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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Health and the City

There is plenty of research documenting the fact that urban living can be more healthy than suburban living. In answering the question "Are the suburbs a health hazard?", cardiologist Dr. Kim Connelly finds:

"The suburbs are a nightmare — a total planning disaster. People move in because they're affordable, and then they can't do anything.
"They're in the car all the time. You get this big house, but studies show that the rate of heart attack increases with the length of time you are stuck in traffic." (emphasis supplied).

For some, this seems hard to understand, so let me throw out a couple of ideas to help illustrate why this makes perfect sense. I'll apologize if this post seems like a ramble, but I'll be revisiting this theme often.
First of all, there is more choice in the city. Simple as that. While too many choices can have a negative effect on decision-making, feeling like you have no choice is worse. A reasonable amount of choice provides a feeling of empowerment, a centralized locus of control.
Coupled with choice is access. It's easier to get somewhere in the city than in the suburbs. In the city, you can walk, skateboard, roller-blade, ride a bicycle, hail a cab, ride the subway, take a bus or streetcar, or drive. In the suburbs, if you don't have a car, doing anything takes an excruciatingly longer amount of time, and we're just talking about during the summer - winter adds a whole new level to this argument.
Living in the city supports walking much more. Take the Junction, for example - one can get off the subway at Dundas West station and walk to four grocery stores within an half hour walk of each other. There are a number of raw, organic and vegetarian shops and restaurants in the area. The area is vibrant, yet accessible - just north of High Park, anchored by several subway stations (Lansdowne, Dundas West, Keele, High Park, Runnymede and Jane) and many 24 bus routes.
In the suburbs, everything happens by car. People aren't walking. Socially, there's no community fabric, since driving is a very disconnected experience frustrated by road rage, being cut off, fighting over overcrowded parking lots...

Source: John, Puchar, Walking and Cycling for Health

Rania Wasfi, a PhD. student in McGill’s geography department who is studying how active transportation affects physical activity and body weight, finds:
"The use of active transportation — which includes transit because it tends to involve walking — “provides an opportunity to introduce routine, daily physical activity into the lives of large groups of people,” she said. That means “it can be thought of as an important population health intervention tool.”
"Governments should look at the health benefits when considering transit investments.
“There are things you can do — changes to the city, to the system — that would have an effect in the long run on people’s health.”

After taking my son to a sporting event at the SkyDome (yeah, yeah, I know, the Rogers Centre), we walked to Yonge Street and turned north, stopping along along the way, checking out the menus, until we found something we both liked.
The equivalent distance walking in the suburbs is not a walk most people would ever make, because there's so little between intersections and the suburban areas are so car-oriented that it's simply not inviting or geared to making walking a pleasurable experience.
The suburban experience starts out with good intentions - get away from the noise, the hustle and bustle, enjoy your own greenspace, etc... but it soon devolves into spending inordinate amounts of time tending that greenspace instead of enjoying family and company, after the increased commute.
Then you look around and notice that people walk from inside their homes into the garage, into the car, and hardly have time to talk to each other. And if you're not cutting grass and throwing money down on it as fertilizer and consuming more than a fare share of water to water it (even though it's going to rain tomorrow anyway), then you're up a half hour before the morning commute to shovel snow, and if it snows during the day, you're at it again when you get home. Longer commute, more maintenance, and all the time we wanted to spend with family has been eroded by the higher maintenance lifestyle.

Don't forget to schedule in that 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week. The city dwellers get that every day without having to take time out to drive to the gym or club - simply by walking and cycling more as a mode of transportation. That walking time is exercise, is a great stress reliever, and the city dweller can get home sooner, more refreshed and emotionally able to engage the family meaningfully - getting home at 5:30 after a half hour walk is more healthy than fighting traffic for an hour and getting home flustered at 6 or 6:30, no exercise yet, no stress busted yet...

All this results in new levels of stress that are simply not associated with urban living. Sure, living in the city has its own challenges, but the research shows that, on the whole, the stresses of suburban living create more hindrance to good health than those of the city.

1 comment:

Rosanna said...

Excellent post. I can especially relate to the last 3 paragraphs. My hubby and I explored Hanlan's Point and Ward's Island on our bikes this Sunday morning. We thoroughly enjoyed it. Born and raised in Toronto and I had never been to these two gems. Glad to see you're writing more. Talk to you soon.