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Healthier communities can help Canadians get more active, eat better and stay socially connected

Step into the Telford Mews mixed-income housing development in Leduc, Alta., and one of the first things you’ll notice is the wide, naturally lit stairwell and an invitation: “Wanna feel better? Take the stairs!”

The move-in package includes a map showing the easiest routes to walk or take the bus from your new home to nearby recreation and healthcare facilities, churches, grocery stores and the farmers market.

Karen Lee

Karen Lee


Spencer Croil

The recently opened six-floor development is one of three pilot projects designed to demonstrate how building and site design and neighbourhood amenities can help bring Canada’s new Healthy Community Guidelines to life to promote physical activity, healthy eating and social connections.

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Telford Mews development in Leduc, Alta

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The guidelines were released this month by the University of Alberta’s Housing for Health initiative, with funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada. The guidelines are based on nearly three years of consultation and collaboration with more than 100 partners from across the country, including public and private sector urban planners, architects, developers, healthcare and public health professionals, and community leaders.

“I think people will be surprised by the breadth of these strategies to promote healthy living,” says Housing for Health director Karen Lee, associate professor of preventive medicine. “Many of them can be done at minimal to no extra cost – whether it’s a new build, a renovation or even retrofitting infrastructure that may not yet be due for renovation – with things like art, coloured paint and wayfinding signage to healthy amenities.”

“It’s about awareness of the opportunity to promote health,” says Doug Sollows, associate principal of Arcadis Architects (Canada), who worked on the Telford Mews project with developer Christenson Group. “For example, we designed the stairwells to be bright, and the treads are 12 feet wide by six inches high – very generous – to provide the ability to walk up safely and without difficulty.”

The rationale behind the guidelines is the growing evidence that small changes to our built environment can add up to a big difference for public health, says Lee, author of Fit Cities: My Quest to Improve the World’s Health and Wellness –  Including Yours.

Non-communicable illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung diseases are now the leading causes of death in Canada and worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Lee worked in public health during Michael Bloomberg’s 12-year tenure as New York City’s mayor, where multi-sector collaborations on health-focused measures led to a reversal of childhood obesity trends and a faster increase in life expectancy than the rest of the U.S. The new rules tackled everything from changing the foods offered in local schools to increasing play spaces to requiring restaurant calorie and sodium labelling.

Lee and her team also introduced New York City’s Active Design Guidelines to improve designs and healthy amenities in affordable and mixed-income housing developments and to be used as a yardstick for all new construction and major renovation projects.

“The guidelines were integrated into all city construction and design standards, so all new public buildings or neighbourhoods and street construction now needed to incorporate as many of the strategies as possible,” Lee says.

She expects the new Canadian guidelines will be useful to everyone from municipalities to builders to public health advocates to community leagues and residents giving input into new development proposals in their neighbourhoods.

“The Healthy Community Guidelines serve as a guidance document of evidence-informed and practically feasible strategies for planning, designing, building and maintaining communities, streets, buildings and building sites through a health and well-being lens, particularly to impact the key risk factors of physical inactivity, unhealthy eating and social isolation,” she notes in the guidelines’ introduction.

The guidelines recommend that new housing be built within 800 metres of retail businesses, or to create retail businesses in and around existing housing neighbourhoods to promote more walking trips to such services, which is good for the health of both the residents and the businesses. Even within smaller communities, there should be a core area of denser development for people who can’t drive, such as seniors. There are suggestions for better signage, sidewalks, transit stop amenities and request-a-stop options for transit in rural areas.

To show how the guidelines can work in real-life scenarios, Lee’s team worked with municipalities, architects and developers across the country. There were also three pilot projects in Alberta, including affordable housing for seniors in Edmonton, a seniors’ complex in Whitecourt that includes independent living, supportive living and dementia care, and the Leduc building.

“What these pilot developments are meant to do is illustrate (the) feasibility of the partnerships and implementation of healthier design and amenity strategies at the building scale, the site scale and the neighbourhood scale in different sizes of municipalities,” says Lee, who also teaches at the U of A’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Urban planner Spencer Croil was one of the volunteers who helped develop the new guidelines. He is already incorporating them into his work as land development manager for the City of Lethbridge, Alta.

“It’s exciting because it’s evidence-based guidance that distils a lot of the academic research down into understandable, bite-sized components that can be applied to any style of neighbourhood,” Croil says. “We can actually take small steps to all work towards the ultimate goal of healthful communities in as many ways as possible.”

In Lethbridge, Croil says that might mean improving “site permeability” within neighbourhoods by adding connecting pathways between curvilinear streets so pedestrians and cyclists can access amenities more easily. Or building numerous smaller parks within a new neighbourhood instead of just one large peripheral green space with a stormwater pond and pathway around it. It could mean adding outdoor adult exercise equipment, accessible playground equipment, a picnic shelter or a pollinating garden to make each park unique and interesting to multiple users. Or ensuring a subdivision that will add up to 100 new homes annually over the next 20 years has some “visitable” models, meaning they would not have steep walkways in front of them, so seniors can stay as they age.

“It’s just being more thoughtful about the users and creating those opportunities for better use of the amenities that we all fund through municipal taxation,” Croil says. “Based on our current and future projections for demographics of people 65 and over, we know that people have healthier lifestyles if they can age in place.”

Croil, who also volunteers with the Alberta Professional Planners Institute and is a sessional instructor of planning at the University of Lethbridge, says many of the new guidelines fit well with the goals of Lethbridge’s latest municipal development plan. He intends to compare all new projects in his portfolio against what the guidelines suggest to create a kind of internal scorecard for his team.

“Instead of it being a desktop exercise just for me, then it becomes a standard of practice for the entire department and something that our council and our community gets behind over time,” he says.

For her part, Lee is proud of the work her team has done to bring diverse partners together to make change.

“I hear repeatedly from our partners – including government –  that the university is well positioned as a respected and neutral entity to bring together different groups and create community conversation to advance innovations collectively,” she says.

| By Gillian Rutherford

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine, a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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