Thursday, 19 May 2011

Green and Healthy Living: The Suburban Illusion

The Globe and Mail has carried two interesting, conflicting stories the last few days. One is a long article in an insert, Backbone Magazine, about Drake's Landing, a "green" community outside Calgary. The other, " Unhealthy neighborhoods play big role in obestity, diabetes epidemic," details how it's healthier to live in the center of cities.

Drake's Landing is almost completely solar heated, despite the Alberta city's cold winters Solar panels on garages and other structures are connect to a central heating system, which runs to each of the 52 single family houses in the development. Individual houses also have solar units for hot water. "Today, that system delivers up to 80 per cent of the community’s heating requirements and removes five tonnes of greenhouse gases per home from the atmosphere every year," the story says.

Sounds laudable, doesn't it? Yet it's quite clear that the development--30 miles south of the city in Okotoks--is based on classic suburban plans where the automobile is the basic transportation. " There are even a few environmentally unfriendly monster trucks that can be seen prowling up and down the streets from time to time," the story quotes one resident.

On the other hand, the story about healthy city living notes: People who live in the "unwalkable fringes ...will live about 20 fewer years than those in downtown, vibrant neighbourhoods, according to a 2007 report by the City University of New York’s Campaign Against Diabetes and the Public Health Association of New York City." It's not clear if the study controlled for income variations--which can have enormous effects--but walking and taking public transit can make a great difference in fitness.

The story reports that 140 Toronto neighbourhoods examine the role of several factors over three years "including community design, population density, access to healthy and unhealthy food ...The researchers... concluded that walking and transit times to recreation facilities in the city’s outlying neighbourhoods were as long as 40 minutes and 20 minutes, respectively, each way. It takes only 30 minutes of walking or moderate exercise, combined with a healthy diet, to cut the risk of diabetes in half."

How many kids in Drake's Landing walk to school? How many of their parents drive everywhere? What will be the obesity and diabetes rates there in a few years? And most importantly what's the carbon/energy tradeoff in this community so dependent on the automobile? Don't know, but I'm sure that "purpose built" --the term used in the Backbone story to describe the subdivision--is not a green or healthy way to go.

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