The denser the city, the more we move….

City-dwellers in ten countries around the world have been strapping accelerometers around their waists to find out just how much residents move around in a typical week.

The final figure? It came in at 37 minutes of physical activity each day, according to a study released by a global team called IPEN, who are looking at how where we live shapes how we move.

The World Health Organization says that inactivity accounts for more than three million deaths per year globally, leading to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancers.

It has set a target of 150 minutes per week to stem the tide, and recommends adults do regular and moderate activity such as walking, cycling and sports.

“We’ve been collecting data in my research team for almost 20 years now on how active people are, how that affects their health, and what helps them get more active,” Professor Grant Schofield, one of the IPEN researchers wrote on his blog. “We reckon how you set a city out has a big effect on activity levels.”

With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, researchers are looking at how to design cities to be “activity-friendly” — areas with a higher density of people living near shops, services and parks.

But the link between walkable features (the built environment) and activity has not always been consistent, according to IPEN.

So they surveyed 6,822 adults to test their theory. And what they found was contrary to the popular belief that the bigger space you have, the more you move.

Instead they discovered the more people that lived in an area and the higher the number of public transport stops, street intersections and parks within walking distance, the more city-dwellers moved.

“Neighbourhoods with high residential density tend to have connected streets, shops and services, meaning people will be more likely to walk to their local shops,” lead author of the study Professor James Sallis told The Lancet.

Parks allow people to play sport and also gives them “a pleasant environment to walk in,” Sallis added.

Wellington topped the list of cities with the most physical activity per day while Baltimore came last, and also had the oldest survey participants. Source: IPEN study.

Adults who lived in the best-designed neighborhoods moved 68 to 89 minutes more per week than those people residing in the least “activity-friendly” areas, a difference the IPEN says is much larger than reported in other studies.

Topping the list was Wellington. Residents in the capital city of New Zealand spent 50 minutes moving daily, taking only three days to reach the WHO’s weekly target.

Walk around the streets of Wellington for yourself. The city has a culture of commuting and it is very expensive to park your car in the centre.

“Wellington has good density and mixed land use and is well constrained by hills around it,” said Schofield. “The parks and commuter routes are very well developed. Wide sidewalks, bike lanes and a very efficient public transport system — all that on a beautiful locality.”

Around 200,000 people live on 290 kilometers of land in this harbour city, which is fringed by a native greenbelt and the ocean. The city’s tourism board says that 18,000 walk or jog to work, and most live within three kilometers of the sea. The city’s central business district is compact so workers can stroll to meetings. Wellington is also dotted with pedestrian-only streets and has 363 kilometers of bike and walking tracks.

Also high on the list was Hong Kong, where residents move nearly 45 minutes a day. This teeming metropolis of seven million has 57,322 dwellings on each square kilometer that the participants lived, while the city itself is 75 percent countryside. Hong Kongers too are avid users of the public transit system, making 12.6 million trips a day. Elevated walkways join office buildings in Admiralty, Central and Sheung Wan, linking to the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator that takes residents up to their homes in the Mid-Levels. Not many residents have cars and researchers say it is safer than other cities in the study.

Walk around the streets of Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

“People are not afraid to walk on the streets at any time of the day and night,” said Professor Ester Cerin, a co-author of the IPEN study. “Another characteristic of Hong Kong residents that help them be more active is not having a car.”

Lowest on the activity list was the American city of Baltimore where residents in the survey tally only 29 minutes a day. This former industrial city that sits between Philadelphia and Washington has witnessed decades of decline, and is now one third smaller than it was in 1950, the year its population peaked. In 2013, Baltimore had 14,000 vacant lots and 16,000 abandoned houses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and FBI figures show it is one of the most dangerous cities in America.

Tour the streets of Baltimore for yourself and see how neighbourhoods have stagnated.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the city had lost around 19 percent of its supermarkets, a top health official was quoted as saying in a 2009 paper. This was reflected in a 2015 report by the city, saying people living in the highest access communities took 1.8 minutes to travel to supermarkets, compared to 29.1 for those in the lowest.

Tour the pedestrian-friendly streets of Wellington and then cross over to Baltimore, where car-centric planning and decades of decline has resulted in deteriorating neighbourhoods.

The IPEN survey showed Wellington participants had three times more retail and public buildings and two times more parks within one kilometer of where they lived than those in Baltimore, and only had to walk 222 meters to the nearest transport stop compared to 639 meters for Baltimore.

This photo of Wellington 6kms up shows a lot of green space and ocean.
Baltimore, in contrast, is mostly built-up and has few green areas and only a small swathe of ocean.

Looking ahead, researchers say every improvement in the built environment can be expected to boost activity, irrespective of whether residents are starting at a low or high level.

“Making cities more activity-friendly could be an important part of substantial long-term and sustainable solutions to the global problems of death and disease associated with physical inactivity,” IPEN’s research brief concluded, urging focus on urban planning, parks and recreation, along with transport.

Wellington, for one, has a leader that has been pushing people to move and designing the cityspace around that, according to Schofield.

“(The mayor) carries this mantle of a walkable city to the people and politicians very well,” he said.