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What do hills have to do with community walkability?

Planner’s thesis prompts consideration for factors that boost convenience and accessibility

Sarah Freigang says she may not be quite so grumpy anymore when walking up a hill in her community. The change stems from her study of the effect of hills on a community’s walkability, for her University of Calgary master’s degree in environmental design.

What she found is that people’s perceptions of their neighbourhood significantly impact their pedestrian transportation habits, and hills are not the biggest barrier to walkability.

Sarah, who is a transportation planner at Urban Systems, hopes to share her findings with the larger planning community. This includes the transportation planning committee of the District of North Vancouver, which is situated on a northern mountainside.


On the same mountainside live many of the residents Sarah surveyed for her study. The city has adopted the goal of every resident being able to fulfil their daily needs within a five-minute walk of home, and Sarah’s study could help shed light on achieving that.

“I wanted to see, even if you build a community that is within five minutes of all these needs, if people would be willing to walk a hill to get there?” Sarah says.

Her results confirm some previously-accepted notions, but they also point to the need to steer clear of things that cannot be changed in the physical environment and focus on other factors for growing strong, connected community, such as creating direct routes and well-connected streets for easier access to destinations, creating more inclusive infrastructure such as wider sidewalks for easier use by people who have mobility aids, and destinations that are conveniently located.

“I would hope (planners) would be able to take into consideration that perhaps hills don’t have as much impact on certain individuals. Maybe it’s not something we really need to be designing for or all that concerned about,” Sarah says.

“Other than adding more features to the environment that might make it more comfortable such as benches and railings, there’s not really a lot we can do in regards to topography — you’re not going to level a city because people are finding hills difficult to walk.

“It’s definitely more important to focus on having a better land-use mix and connected sidewalks and an accessible, pedestrian network. If people can access things quickly they’re more likely to walk to them. It’s ultimately about making walking the most convenient form of transportation — if you can make walking the best way to get somewhere (and) in the most time-efficient way, then people are more likely to do it.”

Sarah says community walkability has been studied but there has been less understanding of the impacts of the physical environment, like hills. It’s difficult to measure, she notes, because it’s so specifically based on one’s perception and reactions.

“My project was looking at specifically how an individual perceives their neighbourhood. Do they see it as walkable, do they see it as hilly and if they see it that way, are they walking or not?”

She asked a series of questions to a cross-section of North Vancouver residents in three neighbourhoods with varying degrees of hill grades. She analyzed results from 291 survey respondents and did a site analysis of the features in each neighbourhood. On the whole, she found convenience of a destination’s location, time constraints and distance to have more impact on walking frequency than hills.

“If people perceive their neighbourhood as convenient, with conveniently located destinations that are easy to walk to and could be accessed quickly, they were statistically more likely to walk,” Sarah says.

She also found that individuals over age 55 or individuals that have physical disabilities were more likely to be impacted by hills. As well, destinations like grocery stores are more likely to be affected by the presence of hills for walking because they typically involve transporting heavy items.

“Ultimately my conclusion was hills don’t impact walking frequency as much as I thought — at least walking for transportation purposes,” Sarah says.

“I think my results did prove that among other variables out there and other built environment factors, hills are not really that big of a deal. It’s location of destinations and accessible, direct routes to those destinations that are more important.”

Describing herself as “a pedestrian first and foremost,” Sarah says the impact of hills on a community’s walkability has intrigued her for some time. She was excited to engage in the study of a component of community that has not been examined in great detail.
From her work, Sarah sees potential for other studies to gain further insights into planning, such as looking at multiple mode-share trips; these would be instances, for example, where someone walks to a store then uses public transportation to return home.

“There are so many more options you could go with from here based on the analysis,” she says. Sarah was able to answer some questions about walking frequency but she says there is much more analysis that can be done with her data.

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