Skip to main content

Pawel Gaul/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Barrie, a small city on the edge of Ontario's Lake Simcoe, might not strike many as a hotbed of urban design trends. But a new community planned for the city will incorporate arguably the most sweeping urban planning trend in North America. Harmony Village, which will comprise1,200 residential units, is being built to promote health, says architect Roland Rom Colthoff.

"The community is about people walking," he says. It features a network of pedestrian paths, large swaths of green space and mixed-use retail, all intended to combat North America's car culture.

In Victoria, B.C., the 15-acre community of Dockside Green, which began development in 2005, features similar pedestrian and bicycle-friendly elements as part of its own health-conscious design.

As obesity rates and the incidence of diabetes have skyrocketed over the past three decades, architects, urban planners and health officials have rallied around a question that would have been unthinkable to those creating suburban housing developments only a generation ago: What if our poor urban planning is to blame?

Multiple studies conducted in recent years have answered that question. A 2009 report from the Canadian Senate, for instance, found that 10 per cent of population health outcomes – which include how symptoms progress and the cost of care – are a result of the built environment. If so many illnesses are due to our lack of physical activity, perhaps more of us could be encouraged to get moving by designing smarter neighbourhoods.

That is, what if access to bike paths, nearby stores and supermarkets, has a significant impact on health? Builders across the country are creating communities designed to reverse what one planner calls the "unintended consequences" of the earliest efforts to use urban design to combat disease.

"That whole discussion of health and planning goes back quite a way," says Andrew Sacret, director of policy and public affairs at the Canadian Institute of Planners.

As industrialization was getting under way in the 19th century, European cities began to see ramshackle housing that put huge numbers of people in close quarters with factories. As a result, those cities suffered outbreaks of infectious diseases. The hygienist movement that arose in response identified city planning as key to controlling outbreaks. Wider streets, improved sewage systems and the introduction of sidewalks were all the result of efforts to combat cholera, according to urban planning historians. So too was cleaning up urban slums, and the idea of moving workers farther from their workplaces.

"Now we're in a situation where people are so separated that they have to drive. Then it leads to problems with obesity and heart disease and cancers and so on, that law of unintended consequences," Sacret says.

In 2008, the World Health Organization published a planning guide titled A Healthy City is an Active City, which sets out principles for "creating a healthy, active city by enhancing physical activity in the urban environment."

In 2010, New York City under health-conscious Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled its Active Design Guidelines, which includes building and urban design strategies "for creating neighbourhoods, streets, and outdoor spaces that encourage walking, bicycling, and active transportation and recreation." That same year, Los Angeles released a similar document, called the Model Design Manual for Living Streets, which promoted ways to create streets that emphasize active transportation (walking, cycling, etc.) and environmental sustainability.

Many Canadian cities have also officially adopted the new urban planning thinking, especially Toronto, where the public health department released a report in 2011 on how communities shape the health of residents, and Vancouver, which is also a strong advocate of creating walkable neighbourhoods.

Suburban sprawl, which requires large infrastructure spending, and environmental concerns are other factors influencing the design of denser, more transit-friendly communities, says Kim Perrotta, a spokeswoman for Healthy Canada By Design CLASP, a coalition of health, public health, planning and transportation professionals that works with municipalities across the country to promote environmental and health benefits. Those benefits, along with reduced infrastructure costs, have become key motivators for municipalities.

"All of a sudden people are saying, 'Wow, there's things that we could do that actually give you a triple win,'" she says.