Our guest blogger is Dr. Kim Bergeron, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queeen’s University, Kingston, ON
Municipal elected officials and staff have an obligation to understand that where a person lives has as much influence on their health as how they live. Communities designed with cars in mind are unfriendly and unsafe places for pedestrians and cyclists. Residents who live in these types of sprawling communities face increased hazards to their health, such as high rates of injuries, heart disease and/or respiratory illness/diseases. However, this risk is not equitably distributed across neighbourhoods. Lower income neighbourhoods bear a greater burden of health risks as they are usually developed in areas that expose residents to heavy traffic and lack municipal infrastructure (e.g. sidewalks, safe cross-walks, parkland, sports fields, cycling lanes) to support healthy lifestyle choices (e.g. walking, cycling, playing in parks).
I do not believe that municipal decision-makers purposely create inequities across neighbourhoods, but I do believe that they need to consciously make policy decisions that lessen the gap between neighbourhoods. Municipal decision-makers need to develop and enact policies that take into consideration ways to create equitable neighbourhoods. This would mean increasing access to opportunities and conditions conducive to health for those residents living in lower income neighbourhoods. For example ensuring the availability of a multi-modal transportation system (e.g. pedestrian networks, cycling networks, and access to public transit in addition to roadways) to ensure equitable access to community services, employment, education and recreation opportunities; and developing and implementing policies that support mixed housing by integrating affordable housing units and limiting the concentration of poverty.
One way to create equitable neighbourhoods is by ensuring that the policies included in their Official Plan, and Master Plans (e.g. Transportation, Parks and Recreation, Housing) support the design of complete communities. Complete communities are communities that meet the daily living needs of residents by providing a mix of jobs, housing, schools, recreation, open/green spaces, local shops and services and which have options for active and public transportation. In addition, municipal decision-makers need to develop collaborative partnerships with public health professionals. Public health professionals whether in a community health centre, hospital, regional health unit, or community-based program are trained to promote, protect, and improve the health of individuals and/or the entire population. Public health professionals have an understanding that some population groups, such as those living on low-income, are at a greater risk of poor health than the general population and that health behaviours are influenced by factors outside of the individual, such as the neighbourhood they live in. By working together, municipal decision-makers and public health professionals can develop policies to increase opportunities for residents to engage in healthy lifestyles in safe and accommodating environments.
Building Complete and Sustainable Communities: Healthy Policies for Official Plans is a resource that has been developed by public health professionals to provide municipal decision-makers with policies and implementation strategies to support the development of healthy and complete communities. I believe that municipal elected officials and staff from all departments need to review this resource and identify ways to strengthen their local policies to lessen the equity gap in their community. They also need to reach out to local public health professionals and leverage their expertise to comprehensively address health inequities.
Dr. Bergeron is widely recognized as a leading built environment and health planning specialist in Ontario. Her research focuses on developing resources to facilitate the collaborative efforts of municipal planners and public health professionals working to create complete communities. Dr. Bergeron recently presented at the Between Health & Place: Understanding the Built Environment Forum held by the Wellesley Institute on June 25, 2013.