According to this article published in 2016, 1 in 5 Ontario residents live in rural communities. As with larger urban areas, the health of residents in these rural areas is becoming more important as the population ages. Increasingly, municipalities, planners, and public health professionals are understanding that there are clear linkages between the built environment and the health of a community. So, how does the rural built environment and land use planning affect quality of life and health outcomes? This question is answered through first recognizing what rural planning is and the importance of rural health.
The Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) defines rural planning as planning to improve quality of life and promote economic vitality in areas of low population density, with an expansive rural landscape and dispersed population. Planning for rural communities presents unique challenges not necessarily experienced in urban communities. For example, one of the major differences can be seen through transportation planning. In response to the dispersed development patterns and densities, and the long distances that residents must travel, transportation planning in rural areas tends to be more auto-centric than in urban areas. This often includes a lack of active transportation infrastructure (e.g. cycling lanes, trails, and sidewalks). Lack of these forms of infrastructure can then discourage active transportation, and negatively impact physical and mental health.
The graph below presented by the OPPI and Statistics Canada displays the health differences of residents in urban and rural communities. The data illustrates that residents in rural areas have higher incidence rates in all measured parameters compared to urban residents.
In response to the challenges, there are planning methods to create healthy rural communities. Below are some recommendations that municipalities can incorporate into their official plans to strive for healthier rural communities
- Community Design and Land Use Planning: Developing community designs that allow for shorter commutes between destinations, and promote compact settlements
- Active Transportation: Encouraging walkability through the inclusion of more multi-use paths, trails, and wide paved shoulders to allow for cyclists
- Community Engagement and Capacity Building: Engaging the public in planning processes to hear the perspectives of groups and individual residents
- Water Quality: Collaborating with conservation authorities to support clean drinking water supplies through source water protection planning
- Air Quality: Implementing planning policies that aim to reduce air pollution; this could be through the creation of anti-idling by law as seen in the town of Bracebridge
- Tourism: Developing tourism strategies that strengthen economic development
- Planning for Special Age Groups: Ensuring planning documents recognize the needs of the aging population
- Agriculture: Protecting agricultural land, encouraging sustainable agricultural practices and supporting the production of local food
- Cultural Strategies and Revitalization: Recognizing the significance of built heritage resources; this could be through improving downtowns and promoting local events
- Safe and Affordable Housing: Allowing for mixed-use developments, adapting existing infrastructure into housing units, or repurposing older buildings to create social housing
These recommendations are sourced from the Ontario Healthy Rural Communities Tool Kit: A Guide for Rural Municipalities. To read further on how to improve rural health in your community, check out the guide book here: https://www.publichealthontario.ca/-/media/documents/ldcp-built-environment-toolkit.pdf?la=en