What makes our communities healthy?

Fog

The Northeast Avalon is unique. Communities cozied in or near sheltered bays along the coast, remind us of one of the most important determinants of health for the first settlers, the natural environment. Life in the province has been long shaped by the environment, including everything from our short growing season and the lack of fertile soil, to blankets of fog, wind, and heavy precipitation (1). And while we may no longer be as reliant on the natural environment for our livelihoods, it still plays an important role in determining our health.

A healthy natural environment is an important determinant of health; it's everything from the drinkability of our water, the air we breathe, the land we use to grow food, to the green-space around us (2). Much of the research surrounding the natural environment focuses on the importance of conservation to ensure both a healthy natural environment and a healthy population (3).  On the northeast Avalon, regardless of where you are, it's hard to find yourself more than a 15-minute drive from the ocean or a wooded trail. So, does this mean we have a healthy natural environment?

The northeast Avalon has seen considerable changes since the last regional plan in the 1970's and much of the natural environment is unrecognizable today. We are seeing a dramatic increase in the amount of urban sprawl encroaching on our water reserves and natural ecosystems diminishing farmland and green space. The local Building Healthy Communities Collaborative recently emphasized this in their report, "Monitoring the Evolution of a Healthy Built Environment in Newfoundland and Labrador". The report calls for legislation and land use policies that encourage densification, limit suburban growth, and address the unique needs of rural communities (4)  . Their report concluded that neither our health nor the environment can sustain the continuation of urban sprawl and the burden of infrastructure expansion. Anyone who's hiked the Sugarloaf path along the East Coast Trail has seen the remnants of plastic bags firsthand and understands the issue.  

Facing similar hurdles, other municipalities within Canada have begun to take proactive approaches. The York Region Official Plan, released in April 2016 utilized their award winning sustainability strategy, Towards a Sustainable Region as a leading framework for developing, a sustainable natural environment, healthy communities, and economic vitality (5). This region faces similar emerging trends to the northeast Avalon, like an aging society, urbanization, and social health issues like obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and mental illness. It is clear that conserving natural environments promotes feelings of well-being, positive health outcomes, improved quality of life and liveable neighbourhoods, while offering residents opportunities for active recreation for healthier lifestyles. All of this can be accomplished just by conserving natural environments and natural resources.

The proposed northeast Avalon regional plan emphasizes policies that will increase the "protection of the existing watershed, identify new water sources, and encourage conservation of water by municipalities and their residents within the region" (6). A lack of water became a palpable regional threat when that last gale put a large portion of the northeast Avalon under water conservation watch. Similarly, without a healthy natural environment we are exposed to a multitude of health risks like pollution and contamination, while being underexposed to things that promote health, like green space, clean water, clean air and the ability to be active in unorganized ways.

We have some of the best hiking, walking, landscapes and coastal regions in the country. Pride of place is strong here and while we're not all die hard environmentalists, we can all agree that getting away from the city and smelling that fresh salty air just triggers something patriotic in all of us. Ensuring a healthy natural environment includes all of us: residents, community groups, landowners, businesses, municipalities and varying levels of government (2).

That's why we need YOU. Sharing how you envision the future of the northeast Avalon's natural environment is easy. Tweet us @happycityStjohn's and share a photo of why natural environments are important in sustaining #healthycities and #healthyregions. You can also help by filling out the 'Our Northeast Avalon' survey - http://www.ournortheastavalon.com/contribute/.  This is a chance to inform those leading the regional plan know how you see the future of your home. For us, the future of the northeast Avalon is full of people getting back in touch with their history through traditional activities like berry picking, growing food, and spending endless hours being active in parks, on trails, and in lively rural communities. What says you?

Feeling out of touch with your natural environment?
Check out the beautiful East Coast Trail http://www.eastcoasttrail.com/en/index.aspx#

Bruce Knox

References

1.            Natural Environment - Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. at http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/environment/natural-environment-introduction.php

2.            Regional Official Plan - Niagara Region, Ontario. at https://www.niagararegion.ca/living/icp/policy-plan.aspx

3.            Global Climate Change and Public Health. (Humana Press (Springer Science and Business Media), 2014). doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-8417-2

4.            Donovan, C., Krishnan, I., Cotter, CA. Monitoring the Evolution of a Healthy Built Environment in Newfoundland and Labrador. (2017).

5.            The Regional Municipality of York Official Plan 2016 Office Consolidation. (2016). at https://www.york.ca/wps/wcm/connect/yorkpublic/0dc3cfc2-2e0f-49d2-b523-dc7c14b08273/15001_yropConsolidation2016AccessibleMay42016.pdf?MOD=AJPERES>

6.            About - OUR AVALON. at <http://www.ournortheastavalon.com/about>

Written by Bruce Knox at 09:10

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