Only one-third of the Irish population is meeting the minimum recommended 150 minutes of weekly physical activity, and the low levels of walking are contributing to long-term health problems.
A seminar held in University College Cork (UCC), hosted by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH), the Centre of Excellence for Public Health (Queens University Belfast) and the HRB Centre for Health and Diet Research (UCC) – was to explore how recent research in the North and South of Ireland can support national policy and local government planning to increase the walkability of our towns and cities.
Why walkability is essential: Dr Kevin Balanda, Associate Director of IPH, said that, “the low levels of physical activity across the island has many and will have many implications for public health in the future. Recent IPH studies suggest that by 2020 there will be large increases in the number of people with obesity-related chronic conditions. IPH forecasts that, by 2020, there will be 366,000 people with hypertension, 176,000 with diabetes and 29,000 with stroke. It is therefore highly essential that we reverse this trend by getting a more walkable population.”
Queens University Belfast’s Dr Mark Tully, said that, “in line with worldwide trends, only one third of the population meet the minimum recommended level of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity – such as walking or cycling – per week. Urgent action is required to tackle this inactivity epidemic. The goal of public health is to help more people be more active, more often. Neighbourhood designs that support healthier choices are essential.”
Dr Tully goes on to say, “A recent study in the United States shows that 37% of residents in high walkability neighbourhoods met the required levels of physical activity compared to 18% of residents in low walkability areas. Another factor that we have found in our own research in Northern Ireland is the importance of addressing people’s perceptions of where they live and encouraging people to explore their local neighbourhoods to find attractive places to engage in physical activity.”
Suburbs: UCC’s WIliam Brady talked about the census data from 2011 and that only 3% of the population in some of the cork suburb areas he studied, walk or cycle to work or school. This is due to a poor design of pedestrian routes and the distances people have to travel to get to basic amenities like schools, parks, shops, bus stops and work. Not surprisingly people overwhelmingly rely on passive forms of travel like a car for example.
Mr Brady goes on to say, “unfortunately, many of the suburban residential areas built over the last 20 years or so around the country don’t encourage, and in fact actually discourage, walking as a mode of transport because of physical barriers to walking and the poor quality of the pedestrian facilities. This means we will have to think of ways to ‘retrofit’ these suburban areas in order to introduce walkability through creating attractive pedestrian-only and pedestrian-oriented walkways in suburbs as well as town and city centres. This may involve partially removing or breaching existing boundary walls within many housing estates, widening and enhancing existing links with lighting, landscaping measures and making improvements to green and open spaces throughout residential areas.”
Professor Geraint Ellis, Queen’s University Belfast adds that, “improving the walkability of our towns and cities demands the combined efforts of those working in planning and public health as well as the management of public services such as parks and public transport. This can be strongly supported by good knowledge exchange partnerships with universities that helps set up a virtuous circle between research and the implementation of policy and practice.”