Photo credit: Regina Chan.

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How can we make our cities healthier and happier by design?

September 16, 2020
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By Courtney Ross

Leaders around the world are contemplating how to re-invent cities to promote physical activity, relaxation and social connectedness while allowing people to stay safely apart and out of their cars. Infrastructures like greenways, parklets and slow streets have emerged as exciting—although expensive—urban solutions to the dual crises of climate change and COVID-19. Yet we know surprisingly little about how these investments impact health and wellbeing at a local level, including how and who they benefit.

This week, the Interventions, Research, and Action in Cities Team (INTERACT), a Canadian research group co-led by SFU health sciences professor Meghan Winters, is launching the second wave of a five-year study to fill this knowledge gap, and they’re asking Vancouverites to get involved.

INTERACT is a national collaboration of scientists, public health experts and city partners using big data and new mobile sensing methods to provide governments with evidence that informs future investments in healthy cities.

“Our cities are living laboratories,” says Winters, “INTERACT has a rare opportunity to study ours as it goes through a turning point in history.”

While the context of city living may have changed since the study began two years ago, INTERACT’s core research question remains the same, and may be even more relevant: How do we create cities that are healthier and happier for everyone, by design?

Since its launch in 2018, INTERACT has been engaging with thousands of Canadians across four cities to evaluate the health impacts of real-world urban design interventions that represent an investment of more than $225M.

“Designing spaces that make it easy to be active and interactive is a big priority for cities,” says Winters. “There is lot to learn before we can be confident that the changes we invest in today will positively impact the vitality of our communities tomorrow. We need better data to get to that point.”

In Vancouver, INTERACT is assessing how developing urban infrastructures like the Arbutus Greenway influence the physical activity, wellbeing and social participation of nearby residents, and whether these impacts are felt equally across different socioeconomic groups.

Kevin Connery is a City of Vancouver landscape architect and a leader of the Arbutus Greenway project leader since 2016. He says a tremendous amount of work and community involvement has helped shape the greenway’s long-term vision of delivering social, environmental and economic benefits to Vancouver residents and visitors.

“With the construction of the temporary greenway, and our collaboration with INTERACT, we have been able to assess many of our design assumptions and consider future possibilities,” he says. “Being able to measure if the anticipated benefits are being realized at the population health level is something we haven’t been able to definitively determine in the past; it is very exciting to bring measurable and tangible benefits to the community with INTERACT’s work.”

INTERACT is currently recruiting Vancouverites who live west of Ontario Street between False Creek and the Fraser River to join the study. Participants do not need to use the greenway; in fact, more people who don’t use it are needed. Research activities are all done with the ease of a computer or mobile device, and participants will be entered to win one of 10 $50-VISA-gift-cards.

To learn more about the study and how you can help to advance the science on healthy urban development in Vancouver and beyond, visit www.teaminteract.ca/vancouver.