As someone who has worked with the public health sector in Ontario for many years, I know that public health has been one of the leading agents for change on sustainability issues within the municipal sector for the last 20 years.
Toronto Public Health led the development of the first Corporate Smog Response Program in Toronto in the 1990s. York Region Public Health co-led the development of York Region’s Clean Air Quality Plan. Peel Health was 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 two decades.
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.
Over the last decade, 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 to reduce rates of chronic disease; minimize vehicle-related injuries and deaths; support healthy eating; 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, green space, and parks; pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods; development patterns that support public transit; paved highway shoulders, bike lanes and complete street policies; and community gardens, temporary markets and other policies to support access to healthy foods.
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 there are some areas where healthy community and sustainability policies differ, there is a huge overlap in the objectives associated with 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 planning, transportation professionals and public health professionals 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 healthy community 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?
Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director (Volunteer), Creating Healthy and Sustainable Environments (CHASE) Kim Perrotta/LinkedIn