Nfld. & Labrador

Making St. John's more walkable worth more than $100M over 10 years, say MUN researchers

Spending money to encourage more people to walk in St. John's could have significant health and economic benefits for the city and its residents, say the authors of a new Memorial University research paper.

Research finds encouraging a little more walking more could stimulate big benefits

Memorial University researcher Asia Holloway is one of the authors of a research paper measuring the potential financial and health benefits of walking in St. John's. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Spending money to encourage more people to walk in St. John's could have significant health and economic benefits for the city and its residents, say the authors of a new Memorial University research paper.

The health benefits of walking are clear, say the paper's authors: researchers Asia Holloway and Brianna Chafe, and MUN professor Daniel Fuller.

"We found that over a 10-year period if we doubled the amount of walking in St. John's we would see 18 premature deaths prevented and we would see an economic benefit of more than 117 million dollars," said Holloway, a master of public health student at MUN.

"Physical inactivity is strongly linked to pervasive chronic diseases in N.L., like obesity, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, and mental illness. The health benefits of physical activity are numerous including improving cardiovascular health, improving mental health by reducing anxiety and depression," says the paper, released in late August.

So if you can walk to a grocery store instead of driving … it'll make a huge difference.- Asia Holloway

Holloway says small changes could have a big impact.

"The research we did talks about doubling the amount of walking for people in St. John's. That equals three more minutes of walking a day for every person. So if you can walk to a grocery store instead of driving, that's more than a three-minute walk for most people, it'll make a huge difference," she said.

The paper says increased walking is more important to the total amount of health benefits than the the savings derived from cutting vehicle emissions.

Economic benefits

Using information gathered by Statistics Canada, surveys specifically about St. John's, and the World Health Organization's health economic assessment toolkit, the researchers also looked at the potential economic benefits of increasing walking in St. John's.

Holloway said the research suggests that if $3 million were invested annually by the City of St. John's to encourage walking, the benefit would be more than $10 million, from the reduced costs associated with conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, reduced emissions and operating costs from cars and trucks, and increased local spending by people walking and shopping in the city.

Evidence to support change

Holloway hopes the research will help spark changes that will make St. John's friendlier to pedestrians.

The City of St. John's has converted a downtown stretch of Water Street into a pedestrian mall for the summer. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"In terms of projects that go ahead in the city we really hope that this type of research can be the economic basis for such proposals as an extended period of time for the Water Street pedestrian mall or other types of infrastructural changes that would improve walking," said Holloway.

"We hope that this can be the kind of evidence that people need to support those projects."

Holloway says the City of St. John's is interested in becoming more walkable, and the researchers have ideas about how that can be achieved.

"Making sidewalks wider and making roads narrower would be a good thing," she said. "A lot of the time sidewalks or walking areas aren't well connected in this city, so working on that connectivity would also be good."

Avalon Mall area needs work

St. John's has a walking trail network thanks to the Grand Concourse Authority but it also has some glaring examples of places that don't work for pedestrians.

Holloway says the city of St. John's should consider making the Kenmount Road area more pedestrian-friendly. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

"Kenmount Road and the Avalon Mall area and then Thorburn Road, that whole area is very, very car-centric and it has so much potential to be a really walkable place."

Holloway said the mall's large parking lot could be redesigned.

"Instead of just expanding the mall more and more, maybe we can turn some of that parking lot space into green space and work on some walking trails that connect the mall area to some of the stores that are on Kenmount Road."

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About the Author

Mark Quinn

CBC News

Mark Quinn is a videojournalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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