People who live in walkable neighbourhoods and have access to parks in Metro Vancouver save the health-care system tens of millions of dollars each year, and have lower rates of chronic illness than those who don’t, according to a new study.
The report, called Where Matters, used data from two existing studies — the My Health, My Community Survey, and the B.C. Generations Project — and clearly shows the correlation between health and neighbourhood design, said study lead Lawrence Frank.
“That’s unusual. Then, we monetized all those results and showed wildly reduced health-care costs, relatively speaking, across the continuum of place types — from the most sprawling, exurban, car-dependent to the most walkable urban. That’s never been shown before, no one’s ever had that,” said Frank, who is a professor in sustainable transport and the director of the Health and Community Design Lab at the University of B.C.
Direct health-care costs — such as medication and hospital visits — for diabetes are 52-per-cent less for those living in walkable areas than in car-dependent areas. The cost for hypertension is 47-per-cent less, and for heart disease is 31-per-cent less.
Walkability is a measure of the physical characteristics of neighbourhoods that support walking, such as a higher concentration of housing units, a mix of land uses and smaller block sizes.
The direct health-care costs for those living near parks are also significantly lower. The spending on diabetes is 75-per-cent lower for people who live near six or more parks than those who live near zero to one park. The costs are 69-per-cent lower for hypertension and heart disease.
Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said at the report’s unveiling on Monday that containing costs is important in the health-care system, but it shouldn’t be the only reason to create healthy environments and improve the health of the population.
“We need to do this because our citizens value this. They value their good health, the good health of their family, their friends and their loved ones,” Daly said. “When municipal, provincial governments and other decision makers are thinking about what work needs to be done, they should be keeping this in mind.”
Daly said she hopes the report will give those decision makers good data to make healthy decisions.
The report also shows, unsurprisingly, that people who live in walkable areas and near parks get more exercise and are healthier.
Those living in a somewhat walkable area or a walkable area are 20- and 45-per-cent more likely, respectively, to walk for transportation than those living in car-dependent areas. They are also more likely to meet the weekly recommended level of physical activity.
People in walkable areas are 42-per-cent less likely to be obese and 39-per-cent less likely to have diabetes than car-dependent people. Those in moderately walkable areas are 17-per- cent less likely to have heart disease.
Living in a walkable area means people are 23-per-cent less likely to have stressful days. They are also 47-per-cent more likely to have a strong sense of community.
People living in an area with six or more parks are 20-per-cent more likely to walk for leisure or recreation, and 33-per-cent more likely to meet the weekly recommended level of physical activity than those living in an area with no parks.
They are 43-per-cent less likely to be obese, 37-per-cent less likely to have diabetes, 39-per-cent less likely to have heart disease and 19-per-cent less likely to have stressful days. Those living near six or more parks are also 23-per-cent more likely to have a strong sense of community belonging.
Frank said he hopes that the study will make those in power more comfortable acting on making investments in active transportation and developing policies around growth and development that support physical activity and active living.
Andrew Devlin, manager of policy development for TransLink, called the work “cutting edge” and said the onus will be on governments and agencies like TransLink to take the information and use it to create policy.
“I think what’s really unique to this piece of work, besides being a local data set for us to draw from to make decisions, is really the monetization element of it,” he said.
James Stiver, manager of growth management and transportation for Metro Vancouver, said the information will help with the future development of regional plans.
“This work is critically important to the work we do at Metro Vancouver and ties really nicely into the theme of the work we do connecting transportation to infrastructure to build complete communities,” said Stiver.
The project was a collaboration between Metro Vancouver, the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., the City of Vancouver, and TransLink, which contributed a total of $320,000 to the project, and the University of B.C.
“What makes it really cool is that all of these agencies are working together, and that’s what could make this region a better place,” said Frank.