What makes people want to walk?

A UCalgary research project aims to find out whether the built environment or the people who live there are the primary inspiration for walkable communities.

Sean Myers
University Relations
July 2017


What inspires people to walk more in their daily life?

Gavin McCormack seeks to find out if the neighbourhood makes the walker or if it’s the dedicated pedestrian who seeks out the walkable communities.

McCormack, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine, has received funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to investigate this question.

“Calgary, a relatively modern city, has been primarily built around the motor vehicle, meaning that in many neighbourhoods, especially in the suburbs, a car is needed to reach even local destinations,” says McCormack, who is also the co-chair of Walk21 Calgary. “But we’re seeing a lot of interest in making neighbourhoods more walkable, both from city planners and residents."

The CIHR Project Scheme grant will fund a three-and-a-half year study that will work with an existing provincial data set looking at whether changes in the neighbourhood built environment, such as pedestrian infrastructure, play a role in changing people’s walking behaviour as people relocate within a city, and if people who don’t typically walk very much become walkers when they move to a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood.

“There hasn’t been a lot of research done that allows temporal relations between the built environment changes and walking to be explored. Much of what we know about this relationship is based on cross-sectional data. We’re seeing in other parts of the world a growing preference for livable and more walkable communities,” says McCormack. “The City of Calgary has created strategies and policies around creating pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods, and this will become more important as the population ages and we look for ways to keep people active.”

McCormack is also an adjunct professor with the Faculty of Environmental Design. His research focus is on finding effective ways of building healthier, more active neighbourhoods to combat public health issues such as the obesity epidemic. This is also one of the focuses of Walk21 Calgary, an international conference being hosted by the University of Calgary Sept. 19 – 22.

Walk21 is an annual gathering of some of the top minds in fields ranging from public health to architecture to urban planners, who will come together with citizens, politicians and policy-makers to debate and discuss how best to nurture a culture of walking in Calgary. The City of Calgary, a partner in Walk21, has developed a pedestrian strategy to promote walking as a means of transportation, recreation and as a fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle. What’s needed in Calgary, says McCormack, is for residents to embrace it and developers to build it.

“In Calgary, what’s needed is a culture change away from habitually getting in the car to do everything from going to work to going to the local store,” says McCormack. “Right now, we find that people carry over their old behaviours and habits, so even if they move to a neighbourhood with better pedestrian infrastructure, some are still getting in the car to go everywhere, even to local neighbourhood shops.”

McCormack’s new study seeks to get at the heart of why residents of Calgary make the choices they do around walking, so interventions can be developed that encourage more walking and better decision-making that leads to healthier choices overall. Some developers are trying to stay ahead of the curve on this and have already begun creating more livable communities that include a focus on walkability.

Jayman BUILT, the main sponsor of Walk21 Calgary, has created Westman Village in Mahogany with walkability in mind. The community includes rental, condominium and retirement residences to appeal to Calgarians at all stages of life, and incorporates a network of walking trails that connect to the lake and the larger community of Mahogany. The inclusion of an amenity centre and retail shopping right in Westman Village means residents can get everything they need without getting in the car. Jayman believes a walkable community encourages connection among neighbours, offering both social and health benefits. 

“Our vision is for Westman Village to be a place where neighbours can access any amenity they need within walking distance — whether that is the daycare or playground, the barbershop, pharmacy or market,” says Jay Westman, chairman and CEO, Jayman BUILT. “Not only is that good for the individual, but also for building a community within a community.”

University faculty, staff and students have the opportunity to register for the Walk21 Calgary conference at a special rate. Learn more here. For anyone interested in getting involved, a number of volunteer roles and shifts are available throughout the conference. Contact walk21@ucalgary.ca to volunteer. 

McCormack’s grant was one of 30 CIHR Project Scheme Grants, totalling $16,434,428, awarded to University of Calgary researchers in a competition held in October 2016.


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