June 10, 2019

Neighbourhood design linked to weight, risk of injury and chronic disease

Where you live impacts your well-being, study shows
Proximity to pathways, parks and grocery stores are just some of the community characteristic linked to health, according to a new study which reviews the available Canadian evidence on neighbourhood design and chronic health conditions to date.

Proximity to pathways, parks and grocery stores are some community characteristics linked to health.

Pixabay image by westjl2 licensed under Creative Commons

While past research has indicated that where you live can affect your health, there have been no reviews of the evidence in the Canadian context — until now.

A new study published in Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada is changing that, and the findings show a strong link between neighbourhood design and several preventable diseases. 

“We want to create neighbourhoods that are supportive of health and give people opportunities to make healthy choices,” says study lead-author Dr. Gavin McCormack, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and a member of both the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

“Decades of evidence suggest neighbourhood urban design can impact physical activity, diet, and social interaction, but showing that it might also have long-term consequences in terms of chronic disease, injury, and weight further highlights the importance of creating health-supportive environments.”

The study reviewed the latest Canadian evidence on the link between health and neighbourhood design, looking at features such as neighbourhood density, traffic safety, access to paths and sidewalks, and the opportunities to purchase healthy foods.

The findings show a link between community features and several chronic health conditions. A lack of green spaces or parks was associated with a range of medical ailments including cancer, diabetes and depression. Proximity to fast food was related to depression, heart disease and obesity, while access to grocery or healthy food stores was found to promote health.

In Canada, approximately 34 per cent of adults report having at least one major chronic disease, according to federal government data, but McCormack says that alarming statistic doesn’t necessarily factor in when choosing a community to live in.

Dr. Gavin McCormack, PhD, has led a first-of-its-kind review of the Canadian evidence on the link between neighbourhood design and health.

Dr. Gavin McCormack, PhD, has led a first-of-its-kind review on the link.

Gavin McCormack

Generally, when people are looking to buy or rent a home, they may consider cost, commute time and proximity to schools, he continues. However, with the right data, the impact neighbourhood choice can have on health could become a priority as well. In turn, the demand for healthy neighbourhoods could place more pressure on developers and urban and transportation planners to make sure communities are designed with health in mind.

Because many groups with diverse needs continue to experience discrimination and exclusion, McCormack says building inclusive neighbourhoods that support health for everyone is crucial.

“Our study was just focused on adults, but we also need to think about creating health supportive communities for everyone regardless of demographic or economic backgrounds, including children and teens, people with different physical ability levels, and older adults who want to age-in-place,” says McCormack.

McCormack is also collaborating with Dr. Brent Hagel, PhD, professor with the CSM’s departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences, and a member of the O’Brien Institute and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, to review Canadian evidence on children’s health outcomes in relation to where they live.

“If we can provide evidence to inform health promoting interventions early in life, it could lead to long-term health payoffs down the road,” McCormack says.  

Interested in this topic?

  • Learn more about Dr. McCormack’s research into walkability in urban design