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Designed to Move: Active Cities

Key Message

The report shows that cities with physically active populations are not only more economically competitive – they also benefit from increased productivity, improved school performance, higher property values, and improved health and well-being.


Active Living Research. (2015). Designed to Move: Active Cities. A Guide for City Leaders. San Diego, CA: ALR. 80 pp.


The Active Cities report prominently features an extensive literature review that ALR conducted to understand the co-benefits of activity-friendly environments on physical health, mental health, social benefits, safety/injury prevention, environmental sustainability, and economics.



  • Research shows that designing cities to be active can have a significant impact on the bottom line. From increased investment and higher property values to greater tax revenue, everyone does better when people move more.
  • WALKING IS GREAT FOR BUSINESS AND SO IS CYCLING: Multiple studies have shown that making places better for walking can boost footfall and trading by up to 40 percent and raise retail rents by 20 percent. Projects in the United Kingdom were shown to increase employment and the number of visitors—each by 300 percent. In another study, a higher Walk Score® ranking was associated with a 42 percent increase in net operating income. A conservative estimate of the annual economic impact of cycling in one metropolitan area was $60 million. The annual economic impact of cyclists is almost nine times as much as the one-time expenditure of public funds used to construct special bicycle facilities. Among 20 different studies on the economic benefits of walking and bicycling interventions, the average benefit-to-cost ratio was 13:1.10.
  • ACTIVE DESIGN BOOSTS PROPERTY VALUES: In one study, retail properties with a Walk Score® ranking of 80 were valued 54 percent higher than properties with a Walk Score® ranking of 20.13 Similar findings have been observed across all types of properties.  Those with a Walk Score® of 80 were worth 29 percent to 49 percent more than properties with a score of 20. A study of 15 U.S. cities found homes in more walkable neighborhoods to be worth $4,000 to $34,000 more than those in less walkable neighborhoods.
  • LOCATING SCHOOLS IN NEIGHBORHOODS DELIVERS MASSIVE RETURNS: The list of economic benefits associated with locating schools in local neighborhoods is exhaustive. For example, the presence of a local school supports higher property values and saves on construction and operating costs. In addition, using the public school as the location for community health centers, swimming pools, libraries or other public services can reduce overall cost of public land assets, capital funds and total operating expenses required.
  • HEALTHY, ACTIVE WORKPLACES ARE BETTER FOR THE BOTTOM LINE: A review of workplace health programs shows that such programs saved at least $3 for every $1 invested. Employees who participate in workplace health programs have lower absentee rates, improved productivity and fewer health-related work limitations. Employers would also be well advised to support active transportation options such as walking and cycling given their relationship to improved productivity. For example, time spent in traffic in Australia’s eight capital cities cost nearly US$ 2.8 billion in lost “business time” or productivity.
  • CYCLING FACILITIES LOWER HEALTH CARE COSTS: A modeling study of Portland, Oregon (USA) estimated that by 2040, investments in bike facilities (costing from $138 to $605 million) will result in health care cost savings of $388 million to $594 million, fuel savings of $143 million to $218 million, and savings in the value of statistical lives of $7 million to $12 billion.


  • Public transportation options have a significant impact on the environment, as do parks and open spaces.
  • URBAN TREES REMOVE POLLUTION AND REDUCE ENERGY DEPENDENCE: In the United States, trees in urban areas have been estimated to remove 783,000 tons of pollutants every year.  Another study estimated that increasing tree cover by 10 percent may reduce the total energy needed for heating and cooling by 5 to 10 percent.
  • MIXED USE, HIGH-DENSITY DEVELOPMENT CUTS DRIVE TIMES, REDUCING POLLUTION AND FUEL CONSUMPTION: More compact development can reduce drive times by as much as 40 percent. One study estimated that this could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 10 percent.
  • WALKABILITY AND BIKEABILITY DRASTICALLY REDUCE DRIVING AND RELATED POLLUTANTS: In one study, a 5 percent increase in walkability was associated with a 6.5 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled. This equates to a 5.6 percent decrease in emissions of oxides of nitrogen.35 In a study of a county in the United States, it was determined that the addition of sidewalks to all roadways would lead to a reduction of vehicle miles traveled equal to 183 million miles, resulting in an annual air pollution cost saving of $8 million.
  • PUBLIC TRANSPORT IS GREENER TRANSPORT: Public transportation has been found to produce 95 percent less carbon monoxide, 90 percent less volatile organic compounds, and about half as much carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide per passenger mile as private vehicles.
  • ACTIVE TRANSPORT TO SCHOOL IS BETTER FOR KIDS AND BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT: Neighborhood schools produce less emissions than schools located on the outskirts of town. In fact, they can produce a 13 percent increase in walking and biking, and lead to a reduction of at least 15 percent in emissions. A Safe Routes to School program resulted in a 13 percentage point reduction in vehicle drop-offs, and an annual reduction of roughly 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions and 70 tons of other environmental pollutants.


