The health of a neighbourhood can't be measured by physical activity alone — plenty of other factors go into it as well
Illustration by Pop Winson
Just as being a healthy person depends on a number of factors — diet, exercise and genetics, just to name a few — the health of a neighbourhood is equally complex. Here in Edmonton, recreational opportunities abound in residential areas, from playgrounds to outdoor ice rinks. But physical activity is only one piece of the puzzle.
“There’s also social and mental health, ecological and environmental health, and community engagement,” explains Kalen Anderson, director of urban policy and analysis with the City of Edmonton. These components often overlap: Recreational activities can strengthen a neighbourhood’s social fabric, while environmental initiatives give a boost to Mother Nature and, in turn, to our own health. And access to natural areas benefits physical and mental health.
So, which neighbourhoods does Anderson think are among the healthier in Edmonton? She believes one is downtown. “There has been a big change in the last 15 years that’s transforming it into a vibrant and complete community,” she says. “What makes it healthy is its walkability and its access to transit. It’s a high-density mixed-use area of housing, retail and commercial, plus it’s becoming an arts, entertainment and sports centre.”
Along with downtown, Anderson points to the Old Strathcona and Oliver areas as some of the healthiest in our city. “People like to go where the people are. Old Strathcona, especially, is a hub. It has a walkable main street with a tree canopy that makes people feel good and linger. And 124th Street in Oliver is an up-and-coming area with more restaurants and shops to draw people there.”
Here, then, is a closer look at different areas of neighbourhood health and how our neighbourhoods are changing to encourage healthy lifestyles.
Walking is one of the simplest forms of exercise and its benefits are numerous. Not only is it physical activity, but it increases social interaction and contributes to neighbourhood safety, because you have another set of eyes on the street.
“Research shows that, the more walkable a neighbourhood, the healthier you are,” says Ian Hosler, program co-ordinator for Walk Edmonton. “Edmonton is great at areas for recreational walking, but not so good at true walkability, which is the ability to carry out daily needs like walking to work, to school, to the grocery store.”
Older neighbourhoods with grid designs are better for walkability than new neighbourhoods with “lollipop” designs of wide, curving streets. Not surprisingly, walkability in downtown, Oliver and Old Strathcona is high.
Neighbourhoods bordering the river valley or ravines give residents access to the ribbon of green. And the norm in new subdivisions is to have walking trails winding through the neighbourhood and around storm ponds.
Summerside in southeast Edmonton goes a step further. It’s built around the city’s only swimmable lake. Summerside resident Elizabeth Muir and her family make good use of the lake. “We can head over to the beach area and meet friends. Our daughters can swim or use the paddleboats, or play on the beach and playground. We live right along the lake, so, in winter, we clear an area for skating. It certainly enhances the community’s activities and creates a community that is very neighbourly, plus you have the benefit of physical activity.”
Larch Park is a new neighbourhood in southwest Edmonton’s Magrath area. It borders Whitemud Creek Ravine, an unspoiled stretch of aspen parkland that includes Larch Sanctuary, an environmentally protected area that attracts deer, moose and various birds. At its heart, Larch Park strives to be a sustainable and environmentally friendly neighbourhood that fosters health and well-being both within and outside the home.
That is one reason Lindsay and Cornell Lee decided to make their home in Larch Park. “We were attracted to the ravine location and to what Larch Park stands for,” says Cornell.
All homes in Larch Park must meet certain environmental standards for energy efficiency and environmental responsibility. The Lees also used building materials with low or no volatile organic compounds to reduce off-gassing, which, with prolonged exposure, can damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. “We moved into our house a year ago and it didn’t have that new home smell,” says Cornell.
“It’s important to maintain your social network, and a neighbourhood that supports and eases transitions through all phases of life.” —Kalen Anderson
Sustainability is being incorporated into the infrastructure as well. This includes LED streetlights, narrower roads, bioswales (drainage systems that remove silt and pollution from runoff water) and a construction waste-management program. Other initiatives involve a community garden, an apple orchard, and the use of native plants and grasses for landscaping to enhance biodiversity — all of which go toward a healthier environment.
While Larch Park is taking steps toward sustainability, the fact remains that it is a commuter neighbourhood whose residents must rely on vehicles to drive to work and for errands. It’s one of the side effects of a city that continues to grow outward and further from the core. Infrastructure — specifically our investment and commitment to public transit including LRT — lags behind our outward growth. “We need to look at how we are designing the big networks, like LRT, so we can be less dependent on our cars. It’s about how we get from one place to another in a sustainable way,” Anderson says. For now, commuters can take advantage of the Century City LRT terminal just east of the neighbourhood via 23rd Avenue.
