We already know the keys to longer and healthier lives lie in our lifestyle choices, like eating better and exercising more. But making those choices is hard enough at any age, especially as people get older and start to lose their mobility.
What might happen if we designed our communities differently to make it easier to form healthier habits?
That’s the big question behind the $4.4 million investment by the Public Health Agency of Canada in the Housing for Health project: an initiative that will build new developments for over 4,000 residents in Edmonton and Whitecourt, Alberta.
It’s a multi-disciplinary effort spearheaded by eight faculties at the University of Alberta: Medicine & Dentistry; Kinesiology, Sport & Recreation; Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences; Public Health; Engineering; Science; Business; and Extension.
“We can change all the human-made elements of our environments, like neighbourhood design, streets and buildings,” said project director Karen Lee in a statement.
“If we approach community design from a health outcomes and well-being perspective, we can potentially reverse epidemics like obesity and chronic diseases, and address issues like social isolation and poor mental health.”
When it comes to making healthy choices, the odds are stacked against most people. It’s too easy to lead sedentary lives, eat ultra-processed foods, and stay socially isolated.
One of the keys to building healthier communities is density. There needs to be enough people in the area to support local businesses and to warrant recreational facilities and shared green spaces within easy walking distance. The plan also includes pedestrian-friendly walkways, crosswalks that allow enough time for elderly residents to cross safely, and connections (preferably indoors) to healthy food and grocery options through potentially inclement weather.
There will also be local schools, gardens, and other outdoor features that will give residents a reason to get outside.
All of these decisions will be made in consultation with municipal leaders and residents, who will be important in identifying and addressing barriers to healthy living. Research already supports the notion that residents who have more walkable neighbourhoods and local access to healthier food options are more likely to choose active lifestyles and healthy diets.
“In the 19th and early 20th centuries, we conquered previous infectious disease epidemics such as cholera, through community planning and design efforts to create more supportive environments, like improving sanitation and clean water,” explains Lee.
“Today, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, depression and anxiety, and unhealthy aging are the main causes of death, disability and/or rapidly rising health-care costs in Canada. The environments in which we live, work, go to school and play, are not supportive enough.”
The research team will go one step beyond design and monitor the health of the residents of their new developments. Their results could help form a new industry standard in how new neighbourhoods are designed or how old ones can be updated to include the community features that work.
In essence, these are communities designed for people, and not for cars. These vibrant and bustling residential hubs are intended to increase social connections, promote physical activity, stimulate local business, and boost healthy eating. These are not just goals for independent living for the elderly; these are good design decisions for residents of all ages.
It can feel difficult to find the time and motivation to make healthier choices. Having easy and enjoyable incentives in the spaces around us shouldn’t be a luxury — they should be the standard. Hopefully Housing for Health will provide insights that housing developers can use to build better communities from the ground up.