OP-ED: Ontario’s election will shape our communities, our health and the future of our children

Over the next four years, we need a government that will support policies that encourage walkable, bikeable, and transit-supportive communities.

Reprinted from Healthing, May 27, 2022

In less than one month, Ontarians will go to the polls to choose the party that will lead the provincial government for the next four years. Over those years, decisions will be made about how to develop the Golden Horseshoe — the region in and around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) — that is home to more than one half of Ontario’s population. These decisions will have a profound effect on the development of our communities, the health of Ontarians, and the future of our children.

We can still stop the worst impacts of climate change.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that we can still stop the worst impacts of climate change and provide our children with a liveable planet if we take steps in the next few years to dramatically reduce climate emissions. With Ontario’s transportation sector responsible for more than one-third of the province’s climate emissions and this province responsible for about one quarter of Canada’s climate emissions, the decisions we make about transportation and development in the most populated area of the province matter.

Provincial policies in the past were moving us away from urban sprawl, towards the creation of walkable, bikeable, and transit-supportive communities that would reduce our dependence on cars. But over the last four years, we have seen policies that have moved us in the opposite direction. Policies that increase urban sprawl, car use, and encroachment on protected greenspaces and farmland. Progressive development policies have been weakened, plans to build Highway 413 have been resurrected, and local decisions have been undermined by ministerial zoning orders. This movement is a trend away from what is needed to improve health, ensure food security, and fight climate change.

The public health sector has been very supportive of policies that create walkable, bikeable and transit-supportive communities. In fact, we have advocated to make those policies stronger, clearer, and more enforceable because of the many health and environmental benefits associated with them, such as:

Encouraging physical activity. Physical activity reduces the risk of developing 25 chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. It improves mental health and can reduce the pain associated with arthritis.

Reducing air pollution. Hundreds of studies conducted over the last 25 years, have demonstrated that traffic-related air pollution causes a broad array of negative health impacts including asthma, premature deaths from heart disease, strokes and lung cancer. In the GTHA alone, it is estimated that traffic-related air pollution causes about 700 premature deaths and 2800 hospital admissions each year.

Increasing social equity. These policies make essential services, jobs, schools and recreational opportunities more accessible to people of all ages, abilities and income levels with walkable neighbourhoods, safe cycling infrastructure, and efficient and affordable transit service.

Reducing pressure for development. Irreplaceable farmland will become more valuable as droughts and wildfires, driven by climate change, ravage regions that we depend heavily on for fresh fruits and vegetables, like California. Protecting this land is key to creating a stable and secure present, and future for us and our children.

Preserving greenspace. Greenspaces purify our water, protect us from floods, and provide us with places to de-stress and connect with nature.

Reducing climate emissions. Walkable, bikeable and transit-supportive communities benefit the environment by reducing our dependence on cars.

Hundreds of studies have looked at the characteristics of communities that encourage walking, cycling and transit use. They tell us that we need a moderate level of population density to make transit efficient and affordable; that we need to have a diversity of land uses — homes, restaurants, and retail outlets — in close proximity to one another; and that we have to make popular destinations, such as parks and schools, accessible to people. Urban sprawl has none of these characteristics.

Over the next four years, we need a government that will support policies that encourage walkable, bikeable, and transit-supportive communities. One that invests in cycling infrastructure and public transit, instead of highways. One that preserves greenspace and protects farmland. One that is committed to creating healthy, equitable and sustainable communities that will provide a secure and stable future for our children.

John Atkinson is the executive director of the Ontario Public Health Association
Kim Perrotta MHSc is the executive director of CHASE.