Healthy Cities are back on the agenda. From a public health perspective, the early-21st century version is driven by an epidemic of chronic diseases caused by a global shift to more sedentary lifestyles.
A June 2015 meeting in Grenada, West Indies on the topic of the Built Environment & Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) brought together public health practitioners and land use planners from the Caribbean and Canada. The meeting was convened by the Caribbean Public Health Agency in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Built environment links to major killers
Heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes account for 3 out of 4 deaths in the Caribbean. Changing the built environment is now viewed as integral to NCD prevention. Specifically, the design of cities is understood to have a direct impact on active lifestyles and access to nutritious foods.
The public health agenda and good planning practice intersect at several levels: Community design plans promoting more compact urban form, higher densities and a mix of land uses; integrated transportation plans delivering complete networks for pedestrians and cyclists linked to public transit; and public space design offering accessible parks, sidewalks and street furniture that encourage walking and cycling. These connections have been endorsed at the global level by the United Nations General Assembly and at the regional level by the Caribbean Community in the form of the 2007 Port of Spain Declaration.
Canada car-based commuters
While the intersection between shaping the built environment and achieving positive public health outcomes is clear enough, 10 years of commuting data from Canada’s three largest urban regions (Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver) suggest that action can be painfully slow. Active transportation remains a relatively inconsequential means of commuting in Canada’s largest urban regions.
Cycling and walking as a means of commuting grew by an uninspiring one-tenth of one percentage point to 6.6% between 2001 and 2011. Commuting in Canada’s biggest urban regions remains overwhelmingly the domain of the car. The proportion of big city commuters using the car fell from 73 to 70%. Public transit usage grew modestly from 20 to 22%.
This disconnect between intent and action is well understood by Canadian planners. Ninety percent of 800 planners surveyed by the Canadian Institute of Planners were aware of the impact of the built environment on public health, but also understood that disciplinary silos remain real barriers to action.
Breaking down the silos
A politician and former Cabinet Minister from Trinidad & Tobago shared some words of wisdom at the Grenada meeting: The easiest thing we can do is to talk among ourselves, congratulate each other and complain about how “others” are obstructionist or indifferent. The hard work rests in engaging with these “others”, be they elected officials, or other professionals.
Planners understand this message, in theory. We can speak the language of other professions, better than others can speak ours. But we need to take the time to break down the barriers that separate us. We cannot afford to be too proud to engage others, or to wait for them to come to us.
One opportunity for inviting health practitioners to join urban planners is the Caribbean Urban Forum (CUF). Convened by the Caribbean Network on Urban and Land Management, this annual event enables dialogue on urban issues in order to promote and advance a Caribbean urban agenda. Let’s take this opportunity to build bridges and strengthen our ties with others.
This Guest Blog is contributed by Michel Frojmovic. Michel is a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a certified Project Management Professional. He has practiced in Canada, the Caribbean and internationally for over 20 years. Based in Ottawa, Canada, he is the owner of Acacia Consulting & Research, the Chair of the Board of Management of the Wellington Street West Business Improvement Area and a member of the Board of Directors of the Somerset West Community Health Centre.