Neighbourhood of good intentions

Couple walks down sidewalk, holding hands, towards a row of houses

They call it the New Year’s Eve effect. Even the most impassioned resolutions and best intentions to get physically fit often go unrealized when challenged by the pressures of daily life.

“Humans are generally convenience-oriented,” explains Peter Hall, associate professor in Waterloo’s department of Kinesiology. “The environment in which we live can make it easier or more challenging to follow through with one’s intentions.”

Hall, a clinical psychologist specializing in health behaviour change, says we need to look no further than our backyard to see the slippery slope. “Many suburban communities built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s were designed as homogeneous oases, allowing us to separate where were live from where we do everything else. As a consequence, we have become reliant on automobiles for daily activities—decreasing opportunities for physical activity and increasing the risk for chronic disease.”

The solution? Re-design neighbourhoods for optimal walking convenience: make the healthy choice the easy choice. To investigate the relationship between a neighbourhood’s built environment and the physical activity patterns of its residents, Hall has joined forces with John Lewis of Waterloo’s School of Planning.

“John is concerned with the extent to which urban spaces present barriers to physical activity,” explains Hall. “I’m interested in how to remove barriers and help people translate their intentions into action. Our research is a bridge where health meets environment.”

Their latest laboratory consists of two communities under development in Kitchener, Ontario. Located about 1 km apart, the neighbourhoods have young family demographics, similar housing, and mixed-use design by RBJ Schlegel, an innovative developer interested in the principles of walkability.

Using a these neighbourhoods as settings for a series of “natural experiments,” Hall and Lewis are examining how introduction of specific neighbourhood features facilitate everyday activity, and potentially help translate one’s intention–to say, attend the gym or walk to the grocery store–into actual behaviour.

“Whether making it possible to work-out around the corner, walk up the hill for groceries, or take a safe, accessible path to the nearest playground, we need to eliminate barriers and increase opportunities to become more physically active,” says Hall. “Otherwise, all we’re left with is good intentions. Good intentions are a necessary ingredient, but not the complete recipe.”