Surveillance of the Utilitarian Walking of Canadians Using Geographic Information Systems and Survey Data

The rise of obesity and sedentary behaviour in Canada is associated with increases in cases of associated chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and some cancers. There is increasing evidence that neighbourhood environments in Canada may either encourage or inhibit physical activity, which also makes built features of neighbourhoods a prime target for the prevention of related chronic diseases. In neighbourhoods that are more ‘walkable’ (e.g., well-connected streets, proximity to services, presence of public transit), Canadians are more likely to walk more for utilitarian purposes (e.g., walking to work, school, or for shopping) and less likely to develop conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. The goal of our project is to refine existing research and develop new tools for measuring walkability features that influence population health. To this end, we are developing a database of Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based walkability measures for all neighbourhoods in Canada. We will link these GIS measures of walkability with often under-used national health surveys (e.g., National Population Health Survey, Canadian Community Health Survey, Canadian Health Measures Survey) to better understand the local environment’s influence on population health and rates of walking. Using this data linkage and virtual audits of neighbourhoods through Google Streetview®, we will develop novel measures of health-related features of neighbourhoods in Canada. The database and surveillance tools will be disseminated to the Canadian research community, Statistics Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Municipalities.
Funded by a grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada


New Canadian Retail Food Access Measures and Their Associations with Diet and Markers of Cardiometabolic Health

Obesity and type 2 diabetes are profoundly socially patterned in Canada, with excess risks and disease burden for lower income Canadians and those with lower educational attainment. The food environment that one is routinely exposed to may have a bearing on the consumption of calorie-dense, but nutritionally poor, ready-made food that may put individuals at risk for poor diet, overweight and obesity, and chronic disease. Less favourable food environments can mean living in a ‘swamp’ of unhealthy, already prepared, easily accessible, calorie-dense food, or a ‘desert’ devoid of healthy options. The overarching hypothesis of this proposed project is that the food environment can amplify social gradients in diet, health outcomes, and food insecurity. We plan to study this by assessing the retail food environment in the neighbourhoods around respondents who participated in the 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) using GIS. The CCHS focused on nutrition and provides researchers with detailed 24-hour dietary recall information. This will allow us to assess whether or not individuals ate at fast food restaurants the day before the interview, how many calories were consumed and some detailed macro-nutrient information about the food consumed. We will be able to see, in a large population sample, whether these consumption patterns are linked to socioeconomic status, and determine whether unfavourable food environments - swamps and deserts - amplify social gradients in diet as well as health outcomes like obesity and type 2 diabetes and food insecurity.
Research lead: Andrew Stevenson
Funded by CIHR Operating Grant: Canadian Community Health Survey - Nutrition Analysis


Urban Policy Prescriptions to Increase Walking: Learning From Highly Walkable Neighbourhoods

Jurisdictions world-wide are struggling to find policy responses to rising rates of obesity and obesity-related chronic disease. Walking is a reasonably simple activity and the evidence that higher walking levels lead to substantial reductions in obesity-related chronic disease (e.g., type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease) is compelling. Evidence indicates that characteristics of neighbourhood environments such as well-connected streets, a variety of services, and access to public transport may increase the ‘walkability’ of places and, potentially, walking in people. The objective of this research was to identify the characteristics of neighbourhood environments in Montreal and Toronto that promote physical activity, social integration, and health in the general population. To achieve this objective, we launched a social survey in selected urban postal codes stratified by high walkability/high walking, high walkability/low walking, low walkability/high walking and low walkability/low walking. We also developed new ways of assessing the built environment using Google Streetview® environmental auditing. Virtual neighbourhood audits using our Virtual-STEPS tool allow for detailed surveillance of environmental features relevant for walking such as such as the presence and condition of benches, sidewalks, trees, crossing signals, walking paths, and cues of social disorganization or crime (e.g., graffiti).
Research lead: Madeleine Steinmetz-Wood
Learn more about the Virtual-STEPS tool
Funded by the Trottier Fellowship in Science and Public Policy


