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Class Work, Social Issues

Professor wants healthier cities

By Aaron Rathbone
arathbon@uwo.ca

The way we are building our communities is having adverse affects on our children’s health, says Jason Gilliland.

“We’ve all heard of the theory you are what you eat, but what I and a number of others propose is you are where you live,” says Gilliland, a professor and director of the urban development program at Western University.

The theme of Gilliland’s recent research is how a community’s physical layout is connected to the trends of decreased healthy living in today’s children.

In 1981 about 10 per cent of children were considered overweight or obese. Today that number is over 20 per cent. Gilliland’s research, which has been published in nine different journals, shows that in London-Middlesex up to 38 per cent of children are overweight or obese.

“We have increased respiratory health issues, like asthma, we have increased rates of injury, mental health issues; my line of thinking is that maybe the way we’ve been building our cities has an influence on some of these health issues,” says Gilliland, who notes that other researchers agree with him.

Jason Gilliland with his daughter, Lucie.
Courtesy of Jason Gilliland
Jason Gilliland enjoys a walk in Westminster Ponds with his daughter, Lucie, as part of an active lifestyle.

Over the past half-century, cities have been designed with the car in mind, which has multiple ramifications.

“It really discourages active travel, like walking or biking,” he says, citing the creation of subdivisions that are separate from everything else, making it difficult for people to walk to the corner store as an example.

“The more we drive the more we contribute to air pollution, which makes it harder to breathe, which then contributes to respiratory health issues. Also, the more we drive and the less we walk, the more likely we are to have motor vehicle collisions”

A portion of Gilliland’s study was dedicated to the natural environment, and he found that simple things like the existence of shade-providing trees at a park can have a calming effect. For children, “exposure to nature relates to a decrease in symptoms of ADD and stress, and enhances a sense of peace and calm,” says Gilliland.

People and cities are beginning to take notice of research like that of Gilliland’s. Over the past five years or so, there has been a real healthy community movement, he says.

Alana Dalby, project coordinator with the Child and Youth Network of London, was at a lecture given by Gilliland at the Central Library on March 22. She was pleased with the things he was saying.

“I saw a lot of parallels between what Jason was saying and what our group is advocating,” said Dalby.

The Child and Youth Network is a group of more than 130 local agencies and individuals dedicated to creating healthy and happy living for London’s children.

“Our goal is to create physical change, such as building markets, playgrounds, lobbying for bike lanes; things that promote a healthy lifestyle,” she said. The talk by Gilliland “reinstated what we’re working towards, which is promoting healthy foods and physical activity.”

Gilliland’s work advocates changing the way cities are being developed to focus on higher density living and promote active transportation, by providing safe walkways and bike lanes. Higher density does not necessarily mean apartment towers, but better urban design, says Gilliland.

“A lot of municipal departments now are thinking about healthy communities and promoting active travel and things like that.”

There’s also a shift of people moving back into city centres, especially in larger cities like Toronto, says Gilliland. “There’s a cultural shift, and maybe there’ll be another shift when gasoline prices go up to $3 a litre.”

Gilliland is often in contact with city planners, engineers, and the health units as he serves on more than 20 different boards and committees of different non-profits and municipal departments on this issue.

“London has its problems but slowly but surely we’re working on it. I think there has been a shift in the last couple years towards better urban design in the city.”

Neighbourhoods should not just be places we live, but also places we shop, go to school, play, and lead generally more active lives, says Gilliland.

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About Western Journalism

We're members of the University of Western Ontario's master of arts in journalism program. Our blog represents a common theme in stories through our third term.

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