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Shaping Active, Healthy Communities – A Heart and Stroke Foundation Built Environment Toolkit for Change


I Introduction
II The built environment
III The built environment tool kit
IV Putting the tool kit into action

–submitted by Stephen Samis, Director, Health Policy, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

I Introduction

Getting enough physical activity reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. Being physically active can also reduce stress and may help with quitting smoking. It is estimated that if all Canadians followed the current recommendations for physical activity, 33% of all deaths related to coronary heart disease, 25% of deaths related to stroke, 20% of deaths related to type 2 diabetes, and 20% of deaths related to hypertension could be avoided. Despite the known health benefits of physical activity, about half of Canadian adults and 91% of Canadian children and youth are not getting the recommended levels. Low physical activity rates are also a key factor in Canada’s high overweight and obesity rates, with almost 60% of adults and 26% of children currently overweight or obese. Low physical activity rates have a negative economic impact too, resulting in an estimated $5.3 billion per year in direct and indirect costs.

It is easier to get regular physical activity when walking, biking and other active travel can be accommodated within routine activities, like shopping and going to work or school. Unfortunately, the physical layout and design of Canadian communities can often make this difficult. For example, many places don’t have sidewalks or cycling lanes, especially in suburban and rural areas, and homes are often too far away from shops, jobs and services to make walking practical causing residents to drive for most trips — even for small errands like buying a litre of milk.

II The built environment

What is the “built environment?”

The built environment means the arrangement of activities or land uses within community settings, and the nature of the physical connections between the places where people live, work and play. The way the built environment is designed can impact the risks for heart disease and stroke, how we travel, how physically active we are, levels of air pollution and Canadians’ rates of overweight and obesity.

Active, healthy design includes things like good street lighting, continuous sidewalks, easy access to public transit, safe outdoor play areas, and close proximity of homes to shops, schools and workplaces.

Link between the “built environment” and health

Research evidence points to a strong relationship between the “built environment” and health. Yet many Canadians are not aware how community planning influences health and what they can do to encourage heart health promoting planning in their communities. The design and physical layout of a community can act as either a support or barrier for healthy living, and that makes it an important factor in maintaining heart health and preventing stroke.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation has developed Shaping Active, Healthy Communities a new tool kit to facilitate community engagement and help Canadians, (concerned citizens, community champions, developers and planners) to work together to influence and change how neighbourhoods are planned and designed so they are more conducive to encouraging physical activity and heart health.

III The built environment tool kit

How the tool kit was created

To create the tool kit, the Foundation carried out a review of the evidence around the built environment and its affect on health. Case studies across the country were examined, for example, communities that have received healthy communities awards. Examples of Canadian communities implementing active, healthy design are highlighted in the tool kit.

The tool kit was reviewed by the Canadian Institute of Planners and the Canadian Urban Institute.

About the tool kit

The tool kit is intended to:

Build capacity for action by Canadians at the community level to encourage and facilitate community design that supports physical activity and improved health.

Build multi-sectoral understanding of, and engagement with, healthy urban design principles and processes and identify successes related to supporting physical activity through the built environment.

Facilitate partnerships and collaborative action by community residents, planners, provincial stakeholders, municipal/regional politicians, researchers, public health experts, health promotion/active living networks, and others with an interest in healthy community planning and design.

The tool kit includes the following components:

Introduction – Overview and introduction to the concept of the “built environment” including the overall benefits of physical activity and the role that local built environments can play to improve physical activity through supporting both recreational physical activity and active transportation.

The link between community design, physical activity and health – Information and statistics around heart disease, obesity, benefits of activity-friendly design characteristics, benefits derived from smarter land use and development planning, and current design trends.

Community design strategies that support active, healthy living – Includes design strategies that have been shown to make community environments more supportive of physical activity and active modes of transportation.

How local planning shapes community environments – Outlines the roles and responsibilities of all levels of government around the built environment.

Taking action in your community: tips and tools – Advice for communities on how to influence local planners, developers and other decision makers to make active healthy design a priority.

Appendices – Includes examples of communities implementing active, healthy design; How the Heart and Stroke Foundation is promoting active, healthy community design; Heart and Stroke Foundation position statement on the built environment, physical activity, heart disease and stroke; a comprehensive list of resources; glossary of terms; and references.

IV Putting the tool kit into action

The tool kit is a national resource, available in both French and English. Currently it can be downloaded at no cost online on the Heart and Stroke Foundation website at Pending additional funding, print copies may become available.

Those working in health promotion and public health can use the tool kit to inform themselves around the importance of the built environment and how it influences health, and then can integrate it into their health promotion work. They can take the toolkit out to their communities, using the resources in the tool kit including the PowerPoint presentation with speaking notes, the tips for encouraging active, healthy design, and the Neighbourhood active, healthy design checklist. In addition, the HSFC is developing a workshop based on the tool kit. This workshop will be available at no cost to others on the Heart and Stroke Foundation website. The workshop will be available in the Spring of 2010.

When communities opt for active, healthy design, they set the stage for community members to be more active, protect their heart health and enjoy a healthier lifestyle. Residents and groups who would like their communities to develop in ways that support active living can play an important role in creating change. The new built environment tool kit is there to help make it happen!