|McKinnon Ravine is one of the many walking trails in Edmonton's river valley. File photo|
The city’s new Walkable Edmonton Toolkit offers a wealth of tips, strategies and information on making life more walkable, interesting and fun. As the City of Edmonton’s Integrated Service Strategy puts it, “a walkable Edmonton is a lively and robust place with interesting linkages between attractive places and safe walkways, integrating the built form, land-use patterns, public open spaces and streets.”
By making Edmonton more walkable, citizens of all ages can enjoy walking in safety in their neighborhoods, parks, trails and business districts. Experience in Europe and more recently in North America shows that by designing accessibility, good transit links, direct routes, safe street crossings, calm traffic and good connectivity, cities become healthier and more vibrant.
Urban design in the motorized age has placed pedestrian needs at the bottom of the urban design pecking order. Yet, As the Walkable Edmonton Toolkit notes, “every trip begins and ends on foot, and the more self-propelled we make the steps in between, the healthier we’ll be.
Since the 1980s, obesity rates in North America have risen rapidly. Faced with a crisis of obesity, Canadian cities are paying more attention to urban design and how it influences exercise levels and health of its citizens.
Research led by the University of Alberta and funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Information indicates there are connections between where Canadians live and how likely they are to be overweight or obese. “The State of the Evidence Review on Urban Health and Healthy Weights” found that neighborhoods that are more automobile dependent on more likely to have a greater proportion of residents packing extra weight.
The report concludes that the walkability of neighbourhoods and proximity to recreational facilities may also assist in promoting healthy weights. Factors such as urban sprawl and low residential density tend to promote sedentary behaviour and produce lower physical activity levels.
After all, why walk to the store 20 minutes or more away when you can hop in the car and be there in a few minutes? And what alternative do many citizens have when the temperature is minus 20 and the store is 10 or 20 blocks away?
But automobile ownership is expensive, with some estimates placing the cost at more than $7,000 a year, and suburbs gobble up an additional $2,000 per resident in road infrastructure. Air pollution from urban road travel has been estimated to cost society at least $15 billion per year.
As the Walkable Edmonton Toolkit explains, over the last half-century, urban designers have segregated land uses across a sprawled city, separating where we work, shop and go to school. “Activities that once sent us to the corner store ... now take us further afield – by car.”
In the words of Katrina Hedberg of the State of Oregon Health Division, we’ve engineered “an epidemic of obesity. I would hope we could engineer ourselves out of this as well.”
Increasing traffic means that shops, businesses and recreational facilities have evolved to serve the automobile, making it even harder for pedestrians and increasing traffic loads. In contrast, compact urban villages encourage walking by placing destinations closer together. Reduced parking demand opens more space for greenery, benches, sidewalk cafés and other inviting amenities.
Edmonton has had some successes with urban designs aimed at encouraging walking and other human powered modes of transport. The community garden at Bellamy Hill and 98th Avenue contains a natural walking path right through it, inviting everyone to explore the space.
The Fourth Street Promenade, which runs north from Jasper Avenue, has transformed 104th Street into a pedestrian-friendly shopping district. The former Canadian Pacific Railway right-of-way running north from the High Level Bridge between 109th and 110th Streets opened in 2003 as Ribbon of Steel, with landscaping, lighting, rest areas and interpretive features.
More such initiatives are on the way. Edmonton’s Downtown Plan calls for a heart of the city that is “sustainable, dynamic, well-designed, liveable and accessible,” much like it was until the days of rapid growth that followed the Second World War.
The plan identifies ways to make the heart of the city more of a magnet for people and a vibrant, exciting place, with walkable links to neighbourhoods that surround downtown and enhanced connections to adjacent river valley parks and trail systems.
The Walkable Edmonton Toolkit is a treasure trove of information and resources for walking with a group, and walking at work and school. There are destination walks to art, heritage and some great scenery. It offers ten tips for making communities more walkable, including organizing for advocacy, inviting participation through initiatives like design charrettes, developing a vision and working with city staff.
The toolkit is available at the City of Edmonton’s website online at: www.edmonton.ca/for_residents/CommPeople/WalkableEdmontonToolkit.pdf