Dr. Karen Lee grew up in the Edmonton area. But for the the past decade, she’s been helping cities around the world prevent obesity and other chronic diseases through community design.
“Neighbourhood design, street design, building designs are all actually really important components of helping people achieve the behaviour changes they’re trying to make,” Lee said.
The president and CEO of Global Fit Cities was recently back in Edmonton for the Winter Cities Shake-Up conference. She focuses on three aspects of a healthy environment:
“When you design communities to be more walkable, more bikeable and support active transportation, you can actually increase people’s physical activity levels by 35 to 160 per cent,” Lee said.
She describes an inviting sidewalk as a “room” with a floor (the sidewalk), a ceiling (trees, skyline) and walls (separation between the sidewalk and cars).
Active transportation also involves easy access to transit and amenities like grocery stores.
The city and state of New York provided incentives for major grocery chains to build smaller stores in high-needs areas by removing the sales tax on their construction materials.
Lee says public buildings once featured a grand staircase at the entrance. Now, stairs are often locked away for security reasons, making the escalator or elevator the only option.
She points to a Harvard University study that followed 10,000 men over 13 years.
“(The researchers) found that the men who climbed – on average – 20 to 34 floors of stairs per week… had a 29 per cent reduction in their risk of stroke.”
That works out to three to five floors of stairs per day.
In an ideal world, every neighbourhood would have a park, playground or recreation centre. Since that isn’t possible, Lee’s team came up with pop-up play streets.
Community groups in New York can apply for a permit to close streets to cars during certain hours on certain days.
According to Lee’s data, families used the street for an average of at least one hour per day. Most said that time would have otherwise been spent on the couch.
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