Tuesday, November 30, 2010


American Makeover TV is not something that you might expect. It's not another reality show about making people into supermodels or building houses that they can't afford. It's about changing American cities - from sprawling monsters that are bad for our health and our environment - to walkable, healthy and enjoyable cities. The solution to sprawl, say the series' makers, is New Urbanism, and that's what they set out to chronicle. 

The web series visits six American cities. The first webisode takes on Atlanta, Georgia, the 'capital city of sprawl' and ironically the home base of the world renowned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Certainly building new communities and redesigning existing cities in ways we are not used will no doubt be a complex and time-consuming process, with many interacting societal factors. However, I think this series gives us a glimpse of some of the things we can expect - it's a start and certainly worth the watch. I'll keep you updated on the release of the second webisode coming soon.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Health by design (Part 1)

Today's post is one part of a two-part series on how we can build better places to live. Here I will briefly describe different neighbourhood designs and their issues in terms of health and environmental sustainability. The second post will further analyze the 'fused-grid' design, a design that may allow for both health and sustainability to exist in harmony. 
Now, to set the stage. Back in the olden days, neighbourhoods, towns, and cities were built to accommodate pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. This gave rise to the classic grid-iron street pattern - making it easy for someone on foot to get from point A to B. Because people could not get very far very fast, they had to live close to one another, to where they worked, and to markets where they could buy the necessities of living. The centres of very old European cities are great examples of this type of street design. 
                                                            Barcelona, Spain: classic pedestrian-friendly streets
The North American suburb evolved as a result of several things: abundance of land, the advent of the automobile as well as availability of cheap fossil fuels (at the time), and the need to separate land-uses for health reasons (1). More well-to-do residents also wanted more privacy and green space. The current result? Neighbourhoods with meandering loops and lollipop streets that go nowhere, connected to urban centres via large arterial roads that encourage drivers to speed, and therefore, are largely unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists (2). Residents no longer live close to anything and must rely on the car to get anywhere. In effect, the ability to live a healthy lifestyle has been engineered out of the built environment (3).

Route directness: comparison between loop/lollipop and grid-iron street designs
To build further on the previous point, many people see suburban sprawl as a determinant of the obesity epidemic, as residents spend more time in the car than actually walking, with often less access to services that promote healthy eating and physical activity. In the scientific literature, low population density has been found to relate significantly to excess weight; however the results have been  more consistent among adults than children(4,5,6). For children, it may be that it takes some time for such environments to exert their affects on weight, or the effects might not be the same among children compared to adults.  Given that the literature is primarily based on the cross-sectional study design, for both adults and children, it is likely that the relationship between sprawl and weight status is not that clear cut, with other factors at various levels of social organization (such as individual and  and neighbourhood socio-economic status) playing a role (7).  

Suburban living is also not sustainable. Few people can argue with that. The amount of land is not infinite, nor for that matter, is oil. We also need somewhere to grow our food. Greenhouse gas emissions from cars are poisoning our air, and new residential developments and road construction threaten ecosystem health, as well established communities, which are often disadvantaged, and therefore lack the power and resources to protect what is theirs (7,8). 

The pitfalls of sprawl have in large part led to the revitalization of the grid-iron street pattern of old, often referred to as 'neo-traditional,' as well as the rise in popularity of 'smart growth' and 'new urbanism': similar design mantras that focus on fostering a sense of community, mixing land-uses such as housing, commercial, and retail, are transit and pedestrian oriented, value the utility of green spaces, and often rely on the grid-iron street design. 

Herein lies the problem: balancing what people want/can afford with sustainability and health. 

Using the neo-traditional grid-iron neighbourhood pattern often means high-density housing. Many people still want single-family homes with a backyard, not a condo. For the average person or family, living 'downtown' in a condo is often not possible anyway due to enormous real estate costs. 

The grid-iron pattern also requires a lot of paved surface area.  This is bad for the environment in two main ways: 
[a]As the percentage of street surfaces increases, the city becomes a ‘heat island’ with temperatures differentials that can be 5-10°C between the city and surrounding hinterlands (9). Increased temperatures in and around cities leads to enhanced ozone formation and increase the number of officially recognized smog days. The adverse influence of ozone is further enhanced via suburban sprawl which can project ozone to surrounding agriculture lands, decreasing crop yields by 5-10% (9); 
[b] Streets are responsible for about 75% of total water runoff after a rainfall and are key sources of waterborne particles and pollutants from the built environment, which necessitate water treatment (10).

