Built Environment

Active City: Designing for Health

The Active City: Designing for Health report focuses on the city’s physical built environment to create healthy places that encourage active living for all Torontonians.  The report outlines design principles to guide changes to neighbourhoods, streets and buildings that allow people of all ages and abilities to incorporate physical activity into their daily routines without extra costs for physical exercise. 

The following are the 10 design principles identified in the Active City: Designing for Health report.  These principles can be applied in combination, as many of the design features overlap.  Research has shown the most effective approach for influencing physical activity rates is to implement multiple interventions to different aspects and features of the built environment.

An Active City:

 1.     Shapes the built environment to promote opportunities for active living;

The city is not developed uniformly, due to historical development patterns some areas are more activity friendly than others. This is particularly relevant in areas like the inner suburbs, where neighbourhood design is less walkable and bikeable.  An Active city encourages collaboration between government levels to fund and support projects and investments in infrastructure that encourages physical activity.

2.     Has a diverse mix of land uses at the local scale;

Diverse land use mix refers to many uses integrated in one area, such as residential, office, retail institutional, entertainment, recreation, cultural and open spaces.  Compact neighbourhoods with a good mix of land use and streets that are designed for all users make it easier for people to maintain health through physical activity.  Generally research shows people are willing to walk about 400 metres or cycle 2.5 kilometres to get to a destination.  Mixed land use is considered the community design feature most likely to affect the walkability of neighbourhoods. 

 3.     Has densities that support a good provision of local services, retail, facilities and transit;

Higher densities of people, residential units and employment can support more local services, retail and higher levels of public transit.  These higher density destinations in close proximity make walking, cycling or public transit an easier choice. 

 4.     Uses public transit to extend the range of active modes of transportation;

Public transportation supports active transportation because people often walk or cycle as part of their trip.  Research indicates that the use of public transit contributes to increased activity levels by promoting walking.  Public transit also increases accessibility of farther destinations for people who don't have cars. 

 5.     Has safe routes and facilities for pedestrians and cyclists;

Real or perceived concerns about personal safety related to crime or violence or traffic safety can prevent people from using active transportation.  Parents may feel they are keeping their children safe by driving instead of walking to school; women tend to be more concerned than men about the safety of cycling in mixed traffic and the importance of lighting on walkways; and elderly people have indicated concern about the condition of sidewalks and the importance of benches for walking.  Addressing these concerns can also create more inviting environments for pedestrians and cyclists. 

 6.     Has networks which connect neighbourhoods to city-wide and region-wide routes;

Effective networks allow people to travel from one place to many others.  People should find it easy to combine different modes of transport and have access to a variety of routes.  It should provide fine-grained local networks that connect with arterial routes to enable longer travel by active transportation. 

 7.     Has high quality urban and suburban spaces that invite and celebrate active living;

Urban and suburban spaces should be not only functional but fun and exciting.  Whether an individual is looking for a calm, quiet oasis or a vibrant, exciting city scene, an Active City should provide and maintain many different, wonderful and inviting spaces where people want to go and linger.  This includes incorporating art, cultural and historical references that help give spaces a unique quality. 

 8.     Has opportunities for recreational activities and parks that are designed to provide for a range of physical activities;

Living closer to parks and recreation centres makes it easier to go and to use the space for sports and recreation.  Access to parks and open green spaces has been linked to positive mental health outcomes like decreased stress.  Green space may be particularly important for the mental health and well-being of urban residents seeking places to escape the noise and intensity of urban settings. 

 9.     Has buildings and spaces that promote and enable physical activity; and

Since Torontonians spend a fair amount of time inside, it makes sense to consider how a building's site and design can promote physical activity.  Encouraging stair climbing has been a primary focus for increasing physical activity levels indoors.  Studies indicate that increases in stair usage can effectively result in weight reduction.  And a few inexpensive prompts or signs can motivate people to step up. 

 10.     Recognizes that all residents should have opportunities to be active in their daily lives.

Studies indicate that socioeconomically disadvantaged residents, who tend to experience higher rates of chronic disease, are further deprived by living in areas with fewer opportunities for physical activity.   Changing the built environment to support active living is seen as a great equalizer – providing mobility, transit and walking opportunities regardless of ability or socio-economic status.  The Active City Principles envision communities that are inclusive to all.