Positive social interactions improve the social health of a neighbourhood, and one way of cultivating that is the community garden.
The community garden in the Alberta Avenue neighbourhood runs along a fence behind the community league building off 118th Avenue. Started about five years ago, it now has almost 40 plots. It’s just one of more than 90 community gardens across Edmonton. Not only do community gardens strengthen the social fabrics of neighbourhoods, they also promote healthy eating, beautify the neighbourhood, and produce affordable and organic food.
Alberta Avenue community league president Brendan Van Alstine says the community garden is just one project that is building social connections and revitalizing the neighbourhood. “Alberta Avenue was neglected for years with not a lot of support from the community or city. But over the past 10 years, that has changed. We have events every couple of weeks and a number of festivals. Last year, we became involved in The Abundant Community Initiative that helps connect others in the neighbourhood. We’re becoming a much more engaged community.”
The Abundant Community Initiative encourages neighbours to learn more about each other, and to know what skills or talents they can bring to their communities.
Anderson sums up the key to a healthy neighbourhood in one word: diversity.
“Having a diversity of activities, a diversity of housing, a diversity of people all contribute to the health of a neighbourhood,” the urban planner says.
Going by that definition, the transformation of Griesbach, the former army base in north Edmonton, is the epitome of diversity and neighbourhood renewal. Designed to promote walkability and connectivity, it has pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and street-oriented homes with front porches that encourage neighbourly chats, multi-use trails, pocket parks, a community garden and a 24-acre central park.
The housing options are also diverse, ranging from rentals and starter homes to estate homes and four-storey condominium complexes for all income levels and ages. There’s also housing for seniors, allowing those who have lived in the neighbourhood for most of their lives to stay there. “It’s important to maintain your social network, and a neighbourhood that supports and eases transitions through all phases of life,” explains Anderson.
“Ideally, a healthy neighbourhood is one that works for an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old."
Come Out and Play
Spontaneous play seems to be on the decline, but experts say there's no reason for parents to fear
Set up on the front yard of the Sheryl and Todd Savard’s house in the Wolf Willow neighbourhood of Edmonton are some red pylons and a net. Their 11-year-old daughter dribbles a soccer ball around the pylons and aims a kick toward the goal. An avid soccer player, she’s out dipsy-doodling on her front lawn every chance she gets.
“Any free time she has she’s out there, while waiting for supper or before school,” says Sheryl. Her daughter would love it if neighbourhood kids popped by for some free play, but that never seems to happen. Their time is gobbled up by organized sports or electronic gadgets, or they have parents who are fearful to let their kids out of their sight.
Nancy Spencer-Cavaliere, a researcher with the faculty of physical education and recreation at the University of Alberta, says that parents should encourage free play.
“Free play” — which is when play is personally directed, freely chosen and intrinsically motivated — “helps them learn and explore the world, teaches them how to manage risk, and helps them not just physically but also socially and emotionally.”
Parents’ fear is a major factor holding kids back from exploring the world on their own. Nora Johnston, director of the Alberta Centre for Active Living, says parents need to chill out. “Police stats show that our communities are the safest they’ve been in a long time. And if there is a group of kids out playing together, they have safety in numbers. They watch out for each other.”
City bylaws can be another barrier and certainly don’t encourage games such as good old-fashioned street hockey.
Luckily, there are limitless activities for kids to play for the sake of play — if parents encourage it. Almost every neighbourhood has an outdoor skating rink, a playground, and tennis and basketball courts.
Here are some ideas for spontaneous play:
The City of Edmonton runs drop-in Green Shack programs and new pop-up play programs during the summer for six- to 12-year-olds. “These programs are a happy medium where the kids determine what to play, but there is a leader to guide them,” says Johnston.
Outdoor community rinks: Generally available any time of the day, so grab the skates and a stick for a game of shinny.
Outdoor basketball: You’ll find hoops in many local playgrounds, and almost every school has an outdoor court.
Explore the river valley: The Savards take their three daughters with them when they run river valley trails. “We let them explore on their own while we run,” says Sheryl. “We are always nearby, and they know the rules: Stay together, and no feet in the river.”
Skateboard parks: These parks provide a safe alternative for skateboarders, BMX riders, push scooters and inline skaters. Edmonton has six permanent parks, including a popular one in Mill Woods. There are also five temporary parks open during July and August.
Neighbourhood parks: Edmonton has over 875 “park areas” — great spots for impromptu soccer matches, tag, Frisbee or games that come from kids’ imaginations.