From today's Victoria Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada)
Better planning of cities would make us healthier
CanWest News Services
January 8, 2005
In the streets of Meerlo, a Dutch town on the edge of Eindhoven, cyclists are most welcome. The planners who conceived the small city's traffic system gave equal consideration to bicycles and cars. Paths are clearly marked along each local and collector road. When the bicycle path crosses an intersection, the street's asphalt changes to pavers, warning motorists to slow down. Maps displayed at strategic places indicate the town-wide cyclist network.
The town has installed bicycle parking racks near most commercial and institutional establishments. Carrying racks adorn many of the bikes, which are used in everyday chores like shopping and schooling. At the hotel where I stayed, bicycles were offered to guests for a ride around town. On a spring weekday, when I visited the town, young mothers rode to the stores for fresh produce, carrying toddlers wearing helmets on their back seats. Children resting on their bikes held an animated discussion near the local school.
Some Canadians argue that mild winters make cycling thrive in Holland. It is only partially true. It is also a question of different cultural priorities. The Dutch have for a long time recognized that not relying entirely on cars and buses helps reduce gas emissions and save fuel, and also fosters a healthy nation.
Recent Health Canada statistics draw a frightening picture of how obese and out of shape Canadians have become. In 2000-2001, more than six million adults aged 20 to 64 were overweight and nearly three million were obese. The only walking that many do after work is likely to be between the kitchen and the TV room. Public health officials are reporting cases of Type II diabetes among children. If the trend is to continue, they warn, our health care system will face a crisis when these young people become adults.
A proactive campaign encouraging people to leave the car behind and pedal in spring, summer and fall will go a long way to help reduce mounting health-care costs. More than a leisurely weekend ride, cycling should be an everyday activity. The campaign needs to begin by accommodating cyclists in whichever way the city government can.
A move on the part of city administrators would be to create a city-wide network and link, for example, all the neighbourhoods and downtown. The heart of the city then could be reached by students, shoppers or office employees. There is no reason why a bike path couldn't be created to connect more communities and city centres.
The use of stairs should also be encouraged, as climbing is an outstanding form of cardiovascular activity. I often see young people taking a one-floor elevator ride. In public buildings, stairs should be located in visible places rather than hidden and used in case of an emergency only. Employers should encourage a stair-use only policy in low-rise buildings.
Making cities healthy can continue by developing a network of pedestrian paths. The lane systems in some of our older neighbourhoods can become part of this network. Convenience stores and pedestrian paths connecting them should be permitted at the edge or centre of suburban neighbourhoods, sparing citizens from using their cars when they run out of milk.
On a visit to China, I saw senior citizens congregating in the early morning hours in a public square to exercise. There, the city provided an instructor and music, and people came routinely to participate. As our population is greying, keeping young and elderly people healthy through encouraged activities will help keep hospital beds empty. Drawing people to participate can become a routine, fun activity and not an isolated event.
Statistics also show that people with higher incomes are likely to live longer and healthier lives. The challenge is therefore to make participation an all-inclusive activity. Canadians should be allowed to deduct the cost of bicycles or other fitness equipment from their income tax.
Some have come to believe that the only place to get exercise is at a gym. Daily routines provide ample opportunity to get active. People of all ages need to make walking, biking or running part of their diet and cities must provide them with the conditions necessary to do so.
Dr. Avi Friedman teaches architecture at McGill University. He can be reached at avi.friedman@...
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2005
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