Finally, if a move to more high-density living is not accompanied by reductions in automobile use and investment in city infrastructure such as construction and maintenance of sidewalks and parks, mixed land-use development, public transportation, and sewage and water treatment systems, health and sustainability problems would stay the same or even worsen.    

How can we then fix suburban sprawl if we can't use street designs that worked in the days of horse and buggy? 

Certainly ALL urban planning should follow smart growth/new urbanism principles. However, in Canada, there is a large gap between what is proposed and what actually gets done (11) ; never mind the fact that not all cities and municipalities even 'propose' to follow these healthy and sustainable building principles. 

The answer may lie with a neighbourhood design that fuses the grid-iron and conventional sub-division designs. It is aptly named the Fused-grid Design (FG); a design that consists of a discontinuous grid of local streets (quadrants, quartiers, or quarters) surrounded by a continuous grid of collectors and arterial roads that provide connectivity for regional and district travel. Keeping local streets discontinuous, as in conventional suburban design, increases safety and tranquility for residents. The almost exclusive use of 3-way intersections also increases safety.

A Fused-Grid District with 36 neighbourhoods
Quadrants in the FG follow the same dimensions as those of traditional town quartiers that originated in the horse and buggy era (around 40 acres, or 1,300 x 1,300 ft) (12). The essential principle of the quadrant is that streets cannot traverse it. They must stop or return to the perimeter. Pedestrian and bicycle paths connect discontinuous streets between quadrants so that pedestrians or cyclists can travel directly and safely to nearby destinations. Open spaces are placed where streets end, usually in central areas of the quadrant (green area in the picture). They function as places for social interaction, physical activity, and route connection for pedestrians (12). Each quadrant is said to be traversable by a pedestrian in 5 minutes. 

The design is flexible in that there are many different configurations of street patterns with open space and housing densities (as can be seen in the picture). For example, one quadrant could contain exclusively high density or low density housing. Alternatively, high density housing could be placed on the perimeter of the quadrant, with single family housing located in the interior. Mixed land-use zones separate quadrants, and provide areas to develop schools, parks or businesses (white area with red lines). If population growth places too much stress on existing infrastructure, these areas can also be used for road redesign and/or expansion within the existing road allowance (13). 

New developments can use the FG but old grid-iron and conventional subdivision designs can also be retrofitted to the FG design. This design idea does not seem to be new - older European cities such as Munich appear to already be using these design principles.   

Three distinct FG quadrants in Munich, Germany
Does the FG work in terms of health and sustainability? Has it been implemented in Canada? These and other things will be discussed in Health by Design: Part 2


(1) Duany A, Plater-Zyberk E. The traditional neighbourhood and urban sprawl. New Urbanism and beyond: Designing cities for the future.New York: Rizzoli International Publishers; 2008. p. 64.

(2) Nozzi D. Speed, size, and the destruction of cities. New Urbanism and beyond: Designing cities for the future.New York: Rizzoli International Publishers; 2008. p. 89.

(3) Malizia EE. City and regional planning: a primer for public health officials. Am J Health Promot 2005;19(5):Suppl-13.

(4) Shields M, Tjepkema M. Regional differences in obesity. Health Rep 2006;17(3):61-7.
(5) Feng J, Glass TA, Curriero FC, Stewart WF, Schwartz BS. The built environment and obesity: A systematic review of the epidemiologic evidence. Health & Place 2009; 16 (2): 175 - 90

(6) Dunton GF, Kaplan J, Jerrett M, Reynolds KD. Physical environmental correlates of childhood obesity: a systematic review. Obes Rev 2009 Jul;10(4):393-402. 

(7) Lopez R, Hynes HP. Obesity, physical activity, and the urban environment: public health research needs. Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source 2006;5(1):25-32

(8) Savitch HV. How suburban sprawl shapes human well-being. J Urban Health 2003;80(4):590-607.

(9) Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, Grove JM, Nilon CH, Pouyat RV, Zipperer WC, et al. Urban ecological systems: Linking terrestrial ecological, physical, and socioeconomic components of metropolitan areas. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 2001;32:127-57.

