Region Forward Blog

Good urban design: A solution to health disparities

May 24, 2011
Region Forward

Obesity. Air pollution. Traffic congestion. Health disparities. All of these problems can be reduced by one thing: better land-use planning. We’re not simply talking about a matter of aesthetics. A recent article in The Globe and Mail discusses a study showing quite starkly evidence of a “new crisis of cities” – the negative health effects of bad planning and the disparities they create:

“If you live in downtown Vancouver or New York where the tree canopy is lush and you can easily walk to an organic café or a yoga class you belong to a privileged class not only because of the real estate values in your neighbourhood but because you’re likely to have a higher life expectancy. This is the new crisis of cities: Badly designed neighbourhoods are literally sapping people of their ability to live fully.”

Sarah Goodyear over at Grist also commented on the study calling it proof of a new form of segregation – between those who enjoy good urban design and those who do not (by choice or by lack of affordability). It’s positive to see this new socioeconomic divide being acknowledged; however in pointing out the expansiveness of the problem Goodyear notes something that The Globe and Mail neglected – that this isn’t a problem specific to any type of land-use (urban suburban exurban or rural) because in Canada and U.S. at least generally they all suffer in some way from a lack of effective land-use planning:

“The thing is even if you don’t own an automobile you live in a place that is built for them — because by now every place is. As the Toronto study and others in the United States have revealed it’s not just the autocentric suburban states in the so-called ‘Diabetes Belt’ that have a problem” Goodyear writes. “Residents of dense urban areas also suffer from high rates of obesity and diabetes in part because of the lack of healthy food choices in part because certain ethnic groups are more predisposed to diabetes and in part because the streetscape is degraded and ignored.”

However another report this one from the NYC Health Department demonstrates the remarkable health effects that can occur when folks are able to embrace the street. New Yorkers get on average nearly an hour of walking in every day just going about their daily lives because the city’s wide-reaching transit system that makes it possible for a very large percentage of the population to live without a car (a vast majority of the city gets to work by walking biking or taking transit). The result: lower risk of diabetes cancer and cardiovascular disease.

In an economic environment in which everyone is clamoring to do more with less shouldn’t one solution – such as better land-use designed to promote walking and active lifestyles – that solves multiple problems be pushed to the top of the priorities list?

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