The Building Healthy Communities Collaborative wants to draw a direct line between health and wellness in our province and the way our cities and towns are planned and maintained.
We were reminded this week about growing concerns with rising obesity rates in Canada. Researchers from Newfoundland and Labrador have published a study showing that obesity has tripled between 1985 and 2011 among Canadian adults and that, in Newfoundland and Labrador, roughly 71 per cent of people are expected to be obese or overweight by 2019.
The impact of these health projections on our province’s already beleaguered health-care system should be obvious, given the correlation between rising obesity rates and increases in chronic health conditions, including Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
We all know that a physically active lifestyle has proven benefits in terms of achieving and maintaining health. But we cannot expect to reduce the rates of obesity and overweight by simply telling people to be more physically active: we need to change the environment to promote healthy behaviour. We need to make it easier for people to make healthier choices.
A growing body of research is showing that people will naturally become more physically active when they live in compact, complete and walkable neighbourhoods. This means living in neighbourhoods with stores and services nearby, with efficient public transit, and easy access to parks, walking trails and bike lanes.
St. John’s comedian Dave Sullivan writes in his blog, “The Narcissist’s Revenge,” about his own efforts to lose weight and get healthier: “I started walking … in December … and that's free — everybody can do that. However, it is a very harrowing experience to try and navigate the sidewalks in this city in the winter … it is not for everyone and oftentimes when I am out there, I do not feel safe.”
Across Canada, health authorities are collaborating with municipal planners and transportation designers to create and recreate communities that foster physical activity. This requires better urban planning, more investment in making neighbourhoods safe for walkers and cyclists and supporting public transit.
We view this kind of collaboration between health authorities and municipal planners as an investment in our health. An investment in walkable, supportive communities with access to affordable, nutritious food now will mean we spend less for healthcare in the future.
Health is the responsibility of everyone in a position to make decisions about our built environment. We urge the people of our province to consider the role of public planning in building healthier communities in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mary Bishop and Pablo Navarro are co-chairs
of the Building Health Communities
Collaborative. They write from St. John’s.