It makes sense that a city with a layout that encourages people to get up and moving would have a healthier populace. Now, a significant study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health confirms the link between human-powered transportation and the cardiovascular health of its population.
Based on a study that surveyed around 430,000 U.K. residents from 22 cities, between the ages of 38 and 73, researchers observed a strong positive association between a neighborhood’s “walkability” and lower blood pressure and incidences of hypertension. Though these effects were noted across the board, the study noted that walkable design had particularly “pronounced protective effects” for women and those aged 50 to 60. The results held true across the board, even when controlling for socioeconomic, lifestyle, and other demographic factors.
To quantify walkability, the team of scientists from the University of Hong Kong and Oxford University considered metrics like urban density (for both residential and retail spaces), public transportation options, street-level movement, and proximity to points of interest. Locations with lower scores tended to promote sedentary behavior, while higher-scoring locales effectively encouraged residents to make basic exercise a part of their daily routines.
The study is the latest data point in a growing body of evidence linking public health outcomes with design factors in the urban environment. As the study's lead author, Dr. Chinmoy Sarkar, sees it, conscious efforts to encourage walking can help reverse the otherwise negative health outcomes associated with city life. “With the increasing pace of urbanization and demographic shifts towards an aging population, we become more vulnerable to chronic diseases,” the assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Healthy High Density Cities Lab told The Guardian. “Public health interventions must consider the intangible value of urban planning and design.”
As for government officials who may not see the value of walkable cities, Dr. Sarkar puts it in terms they can understand: money. “We are spending billions of pounds in preventing and curing cardiovascular diseases,” he said. “If we are able to invest in creating healthy cities through small retrofits in the design of our neighborhoods to make them more activity-friendly and walkable, then probably we will have significant savings in future health care expenditures.”
With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, and more than 7 million Britons suffering from cardiovascular diseases linked to hypertension and high blood pressure, a study like this certainly seems worthy of attention. Coupled with the trend toward greener cities that prioritize more human-powered transport over cars, these findings will hopefully encourage local, state, and national governments to commit resources to smart urban planning in the future.