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Walking is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.

It's good for your heart, your mind and your bones. Walking, like many forms of exercise, makes you feel better – emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It keeps you young.

But the benefits of living life at five kilometres an hour extend well beyond the individual. Walking is good for the environment, crime prevention, community-building and the economy. Conversely, the most unhealthy, unsafe, anti-social and costly thing people do routinely is drive.

Yet, we continue to build cities, suburbs and public spaces for life at 40, 60 and 100 km/h – for cars, not people. In other words, the unhealthiness of people and the planet – from the epidemics of inactivity and loneliness through to the horrors wrought by climate change – is largely by design.

And the solution, by and large, is to redesign cities, to make them people-first places.

That is the powerful message that emerged from an international conference held last week in Calgary hosted by Walk21 (short for Walking in the 21st century).

The conference featured as many technical discussions (such as the best metrics to measure walkability) as philosophical/political ones (how black men are less likely to walk because they fear police harassment), but there were also many practical examples of the benefits of promoting walkability.

Shin-pei Tsay, executive director of the Gehl Institute, examined the impact of the remaking of New York's iconic Times Square.

While it has been a major commercial area – sometimes referred to as the "crossroads of the world" – for more than a century, Times Square came to be dominated by motor vehicles.

Prior to its refashioning in 2010, 89 per cent of space was given to cars, and only 11 per cent to pedestrians; yet, 90 per cent of people passing through Times Square were on foot and only 10 per cent in vehicles.

The creation of a large pedestrian plaza, which was fiercely opposed by merchants, returned a huge chunk of space to walkers.

In the years that followed, there was a 172-per-cent increase in retail sales as pedestrian numbers soared, crime fell and so did injuries to pedestrians (who often walked on the street). And, to top it off, travel time for vehicles passing through Times Square also improved.

It is no wonder that cities such as Los Angeles, with L.A. Live, and Toronto, with Yonge-Dundas Square, are trying to mimic the Times Square look. Nor is it a surprise that even car-centric cities such as Calgary are hopping on the walkability bandwagon.

Places where people walk are places where people spend.

But if you want them to walk, you have to invest in infrastructure such as wider sidewalks, street furniture and public toilets. You also have to make a commitment to mixed-use development (a mix of commercial, residential and cultural spaces) and build intersections that bring people together.

In short, if you want healthy communities, you need to create a sense of space, of belonging; you need to build inclusive, diverse spaces, where healthy runners and cyclists, parents pushing strollers, frail seniors with walkers, people using wheelchairs, street people, immigrant shop owners and pin-striped business types all feel at ease moving about and intermingling.

Streets are the original and ultimate social network; you need to construct them not only for commerce, but for culture and community-building.

These days, cities around the world are tripping over themselves to attract young innovators, the so-called "creative class."

This is playing out with Amazon's public search for a second headquarters. But what's interesting about the search is that Amazon is not just looking for the usual stuff such as tax breaks. In its bidding process, it places a lot of emphasis on a city's walkability, cycling infrastructure, transit system and urban living spaces – because it knows it can't attract the best employees without a great urban environment.

Work-life balance is coming back into vogue – and it's almost impossible to find it if you have a long car commute.

Walking is a universal activity, and one we have taken for granted for far too long.

While touting walking as a mode of transport and a healthy activity is a start, lip service won't do: No amount of health promotion will overcome a hostile environment.

Walking has to become a lever for social change, big and small – for everything from healthier neighbourhoods to a more sustainable planet – and walkability needs to be imbued into the DNA of urban planning.

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