Researchers Ask: If We Build Walkable Neighborhoods, Will People Walk?

A team at the University of Alberta (Canada) is studying the factors that influence the decisions made by key stakeholders involved in neighborhood development.

Researcher Marianne Clark in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation interviewed 17 stakeholders in neighborhood development, including public health and municipal employees, city councilors, and private sector stakeholders including land developers and food retailers.

We asked about their definition of a healthy neighbourhood. What they thought their role was; what facilitated their efforts to build healthy neighbourhoods and what barriers they experienced. We also wanted to know about “food security”—in essence the importance of the proximity of grocery stores with affordable healthy food choices.

There were varying views among stakeholders as to whether walkable neighbourhoods are really going to make that much of a difference in making people active. While municipal employees and public health officials believed deeply in the value of these neighborhoods, developers generally thought the extent of their responsibility was limited to market and consumer demands. They were also sceptical of the notion of “if you built it, they will walk.” According to developers, it’s up to the individual whether they choose to walk or not, regardless of the design of the neighborhood, but they also acknowledged that our social norms and customs are very entrenched in car culture.

—Marianne Clark

Private sector stakeholders said that people generally see success as having a single-family home.

To create affordable housing, you have to build in the suburbs. There’s a social hierarchy thing going on that may not change or disappear just because neighbourhoods are built more walkable or dense. There’s also the car culture and the consumer culture [to contend with].

—Marianne Clark

Car dependency/reliance—the need to be able to drive everywhere easily from home, was mentioned by all stakeholders interviewed, as pervasive in Edmonton, notes Clark. Land developers also noted Edmonton’s cold climate and plenty of space to keep pushing the boundaries of Edmonton, also lent to the pervasive car culture.

Budget was another commonly-cited constraint.

In a surprise finding, Clark says, “People’s access to good, healthy food, such as at affordable grocery stores was not generally perceived as a problem. Edmonton has a very diverse range of socio-economic status (SES) neighbourhoods and populations. (This fact) was overlooked by most stakeholders, but city councilors were more aware and spoke to it most directly.

What all stakeholders agreed on was that to build neighborhoods so they were conducive to healthy, active lifestyles involved collaboration from all stakeholders when neighborhood developments were in the planning stages.

There are lingering tensions about what the end results of these neighborhoods might actually be; where the responsibilities lie in terms of public and private sectors. That question is more complicated than what we’ve thought it was before. When we look at this issue, though, we need to look at the broader societal issues. We may be naïve to think that if we build these great neighborhoods that everything’s going to change and everyone’s going to starting walking more and be more healthy.

—Marianne Clark

Clark’s study was published in the journal Health & Place and is part of a larger research project headed by Tanya Berry on the impact of the built environment on BMI (body mass index.)

Contacts:

Resources

  • Marianne I. Clark, Tanya R. Berry, John C. Spence, Candace Nykiforuk, Marie Carlson, Christopher Blanchard (2010) Key stakeholder perspectives on the development of walkable neighbourhoods. Health & Place, Volume 16, Issue 1, Pages 43-50 doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2009.08.001


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