Complete communities today for healthy people tomorrow


When I tell people here at BCDiabetes that I studied urban planning, I’ll often be asked: how does urban planning impact health, especially for people living with diabetes?

Historically, as professions, public health and urban planning used to be very closely aligned — back when there was a great deal of concern with communicable diseases, exposure to pollution from traffic and industry, and there was panic over overcrowded and unsafe living and working conditions. Over the course of the 20th century, the fields became much more established, but matured in relative isolation from each other. Since then, it’s become clear that our communities and cities have been making us sick in new and different ways. By designing the physical activity out of everyday lives (which have also become much more complex), more and more of us are now having to cope with managing and preventing chronic illnesses like heart disease, obesity, and yes, diabetes.

One concept that has been really helpful for bringing the conversation on health and planning together? Complete communities, defined as…

[…] communities that offer a variety of housing types and tenures in proximity to places of work, schools, shopping, recreation, parks and green space. Complete communities provide a better balance and distribution of jobs and housing, a wider choice of affordable housing types, a better distribution of public services and more opportunity to walk, cycle, and use public transit conveniently. Complete communities, are safe, socially diverse, openly accessible, livable and attract economic investment, thereby enhancing social sustainability and health and well-being.

That’s a pretty tall order! And hardly the sort of thing that can be built overnight. It often involves coordinating many groups and individual people over a long time as our communities are shifting, growing and changing. That’s why a lot of urban planning is about thinking ahead for opportunities that might come to be – so we’re not caught by surprise and we can make sure we can build healthy places to live in, in five, ten, twenty or even thirty years from now.

Most importantly, communities are often healthy when they are thoughtful in approaching all the features and factors that affect our health indirectly — things that doctors and health practitioners may brush up again or provide some support for, but may not directly touch. For this reason, urban planners and public health policy makers are learning more and more how to work together, to ensure that we lay the groundwork for communities that support health for as many people as possible. Here are two examples:

Doctors, clinicians and health practitioners are absolutely vital for helping us when we get sick. But the stuff of our everyday lives – what happens between visits and appointments – is the sort of thing we almost all could use some help with, to do what we need to do keep from getting sicker.

In this post, I described what a complete community is and why it matters to urban planners and health policy makers thinking about supporting your health. Next month, I will dive more into examples of things that have actually been done as a result of all this planning.

Author: Karen Quinn Fung, MA Planning

Karen Quinn Fung is an active transportation advocate, who has contributed her writing on this topic to Metro News Vancouver, The Tyee and Spacing Magazine. She holds a master’s degree from the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, and is the Research Administration Coordinator at BCDiabetes.

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