Dr. Meghan Winters is an advocate for healthy cities where air pollution rates are kept in check and residents engage in plenty of physical activity
Population health researcher Dr. Meghan Winters is an advocate for healthy cities where air pollution rates are kept in check and residents engage in plenty of physical activity. More specifically, she looks at how a city’s urban design encourages (or discourages) people’s activity levels, working with communities, city planners and advisory committees to encourage infrastructure projects that facilitate active transportation.
“I look at my work in terms of promoting physical activity rather than treating sickness,” she says. “I want to encourage people to incorporate more activity into their routines since inactivity is one of the biggest risk factors for many diseases.”
Her team at the SFU Spatial Data Lab specializes in geospatial data measurement to advance physical activity research and population health interventions. She is part of several SSHRC and CIHR-funded projects to identify best practices for promoting public health through walking, cycling, or transit for people across ages and abilities.
An avid cyclist, Winters is involved in BikeMaps.org, a collaborative effort of researchers at SFU and the University of Victoria. She and her colleagues are asking cyclists worldwide to map collisions, near misses and bike thefts they encounter. Data collected via the app will be used to empower cyclists to plan safer routes and to push planners to make infrastructure improvements.
To get an idea of how important her work could be towards addressing environmental and public health crises, consider Metro Vancouver. It consistently ranks as one of the most congested urban centres in North America, plus the city's population is projected to grow by 1 million residents by 2040. Encouraging people to choose active transportation methods could reduce the number of cars sitting in traffic, making a dent in emissions that are associated with increased mortality from heart and respiratory-related conditions.
Winters’ research indicates that it is more dangerous to be a pedestrian or cyclist in B.C. than it is to travel by car, when adjusted for trip frequency. A 2013 study she co-authored challenged common preconceptions about the safest ways to travel, highlighting the need for more safety measures for pedestrians and cyclists. She sees these findings as a call to action for cities to implement evidence-supported interventions such as adding more crosswalks, streetlights, and segregated bike lanes.
In addition to her work on “bikeability,” Winters is leading research to better understand what makes our neighbourhoods age-friendly. She and her team have developed a documentary-style video, “I’d Rather Stay”, targeted to both stakeholder groups and the public. It aims to direct attention to the challenges cities face in accommodating the aging demographic.
Unwieldy issues of sustainability and public health will take a concerted and sustained effort to address. But, through sharing research-based knowledge of how cities across Canada can be made more bikeable and walkable, Winters’ research is contributing to the solution.
“Health begins where we live, work, learn and play,” she says. “This means it is critical to ensure that cities are designed to promote health and mobility for people of all ages and abilities. My research program is generating locally-relevant evidence on how municipalities across Metro Vancouver and elsewhere can ensure that streets are safe and welcoming for healthy travel. “
Dr. Meghan Winters is an epidemiologist interested in the link between health, transportation, and city design. Her research focuses on ways that cities can play a role in promoting mobility and health for people of all ages and abilities. She has a focus on knowledge translation, including a partnership with the US company Walk Score to create “Bike Score”, now available for over 100 cities across North America, and a documentary-style video “I’d Rather Stay” which explores the realities growing older in one’s own home and neighbourhood. Dr. Winters teaches courses in GIS and public health, health and the built environment, and epidemiologic methods. She has received fellowship and grant funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.
Q & A with Meghan Winters
What motivates you as a researcher?
Our cities are changing around us every day. This brings infinite opportunities, small and large, to make decisions that could support healthier behaviours. I'm motivated to generate evidence and ensure it is shared with decision-makers to promote healthy communities.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Absolutely critical. In my applied population health program, the research I do is motivated by questions raised by my partners: decision-makers in municipalities, health authorities and advocacy groups. Their engagement in the research process is essential to success and is fundamental to having impact intersectorally.
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
In addition to engaged research, I have also built this into my teaching. Through the CityStudio program I teach courses which connect SFU undergraduate students with City of Vancouver staff to address challenges in today's city building. These experiences are creative and eye-opening for our students, and enable them to tap into their energy and knowledge to suggest real-world solutions.