Using population data linkage to study international trends for walkability and health

Given intensified urbanization worldwide, the time is right for an international evaluation of walkability as a potential mitigating factor for chronic conditions and subsequent health care burden. A small body of international research exists that provides evidence for a universally positive impact of the built environment on physical activity. However, owing to a lack of comparable environmental measures, as well as cross-country variation in health outcome variables, little work has been done to compare the impact of walkability on hospitalization in different policy environments and health care systems, and how these systems might interact with a wider range of neighborhoods to affect our health. International data linkage efforts, parallel to Canadian initiatives, offer the opportunity to study the population-wide health impacts walkability. Presently, we are maximizing our use of pre-existing administrative geocoded data from Canada, Wales, and Australia to assess walkability's potential to be a population health intervention in a variety of social, political, and geographic settings.
Research Lead: Sarah Mah
Funded by the Canada Research Chairs Program


Healthy aging in the neighborhood: exploring the relationship between the suburban environment and mobility in older adults

Many older adults live in suburbs and would like to remain in the suburbs as they age. Losing access to a private automobile, as well as physical or cognitive decline, may result in older adults being especially susceptible to the hazards or resources present in their suburban neighborhood environments. If these neighborhood environments aren’t conducive to older adults’ mobility, older adults may experience difficulties maintaining relationships and engaging in the activities that they value, and subsequently may become housebound. This isolation can lead to negative implications for older adults’ well-being and health. This research study will recruit participants for semi-structured interviews to gain a better understanding of older adults’ experiences of aging in the suburbs. The overarching aim of this research project is to explore how suburban neighborhood environments influence older adults’ mobility and health. We will recruit a sample of approximately 20 community dwelling older adults (≥ 65 years old) from neighborhoods in Montreal. Recruitment will start in April 2020 and will continue until September 2020.
Research lead: Madeleine Steinmetz-Wood
Funded by the Canada Research Chairs program


The Role of Urban Public Space in Adolescent Social Well-being in the Age of Social Media

In a time of widespread adoption of social media, Kiana Javaheri's mixed-methods research explores the current role and value of urban public spaces for fulfilling Canadian youth’s social well-being needs. In her studies, social well-being is conceptualized as adolescents’ perceptions of the quality of their relationships with others, places, and communities, in addition to a sense of how these relationships affect their quality of life. In her quantitative work, Kiana explores whether inequalities in adolescent social well-being can be partially explained by new metrics of public space availability in Canadian cities while accounting for other social determinants. Analyses are conducted by combining existing survey data linked to open spatial data. In her qualitative work through online surveying and focus groups, she investigates adolescent perceptions of social well-being, community, and public space in an era when youths' social lives are increasingly lived online via virtual networks not bound to geographical settings.
Research lead: Kiana Javaheri
Funded by the Canada Research Chairs program


Spatial Variation, Social Transmission Dynamics, and Impacts of COVID-19 on Residents' Well-being in Montreal, QC

Michele Vitale's research assesses the disparities in COVID-19 prevalence among Montreal's boroughs to shed light on the factors that can help explain why the COVID-19 pandemic has been disproportionately affecting specific socio-demographic groups. His work uses a combination of statistical analyses of COVID-19 public health data, semi-structured interviews conducted with community organizers and health officials, and an online survey targeting local residents in several Montreal boroughs. Michele's research also investigates the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the overall well-being of Montreal's residents, including psychological health, lifestyle behaviours, COVID-19 risk exposures, social relationships, and socio-economic status. Results will inform public health officials on identifying high-risk communities and implementing mitigation interventions and preventive measures.
Research lead: Michele Vitale

About Our Research Group

We are a research group in the Department of Geography at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Our research focus is the social determinants of health with an emphasis on the relationships between physical and social environments and chronic diseases. Our current projects explore the effect of neighbourhood walkability and food environments on population health.