Decades ago, Canadians designed their cities, and they made them for cars. – CBC’s Chris Brown, opening his documentary.
“This (suburban) neighbourhood is actually likely to make your kids, fatter, sicker and if you live here for your whole life, it will take maybe four years off your life. – Author, Charles Montgomery
“When you design a city for cars, it fails everyone, including drivers. – Brent Toderian, City Planner and Urbanist
“The environments in which we live have been described as obesogenic, meaning you just live in them and you’ll gain weight.” – Dr. Karen Lee, Health policy advisor and consultant
These are just some of the money quotes from a terrific 19 minute mini-documentary by Chris Brown, recently aired on CBC’s The National, which explores the dilemmas facing Canadian cities that were built to accommodate the automobile. The documentary explains in detail how a reliance on cars in cities plagued by urban sprawl, makes us fatter (which costs billions in healthcare), eliminates a sense of community and literally takes years off of our lives.
After listing the many concerning problems that Canadians face, we learn about potential solutions and see how other cities have dealt with similar problems. Brown visits Medellƒn, Colombia, and discovers a Latin American city that reinvented itself using public escalators and ski gondolas connected to the city’s other methods of public transit, which includes a Metro. (It’s worth noting that a Colombian city, best known for drug-fueled violence, has a more comprehensive public transit system than most, if not all, Canadian cities.) We also visit a Vancouver neighbourhood that is using mixed spaces to improve the urban experience.
This documentary does a masterful‚ job of exposing the damage urban sprawl has inflicted on the quality of life Canadians can enjoy. Having split my time between Ottawa and Europe in 2014, it’s a problem I’ve come to recognize first-hand.
Wasting Time in Transit
One of the biggest unseen benefits of my relocation to Europe has been the reduction of time spent behind the wheel and in transit. A good public transit system, in a city designed for people instead of cars, leads to far less stress, better health and most importantly, eliminates a huge time suck, allowing you more time to spend on worthwhile pursuits during your waking hours.
Over the past few years, I’ve realized that the kind of lifestyle that appeals to me most is an urban lifestyle, where walking and public transportation can get me where I need to be in a timely manner. After having spent most of my youth and early 20s in rural areas where a car is essential, I finally moved to Ottawa, where I eventually sold my car in late 2013. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Riding the bus, tram or metro and simply walking on foot is all I need or want. No more gas and insurance bills, no more maintenance costs, no more parking and no more winter driving.
I’ve been living in Europe for more than half a year now, but I was recently back in North America for almost four weeks over the Christmas season. What really struck me, was how long it took me to get from point A to B. Over the past half year, I’ve gotten used to being able to get to any destination in 15 minutes or less.
When I was back home I was constantly late for appointments because I underestimated how long each journey would take. It drove me crazy that a roundtrip to the gym would see me spend more time behind the wheel than lifting weights. There are only so many hours in a day and only so many days in a lifetime. To spend a considerable amount of this finite time behind a wheel, while punishing your overall health and increasing your stress seems absolutely absurd to me.
“Life can be better in this (suburban) house, if there was just some place to walk to, -‚ Charles Montgomery
Boy, is he right. The ability to walk to places means an increase in freedom, for people of all ages. One of my favourite pastimes is going for long walks through city centres, exploring the core on foot, often with my camera. I find it extremely relaxing and it’s beneficial to my health.
Upon reflection, I realized that Ottawa’s most popular neighbourhoods, Centretown, The Glebe and Hintonburg/Westboro are all places that are made for walking. It’s also no coincidence that these neighbourhoods are the most expensive. Having the option to walk into your favourite coffee shop store front (as opposed to the typical Tim Hortons, placed in the middle of a barren parking lot) or grocery store improves your quality of life by leaps and bounds. I know this because I now live in a neighbourhood with six grocery stores within walking distance and countless coffee shops and pubs.
Simply put, life is better when we can enjoy more of this (mixed use buildings with coffee shops, pharmacies and store fronts):
And less of this:
Urban sprawl costs you money, both directly (need for a car or higher rent to pay in a walkable neighbourhood) and indirectly (higher taxes for elevated healthcare costs due to the surge in obesity and the sky high cost of infrastructure for roads). But worse than that, it slowly kills you by reducing your fitness level and robbing you of years of your life.
Going forward, when considering a new city to call home, the quality of public transportation and walkability will weigh heavily in my decision. Living in a city which already has these fundamentals in place has made me happier, healthier and more productive. This is essential if you want to live a full life.