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Walk 21 – Vancouver, BC

Oct 28, 2011

by Graham McGarva, Founding Principal, VIA Architecture

The 12th annual Walk 21 International Conference was held this year in Vancouver, BC from Oct 2nd to October 5th . These conferences work to “create a world where people are able to walk as a way to travel, to be healthy, and to relax.”

As the bi-pedal of poetry and mathematics were brought together, the Doctors (as in medical doctors who presented at the conference), emerged in the lead as advocates for active transportation.

Many of their presentations pointed out that they could do little, just help people with their pain when it is already too late. It is, in fact, planners who save lives.

Dr. William Bird, leader of the Natural England and Intelligent Health NGO’s in the UK, gave us the math “3-4-50”; the blunt fact that in our western world, three behaviors — poor nutrition, lack of physical activity, and tobacco use — contribute to four diseases: heart disease/stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and respiratory conditions, such as asthma. These diseases result in over 50 percent of all deaths.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) September 2011 Conference on Non-Communicable diseases resoundingly concluded that despite global media concern over the transmission of communicable diseases (AIDS, SARS, Ebola virus etc.), in terms of impact and threat it is non-communicable disease that is the new global epidemic.

If this appears to be a circular reference of rhetoric that leaves you feeling at all cynical, then Dr. Penny Ballem, the City Manager for Vancouver, spelled it out in simple arithmetic. If education spending were kept at 27% of the provincial budget and health costs kept growing at 8% with a continued rate of revenue growth of 3%, then the health costs in 2018 would rise to 72% from 42% in 2005. Under the premise of a balanced budget, health costs would have vacuumed up all of the public purse.

Now that we had been grabbed by our purse strings, we were all paying attention.

The resounding conclusion of the poets and the doctors is simple: improving our health habits will lead to improved quality of life and result in significant savings to taxpayers.

1 in 6 people in North America have some form of disability. Walking, rather than obesity, is the issue. Despite the billions of dollars spent on advertising lean products, calorie counting means nothing if you don’t get off your butt. The best improvements are seen in those who go from least active to slightly active ( from there the geometric scale flattens out).

And as we collectively drag our buttprints across the sands of time Dan Leeming, Principal of Planning Partnerships in Toronto, reminded us it took 100,000 years to learn to walk upright and only 60 years to undo it.

Larry Frank, Professor at the University of British Columbia, translated this into the transportation planning perspective that the 350 calories in a pizza will get a cyclist 10 miles, a pedestrian 3.5 miles and an automobile 100ft.

Much policy has been based on “decision based evidence making.” 99% of US transport funds have been dedicated to things other than ped/bike (active transportation).

The current leading edge of research, not surprisingly, is on the hidden health costs of transportation. The engineers are not necessarily the problem as the distinction is increasingly being made that connectivity is the key versus proximity. People’s perceptions are all important.

Gordon Price’s “Motordom” has become the defining reality of our suburban environments – with every message screaming impediment to the latent pedestrian that is trapped inside every car. And for a century each generation of children has been confined within decreasing orbits of autonomous locomotion.

We have corralled ourselves in and fattened ourselves up for the slaughter. It is up to us to rethink the boundaries that we place in the path of our daily lives. Thus walkability and connectivity are what the doctors’ prescribe for our health dollars, engineers for our transportation dollars, and urban planners for our design dollars.

In short, every curb radius counts.

It was a great conference, with lots of the multi-disciplinary enthusiasm without which nothing great will ever be achieved. So I ended my conference enthusiastically walking through the future that will be Surrey City Centre – the largest (and most walkable?) urban environment in British Columbia.