CHASE was recently informed by an agency that public health and land use planning issues were not a priority this year because they were focused on sustainability. While I recognize that agencies need to focus on their priorities, I was struck by the fact that this agency did not see public health and land use planning issues as sustainability issues.
The link between health and sustainability is so apparent to me that I forget that many people, even those with expertise in the fields of planning and sustainability, do not always understand the many ways in which human health is affected by the shape, form, design and function of the communities in which people live. But just as importantly, I forget that many professionals and decision-makers within the municipal sector do not understand the important role that public health professionals can and do play in their communities.
As someone who has worked with the public health sector in and around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for many years, I know that public health has been one of the leading agents for change within the municipal sector on sustainability issues for the last 20 years. Toronto Public Health led the development of the first Corporate Smog Response Program in Toronto in the early 1990s. York Region Public Health co-led the development of York Region’s Clean Air Quality Plan. Peel Health is the lead for that Region’s Air Quality Program and has been heavily involved in the development of the Region’s Climate Change Strategy. These three health units, along with those in Halton and Waterloo Regions, have developed and implemented policies, programs and health promotion campaigns that are directed at air quality, climate change, extreme heat and pesticide reduction over the last decade.
Collectively, these health units have worked with their municipal colleagues to: assess alternative fuels and retrofits for their corporate fleets; develop idling control policies for their corporate operations and communities; reduce pesticide use on municipal and private property; establish heat alert and response programs for their communities; promote reductions in energy use at home and on the road; and demonstrate the health benefits associated with public transit and active transportation.
Collectively, they have also advocated for: the phase-out of coal-fired power plants; improvements to energy efficiency standards for building codes; improved fuel and vehicle standards; a cumulative approach to air quality assessments; and development patterns that support public transit and active transportation.
More recently, a number of other public health units across the province have become advocates for policies that support sustainability. For many of these health units, action is being taken to promote physical activity, reduce rates of chronic disease, minimize vehicle-related injuries and deaths, reduce health inequities, and foster social cohesion and mental health. These public health units are educating the public, engaging community organizations, and providing comments on land use and transportation planning documents to garner support for trails and green space, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods, development patterns that support public transit, paved highway shoulders, bike lanes and complete street policies.
All of these health units are armed with health evidence to support the need for changes in community design. They are well-connected to their communities and well-respected by decision-makers. While it is true that healthy communities are not necessarily sustainable communities, and that sustainable communities are not necessarily healthy, there is a huge overlap in the objectives of these two goals. Within the land use and transportation planning processes, public health has been one of the few sectors that has not traditionally been “at the table”. That is changing in communities across the province as Planners and public health professionals alike recognize the important link between health and the built environment and the many benefits that can result from inter-disciplinary collaboration.
It is time for us to break the silos between health and the environment; to recognize the many ways in which public health objectives are sustainability objectives; and to integrate the two sets of objectives into the planning, development and organization of our communities. Is this happening in your community??