Plans for a healthier county
For a number of years, I have written on the need to build and rebuild our communities for health. It is important that our communities become easier, safer and more pleasant to walk, cycle or take public transit to work, school, shopping and recreation. Protecting the environment, which provides our air, food and water, is also crucial for our health.
The health benefits of walking, cycling and taking public transit are well-documented in public health research. People who use transit get 18 minutes more physical activity per day, since every bus trip begins and ends with a walk. This greatly contributes to the amount of the daily physical activity that we all need to avoid diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis (weak bones) and cancer. Most of us feel we are too busy to deliberately work out, so the physical activity that is part of our daily transportation routine is essential to our health. Also, where we are able to walk, cycle, bus and train to work and school, we can breathe easier thanks to air that is spared of traffic-related air pollution.
Good public transit, and walking and cycling infrastructure are particularly important for the well-being of people of low income. We all need ready access to places of education, work, employment training, groceries and other essential shopping, and to places of recreation with friends and family. People of low income often have poorer health as a result of the challenging conditions of their lives. Making our communities less car-dependent in design can make it much easier for everyone including people without cars to be able to shop, get to places of training or work, and to help prevent social isolation.
Research also shows that people of all ages need access to green and natural places, as time in nature is important for our physical and mental health. Green space has also been shown to be critical for improving air quality, reducing the impact of heat and reducing the impact of extreme weather.
As of the end of 2016, Simcoe County now has an approved Official Plan that, when implemented over the years to come, will improve the health of everyone. The Official Plan will result in the many towns and villages of Simcoe County becoming more complete, with more protected green space, and much safer walking and cycling access between people's homes and the many amenities and services that they need. Simcoe County is also pursuing the development of an inter-community bus system that will provide everyone (those without cars and those who choose to avoid personal vehicle use) with transportation for their needs.
Many other examples of such good planning can be found throughout the municipalities in the District of Muskoka, the cities of Barrie and Orillia, and Simcoe County. They include age-friendly community plans, downtown and waterfront revitalization plans, urban design guidelines, intensification guidelines, active transportation plans, community gardens and local food markets, and youth friendly community plans. All of these include the vitally important concepts of compact and complete communities, walking and cycling infrastructure, accessible housing near community amenities, neighbourhood access to green space, and good public transit. At this time of year in particular, with the snow and ice of winter, municipalities that keep sidewalks cleared so that walking is a real option in the winter are to be commended.
As an urban walking (in the winter) and cycling (during the rest of the year) commuter, I join everyone, well-off or financially challenged, children, youth, middle-aged and seniors whose health depends on these positive changes and on the leadership of our municipalities and their councils to continue making them happen over time.
Dr. Charles Gardner is the Simcoe Muskoka Medical Officer of Health.