New Toronto community purposely built to incorporate physical activity into everyday tasks

As athletes involved in the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games pack up to return home, the cancer control community applauds what they leave behind: a new Toronto community that’s been purposely built to promote a healthy lifestyle.

The West Don Lands site, which includes the CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Am Athletes’ Village, has sidewalks double or triple the usual size, designed to promote more walking and cycling. At its heart is the Corktown Common, a leafy green park with walking trails and splash pad, around which the neighbourhood radiates.

Pan Am athletes village
The Pan Am athletes village is shown in Toronto on Friday, June 19, 2015. Toronto has just played host to 6,100 athletes in 36 sports. Could the city do the same for 10,500 athletes in 28 sports. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Frank Gunn

Why does this matter to the cancer community? Because a growing body of evidence shows that an active lifestyle can play a key role in reducing cancer risks.

Regular physical activity, or 30 minutes of moderate physical activity such as brisk walking every day, can have a protective effect against a variety of cancers, as well as prevent obesity, which is also a risk factor for a variety of cancers.

People are more likely to be physically active when it’s easy for them to do so. The best way to make physical activity easy and convenient is through changes in the “built environment” that incorporate physical activity into everyday tasks.

Planners are now designing communities with infrastructure that makes it easy to use active forms of transportation, such as walking, biking or taking public transit.

The neighbourhood around the Athletes’ Village does exactly that – but it didn’t happen by accident. When planning the village, Toronto Public Health, in collaboration with Healthy Canada by Design and Urban Design 4 Health, customized a tool traditionally used by urban planners to analyze how the community’s design could have the most impact on active living.

They looked at community features such as residential density, or the number of people living in a defined space. They looked at the land-use mix, in terms of how much space was devoted for residential, retail or recreation. They examined the placement of schools and accessibility of food through stores or restaurants. They also looked at the frequency and availability of transit, the number of intersections in a given space and pedestrian accessible roads and bike lanes. These features were entered into a tool to determine what combination would result in the most walking, cycling and public transit trips, and ultimately a more physically active neighbourhood.

The Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, which acts as the steward of Canada’s national cancer strategy, helped fund this assessment through its Healthy Canada by Design program under the Coalitions Linking Action and Science for Prevention, or CLASP, initiative.

The tool found that more physical activity, lower body weights, better health and reduced “vehicular impacts” (such as greenhouse gas emissions) could be achieved with higher land-use mix, greater intersection and transit stop/station density, and by increasing retail space, retail food space and residential density.

Overall, the tool showed that with this mix, active trips, such as walking and cycling, would more than double. Transit trips would increase by a third. Automobile trips would decrease by almost half, leading to a 29% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per household.

Commuting on foot or bike is projected to increase by 40 per cent and 238 per cent, respectively.

These changes can help Canadians easily achieve recommended levels of physical activity, one of the factors that can influence a person’s likelihood of developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke or cancer.

The tool leaves a lasting legacy, as something that can be used by the City of Toronto into the future. It has also been successfully used in the rapidly expanding city of Surrey, British Columbia.

The Games galvanized the redevelopment of this community, giving Toronto a model neighbourhood that demonstrates what can happen when health impacts are considered in the same way as environmental impacts.

The emphasis on physical activity is a great reminder of the spirit of the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games and the qualities of health and wellness they represent.