Inviting Activity into Public Spaces

Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending the Healthy People Healthy Places 2014 event in Vancouver. It highlighted the great work being done by the City of Vancouver, but also pointed to New York’s accomplishments in creating a healthier city for its residents. The interesting pieces for me were: the role of partnerships in helping to accomplish change; the history of public health’s role in changing the way our cities are designed; and the possibility of reinvigorating the relationship between public health and cities.

Dr. Karen Lee was the keynote speaker and her premise is that many of the health issues we face today – of increasing chronic disease is due to imbalances in energy. She described chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease as “diseases of energy”. Both too much energy, in terms of our obesogenic environment and the availability of calorie-dense foods everywhere we turn, but also too little energy expended in the form of physical activity. Taking this analogy further, by using cars instead of walking or cycling to where we need to go, we are using polluting fossil fuel energy to the detriment of our health.

Our environments shape our health. Dr. Lee called this “an invisible, pervasive and inevitable part of life.”

She then went on to describe how New York City has attempted to combat “diseases of energy” by enhancing the walkability, mixed-use and attractiveness of its public spaces. She described seeing a sidewalk not as a strip of pavement, but as a room – with the street wall, floor, ceiling and building wall – all four of these sides to the room help to shape the user experience of using a sidewalk (or their likelihood of not doing so).

This culture shift in NYC has taken many years to mature to the point where their Department of Transport sees their key mission as moving people, rather than moving cars, but it has happened. Seeing the nods from those sitting in the room at the event, I think that BC has the opportunity to capitalize on the great work being done close to home and deepen our shift into healthier building practices.

Samantha Hartley-Folz
Manager, Policy and Programs
June 2014

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