By Ryan McGreal
Published January 20, 2005
A new report () by the Ontario College of Family Physicians casts a harsh light on sprawl in Ontario, identifying the multifarious interconnected ways that low-density development affect health.
The report surveys the following specific health impacts of sprawl:
Greenspace: "The best available evidence indicates that greenspace is an essential part of human health. People cannot continue to lead healthy lives without sufficient farmland to produce local food, forests to help purify the air, and protected watersheds to provide safe drinking water."
Air Pollution: "Sprawling urban developments leads to increased driving, which results in increased vehicle emissions that contribute to air pollution and its attendant negative impacts on human health ... [including] morbidity and mortality, particularly with reference to respiratory disease (including asthma), cardiovascular disease, and reproductive health ... [and] some cancers such as leukemia in children."
Climate Change: "Furthermore, the increased greenhouse gas emissions that result from a car-dependent society are counterproductive to the Canadian commitment to the Kyoto Protocol."
Obesity: "Evidence clearly shows that people who live in spread-out, car-dependent neighborhoods are likely to walk less, weigh more, and suffer from obesity and high blood pressure and consequent diabetes, cardio-vascular and other diseases, as compared to people who live in more efficient, higher density communities (Ewing et al, 2003a). ... The low-walkability of sprawling neighbourhoods and the resulting increase in car use contribute to the growing obesity epidemic, especially in children."
Isolation: "A lack of safe pedestrian thoroughfares and diminished natural environments also lead to the decline of social capital and psychological well-being. Other health implications of urban sprawl include social isolation and age segregation in the elderly and young (Pohanka, 2004). Sprawl impacts greatly on the elderly and disabled, who consequently become isolated and unable to access social or medical services."
Traffic Accidents: "A greater number of fatalities occur where the population density is lower. Road accidents represent the most underestimated risk that people are exposed to in everyday life. The impact of fatalities and disabilities from traffic accidents on society cannot be underestimated. Thousands of pedestrians, motorists and cyclists die or are maimed every year in North America [emphasis added]. Post-traumatic stress disorder is much greater in these groups than the national average, and psychiatric problems occur readily in children who have experienced even minor traffic accidents."
Stress: "Vehicle drivers are experiencing increased levels of stress due to long commutes and greater distances to reach services. In addition to having deleterious effects on physical health, this stress has been found to impact on family life and work performance. Women bear an inordinate amount of this burden due to responsibilities with children, jobs, errands and elderly care-giving at home."
Environment: "The environmental problems that result from uncontrolled urban growth ... include flooding, which results from increased impervious surfaces for roads and parking; increased temperatures from heat islands, which leads to a significant increased risk of mortality in elderly populations; decreases in natural areas and forests, and increased incidences of water pollution and water-borne disease."
The report concludes that "serious public health problems will continue to escalate unless decisive and immediate action is taken to control urban sprawl and preserve sufficient greenspace, improve air quality, and protect water sources."
In related news, another new report, this time from the National Wildlife Federation, Smart Growth America, and NatureServe, finds that "the conversion of natural areas for homes, offices, and shopping centers [sic] has become one of the most serious threats to America's native plant and animal species." It notes that land development has increased much faster than population, and has steadily accelerated since the 1950s.
The scope: according to the report, "In the United States alone, thirty percent of the nation's plant and animal species are at risk of disappearing, and over 500 species are missing or may already be extinct [original emphasis]."
Perhaps these endangered species will take comfort from the fact that we're also sickening ourselves in the process of destroying their habitats...
...but I kind of doubt it.