A city for all seasons

A local  advocacy group argues that learning
to love winter could make us healthier

By Brendan Collinge

MILA LUCHAK, University of Alberta medical resident works with Housing for Health, researching health outcomes and their relationship to our physical environments.

Luchak, who specializes in public health and preventive medicine, says our environment may be causing chronic disease, placing an extra burden on our health system.

“Chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke really are some things we need to be concerned about, and they all play a role with our built environments,” says Luchak.

Housing for Health is built on the notion that our environment involves the design and infrastructure of our physical and social surroundings – including neighbourhoods and buildings.

The group has drawn up winter community guidelines that Luchak says can help guide policy, suggest solutions and engage such partners as the city of Edmonton.

Luchak highlights the importance of rapid transit, but adds that improvements can be made to our current transit infrastructure, such as building bike lanes, and better maintaining them.

‘There have to be really good connections
between bike lanes and amenities’

“For active transport, there are bike lanes downtown,” she says. “However, they need to be cleared of snow. There have to be really good connections between bike lanes and amenities – different workplaces, connections with the LRT system, and other bus routes as well. So people can take multiple modes [of transportation] during winter.”

Luchak says that the creation of way-finding trails with weather-protected direction and distance signs could encourage people to get out more.

To brighten up out dark winters, she recommends sheltered, more accessible storefronts, better outdoor lighting, and snowfall protection like canopies or overhangs, which can help encourage people to go for socially distanced walks downtown.

She also recommends we should do more to make food shopping easier downtown, so more people can walk to do their shopping – “even promoting the use of those vacant lots or spaces that are often available downtown but may not be fully utilized, for a farmers market, whether in the summer but also in the winter, when possible.”

Mila Luchak is a resident physician with Public Health & Preventive Medicine at the University of Alberta. (Mila Luchak)

Weather-protected bench space, outdoor furniture, patio space and outdoor skating trails also can encourage people into getting active outdoors.

With our winters lasting typically five to six months, Luchak says, this would be a step in the right direction.

“Obviously, with the COVID-19 restrictions, it’s a little challenging right now. But I think Edmonton is starting to steer in that direction, because we need to embrace our winters.”

Although these conditions can often change, Luchak says, we can plan spaces or events, or festivals where we can maintain distance from each other.

“So in the downtown core, it would be nice to look at where we have vacant lots or vacant space. Or maybe in the summer it could be called green space, and in the winter it could be utilized as a nice open space good for walking your dog or having an outdoor market.”

Other challenges to changing the built environment can be social acceptance of the guidelines. Luchak says many may be concerned about how changing the built environment can impact the local economy, such as the accessibility of retail spaces.

Luchak argues that, on the flip side of vehicle accessibility, areas more accessible through walking, biking, or public transit can help maintain accessibility.

‘People may actually really appreciate
that smaller project in their community’

“Over time, people may actually really appreciate that smaller project in their community, and may want it to become a permanent part of their community, but you don’t really know that until you try it.”

Feb. 24, an inaugural conference called Fit Cities Fit Towns is being held virtually, with keynote speakers discussing health improvement and increasing social connections through community designs.

The way our built environment affects our health has caught the attention of researchers around the world. In the United States, firms are competing to improve office spaces that are more inviting and welcoming to workers, to motivate a return to the traditional office design.

“In our experience, a well designed space with natural elements makes it easier to recruit talented employees and can better provide those employees with a workplace that is energy lifting, instead of energy zapping,” Edward McDonnell, owner of Seattle’s Botanical Designs, told FacilityExecutive.com.

Examples of more winter-friendly cities exist globally, such as the Danish capital of Copenhagen. An exhibit at the Danish Architecture Centre, called Vinterbyen: Winter City, showed off architecture for a healthier built environment that can last through the winter.

In Britain, a new interactive mapping tool is demonstrating the health of London’s streets. The tool rates the streets on a variety of factors, such as air pollution, traffic noise, design, walkability, and trees.

“Our understanding of the importance of our environments to physical and mental well-being has come to the fore as we have spent more time at home and in our local areas during the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions,” University College London’s Ashley Dhanani told the Daily Mail.

 


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