Addressing the Oxymoron of Healthy Communities

Author: Christina Sgro


Christina Sgro MCIP RPP is a planner and lawyer based in Toronto, Canada. In addition to her work in program development and education, her practice spans a number of different areas, including community development, law, health promotion and sustainability, and technology.  

On behalf CAP YP…Thanks to Christina for another great article!! 🙂
The sedentary drive-to and drive-through culture of North America has become an undeniable reality, particularly in Canada and the United States. No doubt we are striving to make our lives easier but we certainly aren’t helping to make them longer. Turning the tide in the face of backwards planning methods that dominated for far too long – that is, putting health on the back-end of community planning instead of smack dab in the core – we now feel the wind of change; a mighty gale indeed. From Ontario’s active design policies and California’s smart living mandates, to the visionary Plan Cincinnati, the health-centered planning approach is no longer the tired rhetoric on loop, the wild afterthought, or mere “bonus” planning, but a must for city planners, engineers, and designers far and wide.

Residents in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, have witnessed this calculated shift in recent years. The partnership between the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and the Ontario Professional Planners Institute was a key first step. This was highlighted by the 2009 release of Planning by Design: A Healthy Communities Handbook, the tenants of which municipalities across the province are continually working to integrate into their policy frameworks. The Handbook was aimed at fully understanding and appreciating the impact of planning and design on lifestyle and health, both physical and mental. This in itself represented a huge foray into territory that historically had been largely ignored.

Take the 19 recommendations outlined in a report released by the Middlesex Health Unit in London, the province’s fifth biggest city. In a bid to encourage more residents to use leg power over gas power, the Unit proposed a series of ideas on how to make the community more user-friendly for walkers, cyclists, and rollerblading enthusiasts. The Healthy City/Active London report, first released in 2012, positioned activities like walking and cycling, not as leisure activities, but as components of an active lifestyle so crucial to a community’s health, economy, and environmental stability, that other alternatives soon began to pale in comparison. Building on that momentum, a number of recent additions have been made to the City’s Official Plan, including barrier-free and aesthetically pleasing urban design linkages such as trails, sidewalks and bike lanes that would be provided and maintained between residential, commercial, employment, industrial, institutional, and open spaces, as part of London’s transportation system.

Similar initiatives are igniting policy changes across the border, as the U.S. navigates similarly choppy waters. San Diego was one of the first cities to up the ante, lobbying the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (known by its more common moniker, Senate Bill 375). With SB 375, each of California’s metropolitan planning organizations, of which there are 18, was responsible for establishing greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for 2020 and 2035. Each region would also prepare a sustainable communities strategy. The strategies would demonstrate how those set targets could be reached through integrated land use, housing, and transportation planning.

The San Diego Association of Governments, the first California region to implement SB 375 and prepare a sustainable communities strategy, proved to be a true trailblazer. Even in the midst of significant fiscal and political constraints, the region provided an SCS and an updated regional transportation plan. Los Angeles and Sacramento followed suit. Studies around what the public saw as high priorities in active transportation revealed surprising results. One study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Move LA, and the American Lung Association, found that not only did voters consider expanding public transit over roads and highways, but when asked about their preferences, voters chose walkable mixed-use communities over conventional car-oriented residential neighbourhoods. They also urged further investment in public transportation, streamlined planning and design, and better safety precautions for pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, some progressive mandates have emerged, including a bigger emphasis on multifamily and attached, small-lot, single-family housing. Future growth in open spaces and away from city cores has been cut significantly. Despite a slow uptake, the projected results look positive. If the preliminary number crunching is any indication, the long-range transportation plan should result in a 6.9 percent decline in congested vehicle travel for each resident, increases in public transit use, biking, or walking by 32.8 percent, and a reduction of per capita passenger vehicle travel by 8.8 percent.

The pioneering Plan Cincinnati represents a revolutionary approach “focused on an unapologetic drive to create and sustain a thriving inclusive urban community, where engaged people and memorable places are paramount…” Plan Cincinnati was the result of a three-year process incorporating the viewpoints of 52 neighbourhoods. To allow for the evidence of an optimistic estimation of unprecedented growth, the Plan is being given a ten-year head start before it is re-evaluated. Both Plan Cincinnati and Healthy City/Active London have distributed responsibility fairly, resting it squarely on both the City and the development community, in promoting active and sustainable transportation as the preferred means of travel within the community, creating spaces that echo the cause, and calling on residents to embrace a new, more active travel mode.

Here in Canada, progress continues. In response to a growing restlessness amid avid cyclists wary of wading into Toronto’s endless gridlock, the City has developed a number of initiatives. Toronto’s Green Standard, a two-tier set of performance measures and guidelines related to sustainable site and building design for new development projects, represents a unique approach to sustainability. The Standard includes both mandatory checklists and incentives for going beyond the minimum requirements, and has been applied to a number of projects in each of Toronto’s boroughs. The City is also working towards a more careful consideration of pedestrians. The PATH underground walkway system in Toronto’s downtown core is a popular pedestrian linkage to public transit, accommodating hundreds of thousands of daily commuters. Pedestrian countdown signals are no longer anomalies, nor are longer walk times for signalized crossings, or zebra crossing pavement patterns marking our city streets.

The health-first approach to planning and design continues to be a hot button theme in both Canada and the United States. Symposiums on “talking the talk and walking the walk” in Ontario have garnered much attention. The province’s Transit-Supportive Guidelines continue their call for a new course of action; for instance, the need for built-up areas to better incorporate public transit into community planning by transitioning high-volume arterials into more transit-supportive corridors. District-level plans have also been proposed, which would provide detailed place-specific policies to guide transit-supportive development. These would include secondary plans and corridor studies, and would help to achieve the province’s vision for guiding the development of transit nodes, corridors, or specialized uses. Other ways the Guidelines continue to be implemented moving forward? Enacting zoning by-laws that support transit-supportive land use and using site plan control to evaluate how development applications can address the above issues and/or contribute to transit-supportive environments.

According to the Guidelines, those primary components that make up a successful Official Plan include having target areas for intensification that are focused on major elements of the rapid transit network (central area, mixed-use centres, main streets, and town centres); having arterial main streets that host denser developments to support transit service; promoting intensification for lands within 600 metres of existing or future rapid transit stations and lands that are no longer viable or potentially developable, like older industrial areas or forgotten transportation corridors; monitoring and reporting annually on the pattern and amount of residential and non-residential intensification; and creating a series of new transit-oriented guidelines for all development within 600 metres of a rapid transit stop or station. The approach is laudable and, more importantly, logical. The evolution of such a multi-layered method will be interesting to observe.

The ‘00s have ushered in a shift towards a more sustainable and health-centered approach to planning. This movement has gained a following, though our work is far from over. As our city centres continue to grow and our population numbers soar, the intersection of sustainability, health, and planning will play an even larger role in the design framework. Opportunities to integrate community health in the built environment are aplenty, ripe for the picking every day. Carpe diem.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s