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Encouraging sprawl harms health

By Kim Perrotta, John Atkinson

Dec 23 2022 · 3 min read

Illuminem Voices
Cities · Social Responsibility · Sustainable Living

The Ontario government’s Bill 23 — More Homes Built Faster Act — is being positioned to address the affordable housing crunch. However, by opening hundreds of acres of land in the Greenbelt and in conservation authorities to development, Bill 23 could result in suburban sprawl that puts the health of Ontario residents at risk, while threatening the future of our children.

Suburban sprawl increases the use of cars, makes it difficult to provide efficient transit service, and discourages active modes of transportation such as walking and cycling. This will, in turn, decrease physical activity, and increase air pollution and climate emissions.

A robust body of research tells us that people walk more, cycle more and use transit more when they live in more compact neighbourhoods that provide a mix of amenities, efficient transit service, and safe infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. Unlike suburban sprawl, these communities have been strongly linked to reduced rates of obesity, chronic diseases and early deaths. With physical inactivity producing $2.6 billion each year in health-related costs in Ontario, public health agencies have been working for years to create communities that encourage walking, cycling and transit use.

Millions of residents in Ontario are also exposed to harmful levels of traffic-related air pollution (TRAP). TRAP is found in high concentrations along busy traffic corridors such as the 401. It causes a suite of negative health impacts, including childhood asthma, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and childhood leukemia. Over 1,200 premature deaths and $9.5 billion in health-related impacts each year, in Canada, are attributed to TRAP.

Walkable, bikeable and transit-supportive communities foster physical activity, reduce air pollution and provide affordable access to jobs, essential services and recreational opportunities to people of all ages, abilities and income levels. Unlike suburban sprawl, they encourage social equity, while preserving farmland and green space. And they reduce climate emissions.

In 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the world must halve its climate emissions by 2030 and reduce them to net zero by 2050, if we are to secure a livable and sustainable future for humanity.

According to the IPCC, we can expect a five-fold increase in extreme events if we allow global warming to reach 2 C, which we will do within decades at the current rate of emissions.

Canada is not immune to the health risks presented by climate change. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and storms, that have become more frequent and intense with global warming, are disrupting the lives of millions in Canada with power outages, damaged homes, broken infrastructure and mental stress.

Heat-related deaths, that are increasing with climbing temperatures, now claim the lives of 2,700 people each year. In fact, over 700 people lost their lives in a single week to the 2021 “heat dome” that hit B.C.

Air pollution from wildfires, that have become bigger and more intense in response to higher temperatures, are now causing 650-2,500 premature deaths each year. Food and water insecurities are increasing for people in Northern Canada, particularly for Indigenous peoples who live close to the land, because of melting permafrost, increasing sea levels, and shifting plant and animal ranges.

Canada has been one of the top 10 emitters of climate pollution for decades. Ontario continues to be the second-highest emitting province in the country with the transportation sector responsible for 32 per cent of our emissions. So the actions we take in this province matter — particularly those that affect the transportation sector — to our residents and to the global community.

Bill 23 could lead us away from health by encouraging suburban sprawl. The bill needs to be changed in order to address housing needs, while protecting Ontarians’ health and the future of our children.

This article is also published in The Hamilton Spectator. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Kim Perrotta, MHSc is an Environmental Health Policy Specialist who has been working issues related to air quality, climate change, and the built environment for over 30 years. She is the Editor and co-author of the 240-page Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals and the author of the 220-page report, Public Health and Land Use Planning: How 10 Public Health Units are Working to Create Healthy and Sustainable Communities.

John Atkinson is the executive director of the Ontario Public Health Association.

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