Urban design and opportunities for physical activity
Urban design has a significant effect on creating a supportive environment for healthy and active populations. Combinations of built environment strategies maximize impact for physical activity among all age groups.
Policy at the federal level
The report Let’s Get Moving calls on municipal leaders and community planners to prioritize the design of accessible and inclusive and public spaces to increase recreational and utilitarian physical activity.
The availability of physical activity opportunities such as green spaces, parks, and recreation facilities along with planning well-connected street networks in proximity of shops, schools, housing, and employment opportunities, are good examples of active urban design.1
Many jurisdictions have adopted policies specific to recreation, including trail development, community centre construction, or outdoor sports infrastructure such as soccer and cricket fields, baseball diamonds, skateboard parks, running tracks, outdoor fitness equipment, basketball and tennis courts, ice pads, and swimming pools.
Enhanced public transit, walking, and cycling infrastructure may impact individual behaviours and total physical activity.2,3,4
Population density, built form, street connectivity, walking/cycling infrastructure, and land-use mix may increase physical activity among adults.
Neighbourhood aesthetics along with green and open spaces may increase physical activity among both adults and older adults, particularly when safety is improved.
Road street design, access to facilities and amenities, and neighbourhood walkability/facility index probably increase physical activity among all age groups.
Provincial/territorial urban design policy analysis
The degree of policy adoption is LOW—no or very few jurisdictions have adopted evidence-informed policy action, and/or the breadth of the policy action is limited in scope. This rating is expected as direct policy action related to this domain is primarily municipally governed. While there is an opportunity for provinces and territories to provide policy guidance and/or funds, municipalities are often ultimately responsible for implementing this policy action.
- Acts or regulations related to active urban design exist in all provinces and territories. However, these tend to be enabling policies rather than policies which have a direct impact on increasing physical activity in the population. For example, Planning Acts require local governments to create land-use policies with general provisions related to recreation and transportation. Direct policy actions related to active urban design tend to exist at regional, municipal, or local levels.
- Several provinces and territories have action plans or strategies that outline priorities and goals related to active urban design. Only a handful of provinces and territories have implemented policies that directly impact the creation of healthy and active spaces for communities:
- Québec’s Bicycle Policy aims to improve infrastructure for cyclists in urban settings. Similarly, their Public Transit Policy aims to increase public transit ridership by investing in and improving public transit infrastructure and equipment.
- Ontario’s Provincial Policy Statement provides guidance on how to design active and healthy communities and calls for open public spaces that facilitate active transportation and recreation and provide access to shorelines. The policy statement also requires land-use planners to provide:
- an appropriate mix of residential, employment, recreational and open spaces to support healthy, livable, and safe communities to planning active and healthy communities.
- a range of housing types and densities to support the use of alternative transportation modes and public transit in areas where it exists.
- British Columbia’s Cycling Policy takes a creative approach to improving bicycling infrastructure at the provincial level by requiring new or upgraded highways to include provisions for cyclists.
- The Active Alberta policy takes a holistic approach to improving the health and wellness of the population through recreation, active living and sport. One of the priorities of the policy is to increase the use of active transportation by implementing best practices in land use and transportation planning.
- Provinces and territories have an opportunity to increase the population’s level of physical activity through stronger policy action related to land-use planning that supports active and healthy communities.
- Provinces and territories can commit to providing local governments with additional supports to make cities, towns, and villages more active. Canadian examples of these include Ontario’s Route to Healthier Communities and Montreal’s Urban Design and Mobility Plan. International examples include Urban Design Protocols from New Zealand and Australia.
Municipal urban design policy analysis
The degree of policy adoption is HIGH – most jurisdictions have adopted comprehensive evidence-informed policy action. This rating is expected as direct policy action related to this domain is primarily municipally governed. While there is an opportunity for provinces and territories to provide policy guidance and/or funds, municipalities are often responsible for implementing this policy action.
- Policies related to active urban design exist across 26 of 31 (84%) scanned municipalities.
- Active transportation and active urban design policies tend to appear in tandem, likely due to the close linkage between the two.
