Urban Planning and Health are Inseparable: Here’s Why

Policy Brief by Toni Steele.

A close-up of a crosswalk painted on a downtown road.

The built environment, which includes our human-made physical surroundings, has a significant impact on our lifestyle, our activity level, and consequentially, our overall health. For these reasons, among others, we should care about how our cities are built. This piece will explain how urban planning determines our health by increasing physical activity, influencing our access to healthy food, and affecting our mental health.


Land-use planning has a significant impact on our health. Research shows that mixed land use, a zoning type that includes different uses (e.g., residential, commercial), is associated with higher levels of physical activity [1]. For example, a community with mixed land use might have a grocery store, work offices, a shopping mall, and a residential area in close proximity. Mixed land use matters because it promotes physical activity. Those who live in communities with well-connected streets and high residential density are more active than those in more car-centered communities [2]. If people have convenient opportunities to walk, rollerblade or bike to the things they need, they have a higher chance of being physically active. However, it is not only mixed land use, well-connected street networks and residential density that influence our health.


Parks, walking trails, bike paths, and playgrounds can lead to more leisure-time physical activity (3). This increase in leisure-time physical activity mainly comes from an increase in active transportation. Active transportation, which is any method by which you use your own power to get from one place to another (i.e., walking, biking, non-mechanized wheel chairing), is an important way that adults achieve their recommended amount of physical activity (4). If communities are built for, and incentivize, active transportation, this will help create more active, healthy communities. To note, engaging in at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (which can include brisk walking), puts you at lower risk for heart disease and a stroke (5). Frequent physical activity can also help lower your blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels (6). Opportunities for active transportation help build physical activity into people’s daily routines where they might not exercise otherwise.


Nutrition is another big component of our overall health. But how can urban planning influence what we eat? To an extent, urban planning can help determine whether there are healthy food options in our area. Decisions like establishing a grocery store over a fast-food chain or making sure that grocery stores are walkable or accessible by public transit, can significantly impact access to healthy food. A study in New York found access to healthy food inversely associated with obesity prevalence [7]. Therefore, urban planning can affect both what we eat and how physically active we are.


Do the appearances of our cities really matter if they have mixed land use and have convenient opportunities for active transportation and healthy food? The answer is, yes. Communities that are aesthetically pleasing and have recreational facilities incite more physical activity from residents [8]. Health is not only dependent on how cities function, but how they look. Research has shown that communities with good walkability are associated with low stress, whereas large streetscapes with complex building exteriors are likely perceived as stressful to residents [9]. If a city is aesthetically unappealing, it might not only disincentivize physical activity, but may cause stress within itself. Depression has also been linked to both social and physical aspects of the built environment, including things such as urban crowding, street design and the presence of green spaces [10]. The appearance of communities can influence our well-being. If we feel as though our environment is unwelcoming or unpleasant, it may affect our mental health.


More specifically, green spaces can be powerful tools in achieving urban health. Green spaces are not only calming to look at, but also incentivize physical activity [11]. Take a moment to ask yourself whether you would be more likely to go outside for a walk if you knew there was a park, some trees, or green space for you to enjoy. For most people, the answer would be yes.


Urban planning has a significant impact on chronic health conditions by incentivizing physical activity and reducing stress levels. With this, I challenge people to reflect on how urban planning practices could be improved within your own city, no matter the size. Effective and mindful urban planning not only impacts how our cities look, but the health of our population.

 

Bibliography


(1) Public Health Agency of Canada, “Supportive Environments for Physical Activity: How the Built Environment Affects our Health.” https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/healthy-living/supportive-environments-physical-activity-built-environment-affects-health.html.


(2) Ibid.


(3) Public Health Agency of Canada, “Fast Facts about Canada’s Neighbourhoods and Physical Activity.” https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/healthy-living/fast-facts-about-canada-s-neighbourhoods-physical-activity.html.


(4) Public Health Agenda of Canada, “Fast Facts.”; Government of Canada, “Active Transportation.” https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/being-active/active-transportation.html.


(5) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Benefits of Physical Activity.” https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm.


(6) Ibid.


(7) Noa Pinter-Wollman, Andrea Jelić and Nancy M. Wells, “The Impact of the Built Environment on Health Behaviours and Disease Transmission in Social Systems,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 373: 4, http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0245.


(8) Public Health Agency of Canada, “Supportive Environments.”


(9) Pinter-Wollman, Jelić and Wells, “The Impact of the Built Environment”, 4.


(10) Ibid, 2.


(11) Iva Greenshtein, Osnat Keidar, Chariklia Tziraki, and David Chinitz, “‘Greening Our Backyard’- Health Behavior Impacts of the Built Environment Within the Overall Ecology of Active Living,” Cities & Health (2020): 1–18, https://doi-org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1080/23748834.2020.1725353.