Active cities pay for themselves

Active cities pay for themselves

Designing physical activity into the infrastructure of a city can translate into higher wellbeing, lower crime rates and less pollution.

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Senior couple biking together

Active cities are healthier, happier and more competitive than their couch potato peers. Designing physical activity into the infrastructure of a city means people move around more and reap the physical and psychological rewards. I believe that this will translate into higher wellbeing, lower crime rates, less pollution and savings on health care.

Inactive populations are expensive by contrast. Physical inactivity will kill 9 percent of the population in the UK – as many as smoking1 – as well as vastly increasing the chance of developing heart disease, breast cancer and colon cancer. Physical activity and access to nature has also been shown to alleviate depression, reduce stress and improve general well being.2 It can also help promote creativity and provide space for families and communities to build relationships.

So city leaders need to create an environment that encourages activity as part of a daily routine. Increasing cycle lanes, creating streets and pathways that are pleasant to walk along, improving river walkways and reducing pollution and litter are physical ways to do this. At the same time, making active travel the more relaxing and enjoyable option can help overcome the mental barriers to active travel.

Cities need to think big. Copenhagen, a former European Green Capital, has a stated intention to become the best city in the world for cycling and has a city-wide strategy to promote it. Others like Boston have relocated some of their roadways underground in a project called the Big Dig, leaving safe space for pedestrians and cyclists on the surface. Bristol too, is already one of the most active cities but is looking to do far more.

Public transport is an important part of the mix. Passengers walking or cycling to and from bus stops and stations all adds to the active city vibe, especially if the public realm supports it. This often comes alongside gradually dissuading drivers via congestion zones and parking charges and supporting the shift through active travel initiatives in schools and workplaces to help make it easier.

Connected infrastructure will likely encourage behavioral change. Office buildings that provide cycle racks and showers need to link up with safe, segregated cycle paths and walkways. Every time a road is re-laid, city authorities can look at putting in extra trees, cycle lanes and more paths.

Of course, making the city environment fit for its fitter citizens has a price tag. Planners must keep in mind the return on investment through the lower health costs of a fitter population.

But the benefits go much further. More foot traffic boosts local employment and tourism, less traffic means less productivity lost to congestion – estimated to reach £21billion in the UK by 2030- not to mention the benefits of community involvement, lower crime rates and more customers for businesses because of greater footfall on the streets.  


1Lee, I., Shiroma, E., Lobelo, P., Puska, P., Blair, S., & Katzmarzyk, P., For the Lancet Physical Activity Series Working Group. (July 2012.) Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. - PubMed - NCBI 2 

3Traffic Congestion to Cost the UK Economy More Than £300 Billion Over the Next 16 Years - INRIX

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