Trevor Hancock: Urban sprawl is not only bad for nature, it’s also bad for health

In the 1980’s I worked for the Toronto City Department of Health. We developed and implemented the ideas that contributed to a global movement for healthy cities.

One of these key ideas was that the design of the built environment was a fundamental determinant of the health of the city’s population.

Not exactly rocket science, one would think. After all, in North America we are 80 percent urbanized and spend 90 percent of our time indoors. (We also spend five percent of our time — half of the remaining 10 percent — in vehicles!) If that sounds like a lot, try keeping a time journal for a week and see where you spend your time.

But I was surprised to find, in discussions with urban planners, that urban design at the time was not strongly connected to what, to me, was the obvious point of the whole exercise: that people’s health, well-being and quality of life are – or should be – what it’s all about.

Surely the success of urban development should be measured by these terms. For this reason, much of our work to create healthy cities has been, and still is, done in collaboration with urban planners.

A second major urban focus in the 1980s, which actually gained more importance than healthy cities, was the concept of sustainable communities.

From my point of view, they were always two sides of the same coin – a healthy city must be a sustainable city because while we spend most of our time in built environments, we spend 100 percent of our time in natural ecosystems, which are the crucial factor for our health.

All of this explains why the third big idea from Livable Victoria – a group I belong to – is that we need to plan neighborhoods for sustainability and human well-being.

Our first recommendation under this heading is to focus future population growth in existing urban and suburban areas while protecting natural habitats from future development.

This, of course, also leads to our second recommendation, which is to identify, restore, and protect areas of ecological and cultural importance by working with local First Nation communities, ecologists, and other professionals.

In other words, we cannot create more and more urban sprawl that is harmful to both the environment and health.

It is a very energy and resource inefficient form of development, car dependent and one that devours large natural areas that we and other species depend on.

It also often consumes prime agricultural land, as cities tend to be located where there is good agricultural land to feed the populace.

The health effects of urban sprawl have been known for decades.

In her 2004 book urban sprawl and the public Health, Frumkin, Frank, and Jackson identified the main impacts as diseases related to increased air pollution, decreased physical activity and increased obesity, traffic-related injuries and deaths, and impacts on mental well-being and social capital. Added to this are the health effects of climate change, which exacerbates the spread.

So, as a region, we need to focus future population growth on existing urban and suburban areas through infill, “soft” densification, building “missing middle” housing, and “mainstreeting” our urban corridors to create denser mixed residential and commercial areas along our main transit corridors.

Our next set of recommendations addresses smaller urban planning issues, based on the concept of a 15-minute neighborhood.

Melbourne made this the basis of their new official plan in 2017, although they called them 20-minute quarters.

The idea is very simple: “To give people the opportunity to get most of their daily needs within a 20-minute walk of their homes, with safe cycling and local transport options.”

This means, we recommend, developing a network of commercial village centers, but also expanding all forms of public facilities and social meeting places (such as parks, squares and libraries) with an emphasis on incorporating natural ecosystems and habitats and creating safe places.

Because neighborhoods are of course not only physical places, they are also social spaces.

Good city design enables community by creating places where people can connect – this is an important part of what makes a community healthy.

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dr Trevor Hancock is a retired Professor and Senior Scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

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