The Urban Diabetes Epidemic: Green Cities & Health

I've written before about the fact that overall New Yorkers have the highest life expectancy in the United States.  Sounds odd, but research has traced those added months to the walking New Yorkers do while they navigate a city where pedestrians and transit use are the norm.  It turns out though, according to a piece by Lisa Rochon in the Globe and Mail, those benefits aren't evenly distributed.

Citing a series of studies on cities and diabetes she reveals a few startling facts: people living in un-walkable low-income neighbourhoods like the South Bronx will live about 20 years less. There are similar findings for Toronto. The culprit? The overlap of racial marginalization, genetics, and bad urban planning.

Hispanics, blacks and South Asians are genetically predisposed to diabetes.  Poor diets and a lack of exercise make that worse.  At the same time, the uncomfortable fact that affluence still follows racial lines – particularly among some groups of new immigrants – means that many of those most disposed to diabetes also live in urban environments which exacerbate the disease:  stark inner and outer suburbs with little greenspace, low walkability, few recreational facilities, poor transit, and limited grocery options. 

Many of the solutions Rochon discusses are also top-of-the-charts for green urbanism more generally:  walkable communities with a mixture of commercial, residential, and community spaces; better public transportation; density done at a human scale; and the greening of food-desserts. 

As well as promoting a more active lifestyle, these initiatives would  decrease energy use, ghg emissions, and the overall eco-footprint of these neighbourhoods. These overlaps between health and ecological sustainability are often discussed, but this article gives us a tangible and urgent (they are now talking about a diabetes epidemic that will have huge social and economic costs) reason to start turning theory into practice.

The article highlights Brampton, Ont. where “double alleys of trees, dedicated bike lanes and wider sidewalks promise in the future to be written into zoning bylaws” to help address its acute incidence of diabetes. You could also mention Montreal's impressive expansion of it's bike path network, Will Allen's work to tackle food deserts in Milwaukee, or Toronto's Tower Renewal program.

When you think of headline urban health problems what jumps to mind?  Mexico City's smog, or images of the poor water or the sanitary conditions around cities in India or Africa. Maybe a local struggle between residents and a polluting industry. This work on diabetes shows that the underlying shape of our cities can have as large an impact our health. The choices we make about density, zoning, and transportation, don't only shape our neighbourhoods, they shape us as well.

Beyond that, looking at our cities through the lens of diabetes points to something else: the need for smart, green, walkable communities to be available to everyone in a city, not just the affluent few.

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I'm posting this quote from an earlier piece on Urban Agriculture genious and entreprenur Will Allen because it nicely summarizes what is in play here:

"If inside the greenhouse was Eden, outdoors was, as Allen explained on a drive through the neighborhood, “a food desert.”

Scanning the liquor stores in the strip malls, he noted: “From the housing project, it’s more than three miles to the Pick’n Save. That’s a long way to go for groceries if you don’t have a car or can’t carry stuff. And the quality of the produce can be poor.” Fast-food joints and convenience stores selling highly processed, high-calorie foods, on the other hand, were locally abundant. “It’s a form of redlining,” Allen said. “We’ve got to change the system so everyone has safe, equitable access to healthy food.”

image: inhabitat

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.