(10) Engel-Yan J, Kennedy C, Saiz S, Pressnail K. Toward sustainable neighbourhoods: the need to consider infrastructure interactions. Can J Civil Eng 2005;32:45-57.

(11) Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Smart Growth in Canada: A Report Card. 2005 

(12) Grammenos F. The Fused Grid: A contemporary urban pattern. http://www.fusedgrid.ca/fusedgrid.php

(13) Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The Fused Grid: A neighbourhood and district layout model. http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/inpr/su/sucopl/fugr/index.cfm 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Getting kids outside and back to nature

I am in the midst of a two-day conference called Healthy Children Healthy Spaces, put on jointly by KidActive, Child & Nature Alliance, and International Play Association Canada. The basic objective is to share knowledge and network around ways to make children's outdoor spaces conducive to active play and in turn foster their physical, mental/emotional, social, and spiritual health. One main way to accomplish all of this is to provide 'green' environments, which engage children and peak their natural curiosity.

On day 1, Tim Gill, a well-known thinker in child development in the UK, gave a keynote speech on his book 'No fear: growing up in a risk averse society.' For me, his speech added another element, or potential determinant if you like, to the childhood obesity epidemic. He first asked us to think of our favourite place to play when we were children. Then asked us to stand if that place was a wooded area or forest; everyone stood up. He then asked us if this place was away from adult supervision; most of us remained standing. That set the tone for his entire speech. 

Many adults feel that children grow up faster than they used to, but from Tim's perspective, it's totally the opposite. There is a growing anxiety among parents to protect their children from all types of harm; they feel that this is their job. Thus, children's freedom is shrinking as parents take more control and oversight over what they do. This 'helicopter parenting' it is to the detriment of children's health and well-being, but has become the norm, where parents who let their children bike to school are seen as negligent. Tim said that children are now 'raised in captivity.' I think that provides a nice visual of how children grow up these days.  He elaborated on this by showing us a report, although hardly representative but intriguing nonetheless, on 'how children have lost the right to roam in 4 generations'

Tim then focused his attention to outdoor play places made especially for kids. The built from a catalogue playground, sure, is designed to safety standards, but is it truly engaging? It certainly costs a lot. We aren't even sure if those seemingly 'extra safe' rubber surfaces prevent injuries; children tend to take more risks when they know the landing is softer. Over the past 20 years in the UK, there have been 5 or 6 equipment-related fatalities on playgrounds, yet 500 times as many children have been struck and killed by vehicles on the streets. In Canada, playground deaths are 'rare,' although I could not find exact numbers. Yet, an estimated 56 children under age 14 die each year from being hit by a car when they are on foot, and a further 20 die from being hit while on a bike. Where then is our money better spent? I'd say on: 

1) developing natural environments that allows kids the chance to explore and connect with nature, but are not restricted by rigid safety standards and helicopter parents

Trees and plants for play
Photo credit London Play 

2) on taking back our streets from the automobile, by making them safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Below is an example of taking right-of-way away from motorists  (the vibrant, permeable cul-de-sac - a design feature of the 'fused-grid' - full discussion of this neighbourhood design coming soon!)


Friday, November 5, 2010

The Story of Food

This is a great short film that reminds me a bit of the documentary 'Food Inc.'  It explains where our food actually comes from and is a great attempt at getting people to think about how seriously messed up our food system has become. Namely, that we have lost our connection with 'real' food and the people who grow it. The film was produced by USC Canada, an organization dedicated to supporting small family farms, strong rural communities, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, and social equity, including food security.     

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Indiana Jones and the Fight for Biodiversity

Now if Indiana Jones thinks that saving biodiversity is a good thing, then well, maybe it is. I can't recall a time that Indi was ever wrong...Nor Hans Solo for that matter..

That's right, Harrison Ford was in attendance at a summit of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, being held in Nagoya, Japan from October 18 - 29, 2010. I had no idea he was a conservationist, not to be confused with conservative - an easy mistake to make given his country of origin..Tea Party Patriots, need I say more?

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is an international treaty for the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of the components of biodiversity and the equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the use of genetic resources. It entered into being in 1993 and has near universal participation of countries. Of course, the U.S. is among three countries that have not yet ratified it. 

