The City of Vancouver has taken the unusual step of commissioning a before-and-after study of downtown neighbourhoods to measure the effect a proposed "greenway" will have on residents' health and lifestyles.
Questionnaires are now being sent out to a random sampling of people along Comox and Helmcken streets in the city's downtown core, where a new greenway is expected to be constructed next year. Researchers hope to get before-and-after feedback on the travel patterns, physical activity and social interaction of between 800 and 1,000 residents living within half a kilometre of the entire length of the greenway to determine what impact it will have.
The study is being done in partnership with the Health and Community Design Lab at the University of British Columbia. Larry Frank, a professor at UBC's School of Population and Public Health and School of Community and Regional Planning, runs the lab and is the principal investigator of the study. He called the study "very unique," as it is not merely another consultation process but a comprehensive study of the impact of city planning.
"Very seldom has anybody studied something before and after it happened," he said. "The research is difficult to arrange, it's hard to get in front of things. Traditionally, we do it more cross-sectionally: We ask people about their behaviour and compare their behaviour to where they live, at the same point in time.
"[This study] is basically trying to make a connection between policy decisions and changes in behaviour in a way that is actually trackable over time."
The study is made up of two components: A survey about the neighbourhood and a two-day travel diary. Some of the survey questions seem standard: How long would it take you to walk to work? Are there trees along the streets in your neighbourhood? Is your neighbourhood safe?
Others, however, are more unique: During the last seven days, on how many days did you do vigorous physical activities like heavy lifting, digging, aerobics or fast bicycling? How much of that time did you spend sitting? When was the last time you socialized with your neighbour? Are you part of a car-sharing co-operative? When was the last time you engaged in a spontaneous conversation in the street?
The travel diary asks residents to document each trip they take for two days: Where did you go and how did you get there? Who did you speak with along the way?
Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver's director of transportation, said the answers will show what impact infrastructure has on a number of lifestyle choices.
"We spend a lot of money on infrastructure as a city … and this is one way of collecting data to help ensure that we're spending money wisely, getting the biggest bang for the buck we spend," he said.
"There's the community portion of it and then, at a more macro level, it looks at health care – [residents'] physical health, their mental health. It will track not only if they are more active, but if they're healthier."
The "after" survey will take place several months after the completion of the greenway.
"It's a very positive thing that you have a really progressive city that wants to learn about the effect of what it's doing," Prof. Frank said. "We're looking at a city that is developing an evidence-based culture to decision-making."
The Comox-Helmcken Greenway connects Stanley Park to False Creek and is part of the city's City Greenway network. Some of the proposed changes include widened sidewalks, traffic calming measures and places for people to "garden, sit and socialize," according to the city's website.