  • It should come as little surprise that physical activity is good for people’s overall physical health. The bigger revelation is the fact that the ways our cities are designed have an enormous impact on people’s overall mental health as well.
  • PEOPLE WHO LIVE CLOSER TO PARKS ARE HEALTHIER: In the case of access to parks and open spaces, the strongest evidence is related to the simple presence of parks and people’s proximity to them. Residents who live closer to green space feel healthier, less stressed and less lonely. They also experience less anxiety and children diagnosed with ADHD receive as much benefit from walking in a park as they do from leading medication therapies. Living closer to green space is also associated with decreased cardiovascular and respiratory disease mortality in men. Considering the human and economic costs of these diseases, parks begin to look like a particularly attractive investment.
  • WALKABLE/BIKEABLE/GREEN URBAN COMMUNITIES MAKE FOR HEALTHIER, SAFER CITIZENS : Walkability is associated with a decrease in body mass index (BMI), while urban greenery is associated with less stress, speedier hospital recoveries  and improved mental health.
  • ACCESS TO SCHOOL GROUNDS GIVES PEOPLE A CHANCE TO BE MORE ACTIVE: One of the most impactful things that cities can do to get people moving is to open up existing spaces. Schools present a great opportunity, but only if people can access the grounds. One study found that schools represented 44 percent of potential neighborhood sites for physical activity. However, the number of locked schools was associated with significantly higher BMI.


  • Active environments strengthen communities. They give people a greater sense of cohesion and lead people to have more positive attitudes about their cities.
  • PARKS AND PLAYSPACES STRENGTHEN COMMUNITY TIES AND GIVE KIDS A PLACE TO PLAY: Parks and playspaces offer enormous social benefits, including decreased feelings of loneliness and a stronger sense of social integration. Moreover, when New York City reconstructed its playgrounds, a 25 percent increase in structured play and a 240 percent increase in unstructured play were observed in children. Given decreasing physical activity levels among young people, this is an especially significant finding.
  • PEOPLE LIKE THEIR CITIES MORE WHEN THEY HAVE ACTIVE TRANSPORT OPTIONS: Ciclovias (cycling events that close streets to cars for a full day) are great community builders. In fact, nearly 9 out of 10 people agree that the events cause them to look more favorably on their city. Public transport options also impact how people feel about their cities. One survey found that half of residents who lack access to mass transit are dissatisfied with the lack of availability.
  • SHARED USE AGREEMENTS MAKE SCHOOLS A NATURAL PLACE TO PLAY AND MOVE: After a Hawaii (USA) school implemented far-reaching shared use agreements— agreements that allow outside organizations to use school facilities— faculty unanimously reported that it was beneficial to students. They reported that the program provided needed opportunities for physical activity, incurred social benefits (e.g., making new friends), kept students out of trouble and promoted healthy lifestyles.
  • CRIME DROPS ON CAR-FREE STREETS: In one city, crime decreased by 74 percent when a street running through a park was converted into a car-free space on weekends. This is consistent with a separate finding that 6 of the first 7 reasons burglars stated for selecting a particular property were related to access routes.
  • GARDENS AND GREEN SPACES DETER CRIME: In one urban area, apartment buildings with more vegetation were associated with lower rates of homicide, assault, robbery, theft, burglary and arson. Buildings with high levels of vegetation had 52 percent fewer total crimes than buildings with low levels of vegetation. Similarly, eight separate studies found that community gardens increase community cohesion, and reduce graffiti and violence.

IT’S WHAT THE PEOPLE WANT: It turns out that people want to live in cities that are walkable, bikeable and playable. From the surveys and consumer research available, it appears the public is already very much in favor of activity-friendly options. For example:
Many people are “mismatched” and do not live in their preferred neighborhood type—specifically, people who do not live in walkable neighborhoods would prefer to.
Nine of ten people prefer that more local government funds be devoted to walking/jogging trails, recreation centers and bike paths.
If bicycling were made safer from motor vehicle traffic, bicycle riding at least once per week could increase from 8 percent to 40 percent of adults.
In the United States, 59 percent of people surveyed support walkable communities.
More than half of Americans prefer neighborhoods that are close to shops, have a mix of incomes and provides public transportation.

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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