- Policies which are intentional with an overt focus on active urban design principles allow for a greater exploration of causes, need, implementation considerations, and innovative strategies, and are seen as a strong approach to encouraging physical activity. This approach could be considered across all municipalities.
- Many municipalities embed active urban design principles within related policies such as trail and pathway plans as seen in Brampton and Whitehorse, active transportation policies including Moncton and the Region of Peel, cycling plans such as Toronto and Ottawa, mobility plans similar to Hamilton’s, park management plans including Edmonton and Victoria, and London’s and Hamilton’s open spaces policies.
- Active urban design principles can take a variety of forms such as Fredericton’s and Charlottetown’s downtown and city centre master plans, Saint John’s and Toronto’s official community design plans, Ottawa’s and Brandon’s greenways/greenspace plans, and Edmonton’s and Calgary’s street policies and/or urban design guidelines.
- Municipalities which do not have an active urban design policy consist primarily of either large or rural geographic regions, or regions with small populations which may point to a low need or desire from community members for such infrastructure, lack of financial resources, and/or implementation challenges.
- Active urban design is referenced within some zoning bylaws, municipal acts, development regulations, and similar policies but are typically not the primary focus or intention of such policies.
- Unlike some municipalities which will have a policy specific to active transportation; active urban design is more elusive, loosely embedded within existing frameworks. Not spotlighting active urban design principles may be seen as weak and not a high priority for the municipality. Building actively designed urban spaces is a crucial mechanism to permanent behaviour change and should be encouraged across all municipalities.
Small urban centres and rural areas experienced population growth during the COVID-19 pandemic as some residents moved from major urban centres to suburbs and small towns. This trend presents significant challenges for planners who are now faced with populations demanding similar services found within cities, including access to reliable public transit, safe cycling infrastructure, and recreation opportunities. More research is needed to determine the long-term effects of the evolving pandemic on urban design, physical activity, and cancer rates.
Regional/municipal active urban design policies in Canada
|Type of policy
|Examples from included municipalities
|Edmonton; Saskatoon; Region of Peel; Fredericton; Moncton; Montreal; Quebec City
|Surrey; Victoria; Calgary; Edmonton; Saskatoon; Hamilton; London; Ottawa; Toronto; Fredericton
|Surrey; Victoria; Calgary; Hamilton; Ottawa; Toronto
|Trail and Pathway
|Whitehorse; Hamilton; Brampton; Fredericton
|Calgary; Hamilton: Fredericton; Halifax; Longueuil
|Whitehorse; Yellowknife; Surrey; Vancouver; Victoria; Calgary; Edmonton; Regina; Saskatoon; Winnipeg; London; Ottawa; Brampton; Toronto; Fredericton; Moncton; Saint John’s; Halifax; Charlottetown; Summerside; Montreal
|Edmonton; Victoria; Surrey; Calgary; Hamilton; Ottawa; Fredericton
|Ottawa; Brandon; Surrey; Hamilton
|Edmonton and Calgary
Table presents links to relevant policies across 31 included municipalities. This table is for educational and reference purposes only and is not meant to be an exhaustive summary of all active policies in Canada.
1 - International Society for Physical Activity and Health. 2021. Resources. https://www.ispah.org/Resources/
2 - Mölenberg, F.J.M., Panter, J., Burdorf, A., & van Lenthe, F.J. 2019. A systematic review of the effect of infrastructural interventions to promote cycling: strengthening causal inference from observational data. The International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity 16(1): 93. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31655609/
3 - Kärmeniemi, M., Lankila, T., Ikäheimo, T., Koivumaa-Honkanen, H., & Korpelainen, R. 2018. The Built Environment as a Determinant of Physical Activity: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies and Natural Experiments. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 52(3): 239-251. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29538664/
4 - Tcymbal, A., Demetriou, Y., Kelso, A., Wolbring, L., Wunsch, K., Wasche, H., … Reimers, A.K. 2020. Effects of the built environment on physical activity: a systematic review of longitudinal studies taking sex/gender into account. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine 25(1): 75. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33246405/