That's why Indi was there, to kick some Congress butt into action! He called on the U.S. to ratify the convention and to spread the environmental word to American consumers, the largest (no pun intended) consumers in the world.  

In his opening summit address, Ahmed Djoghlaf, CBD Executive Secretary, underlined the urgency of the talks: 'The third edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook demonstrates that, today, the rate of loss of biodiversity is up to one thousand times higher than the background and historical rate of extinction. The report predicts that if we allow the current trends to continue we shall soon reach a tipping point with irreversible and irreparable damage to the capacity of the planet to continue sustaining life on Earth.' 

Talks between country representatives resulted in agreement on the "Aichi Target", which includes 20 headline targets organized under five strategic goals to be reached by 2020. Targets of particular importance include:
  • Cutting the rate of natural habitat loss, including forests, by at least 50%;
  • Increasing protection of land (and inland waters) from 13% to 17%
  • Increasing protection of marine and coastal areas from 1% to 10%; 
  • Restoring at least 15 % of degraded areas; and
  • Reducing pressures faced by coral reefs 

Parties agreed to a 'substantial increase in the level of financial resources in support of implementation of the Convention'. But who knows what that will or will not translate into. Criticism of the Aichi Target stems in large part from lack of funding for its actual implementation.

Agreement on the equitable sharing of the benefits (often genetic) derived from the exploitation of flora and fauna was expected to cause problems for overall summit goals.  However, a protocol was developed to ensure that developing countries rich in natural resources, such as Brazil, are recompensated for products made from their native plants and animals. This protocol will come into play once it is ratified by at least 50 parties.   

Ahmed Djoghlaf seemed to be pleased with the outcome of the summit in light of his closing remarks. Conservation groups, on the other hand, say that it is a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough.

Ford has sat on the board of Conservation International for 20 years, and is the current Vice Chair. In addition to calling on the U.S. to ratify the Convention, he was at the Nagoya Summit to persuade world leaders to protect vast amounts of land and water. His organization believes that 25% of land and 15% of oceans need to be protected in order to steer clear of the tipping point.

The U.S. has not paid heed to Indi's calls, citing that  it has so far not been politically 'necessary' to ratify the convention (let alone agree on the Aichi Target). This is the summit's greatest weakness. The U.S. is the world's largest energy consumer, and has the highest Gross Domestic Product; a country unfortunately, with a lot of pull on the world stage. If the U.S. is not on board, other developing countries may forgo their pledges in the name of economic development at the expense of their natural resources. Not to mention that American pharmaceutical companies and other businesses have no requirement to respect the protocol on the equitable sharing of benefits derived from countries' native plants and animals. And we all know how 'ethical' pharmaceutical companies have been of late. If the failing Obama government won't sign on, can we expect the next American government backed by a sweeping citizen movement that promotes fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets? I think that is a resounding no. 

Listen to Indiana Jones people! Speaking to the 193 countries in Nagoya he said that nature provides free services but that it is under threat, and bold and decisive action needs to be taken. He wasn't kidding. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a global study initiated by the G8 and five major developing economies to analyze the global economic benefit of biological diversity, the costs of the loss of biodiversity and the failure to take protective measures versus the costs of effective conservation,” found compelling economic arguments for conservation. Below is an example: 

The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity: TEEB for Business Executive Summary
After seeing these numbers, why do we still not get it?! And we haven't even factored into the equation improvements to health. For instance, if we were to reduce overweight and obesity by changing the food industry; growing wholesome foods in a sustainable manner. In Canada, overweight and obesity are estimated to cost CAD$ 6 billion. Or by reducing the amount of pollutants we pump into the environment. Environmental pollutants in the U.S. are estimated to cost US$ 55 billion due to diseases in children, such as asthma.   
Let's all get on the same page here; being 'green' IS compatible with economic and social development, will improve health for all, and will leave us with a planet that we can pass on to our children.

Other references and resources:




Monday, November 1, 2010

Yet another reason to stop subsidizing corn..


To go with my earlier post:

High-fructose corn syrup may have more fructose than initially reported by soda companies. Marion Nestle discusses this surprising study finding recently published in the journal Obesity. Will litigation lawyers have a field day? I think more studies are warranted; however, lack of scientific evidence hasn't stopped lawyers before...Nonetheless this is further motivation to change the food industry.