dweller, a city traveller, or someone who is thinking about eventually downsizing to more populated area, keep in mind that you can only truly experience a city on foot. Urban immersion means that if you allow yourself to be fully immersed in experience of walking (or running) through a busy urban environment, you can also practice mindfulness in the same way that you would in a more rural setting.
When all the other tourists are taking selfies in front of famous monuments, I’m the nerdy foreigner photographing sidewalks and bike lanes. My work encourages me to look at urban design differently – here’s how I seek out the best features for activity in a city:
1. If you are booking accommodation or looking for a new home, use walkscore.com. You can type an address into Walkscore and can get an overall number for walkability and access to services (higher is better). You can also get reviews of neighbourhood safety and a graph of the hills in the area (pro tip: more are better). Using your new-found knowledge about the neighbourhood, you can then use Google Maps for more detailed route information…
2. Use the little person and the bus icon on Google Maps. Are you visiting a new city and trying to figure out walking routes? If you use the little blue arrow on the top right side of the mobile app, Google gives you the choice to look at distances and best routes for walking, busing, and cycling. This includes bus numbers and stops locations. This leads me to my next point…
3. Take public transit. I love the saying, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Research has shown that public transit riders typically have a significantly lower body mass index and get much more daily physical activity than non-transit riders. Just getting to the bus provides and average of a ten minute walk each way. Putting your phone away on transit provides an amazing way to practice mindfulness; there are so many sights and sounds to keep you in the moment.
4. Look for areas with smaller blocks and a grid street design, rather than ones with winding roads. (I admit, Lombard street in San Francisco may be an exception to this rule.) Grids allow flow-through and encourage commuting by foot.
5. Seek out bike lanes. Yes, bike lanes are wonderful for actual cycling, but they have also have a hidden agenda. One of the main purposes of bike lanes in city design is to create the feeling of added separation from traffic by providing an extra lane between walkers and cars. Bike lanes make us feel safer.
6. Try an urban guerilla approach. I play a game on my run-commutes through the city that can also be used for walking between destinations. Here’s the rules: If you hit a stop light on your route, you can’t break your rhythm; you must use the opposing crosswalk with the green light. This might take you a slightly different route or might add a few minutes to your commute, but it’s a fun way to get through the city. I have found plenty of interesting things about my city in the course of urban guerilla commuting.
Cities are living, moving, and evolving creatures. They are places of history and art and culture and beauty. But they are also entities that require vast amounts of human movement to keep them operating. Through urban immersion we can use good city design to our advantage for both physical activity and engagement through mindfulness. If you want to see one of the most poignant examples of interacting with a city on foot, check out the new documentary The World Before Your Feet:
Your sister in health,
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