I want to live in a healthy city. A city that is liveable. A city that is prosperous for all its residents. A city that strives to improve the social and economic conditions of its residents. I can’t imagine anyone would say no to that. So how do we create healthy cities for ourselves and the generations to come? And what does a healthy city really look like?
What’s a Healthy City?
The health and well-being of city dwellers is shaped by the built environment that surrounds us– the human-made space in which we live, work, and recreate on a daily basis. Important health factors such as physical inactivity, air pollution, and social isolation are largely the result of our social, economic and physical environment. For example, walkable, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods are associated with greater physical activity and lower body weight. Easy access to grocery stores can lead to better nutrition habits.
Housing is at the cornerstone of healthy cities. I don’t mean housing as just bricks and mortar; I mean someone’s home, a place that provides stability, and has a deep impact on the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Housing cannot be treated as simply another commodity because it has multiple social and health impacts. Housing is a basic human right.
Is Toronto a Healthy City?
When a city provides its residents with safe and affordable housing, it saves on health care costs, improves its child education outcomes, and its residents have better mental health. Households that spend an unaffordable amount of their income on housing end up having fewer resources for other basic necessities such as food, clothing, medicine and childcare.
In Toronto, 47% of renters are spending 30% or more of their income on rent, while 23% of renters spend over half their income on rent, with little left to cover other basic needs. More than 640,000 people in Toronto need some form of assistance to meet their housing needs. With rising housing costs like the soaring rents we see in cities like Toronto, residents must often move away from their communities. Such displacement can prevent them from accessing services and social networks. In many instances, displaced residents end up moving farther away from their places of employment and commute long hours.
In addition to its direct impact on health, housing affects economic and environmental conditions. Affordable housing that meets the needs of diverse groups of residents helps create jobs and attract and retain workers and businesses. With rental vacancy rates in Toronto at such low levels today (1.1% for apartments and 0.7% for condos) people are increasingly unable to secure affordable housing. A city and region without diverse and affordable housing will become less competitive on the world stage. Younger people will be unable to save, set down roots, and start a family in their city.
But it’s not just the economic benefits that matter. Affordable housing contributes to a greener city. When people live closer to their jobs, their commutes will be shorter and fewer cars will go on the road. We all want less pollution in our cities, no?
So where do we go from here?
How DO we make our cities healthy for all its residents?
I believe the answer lies with all levels of government recognizing the importance of affordable housing. Governments need to think beyond their short time serving in office and think long-term; how to create healthy, liveable, and prosperous communities. If we want a healthy city, we need far-reaching and comprehensive approaches that integrate housing into health policy, transportation, and infrastructure plans.
We all deserve to live in a healthy city that we can proudly call home.