Healthy Neighbourhood Design

Credit: Picture BC

The built environment is the human-made, physical setting for human activities – where people live, work, learn, and play. Whether rural, urban, or suburban communities, healthy built environments are places that can be intentionally designed to support good health and help people to thrive.

Healthy neighbourhood design means employment, amenities, and services are located near or among residential areas; connected street patterns encourage active forms of transportation such as walking, cycling, and transit; and housing choices suit people of all incomes, ages, and abilities.

There are three key healthy neighbourhood design elements:

  • complete: a variety and mix of land uses are available in the community
  • compact: the community is concentrated, not spread thinly over a large area
  • connected: the layout makes it convenient and pleasant to get to destinations

What is this issue about?

Neighbourhood design and land use are effective strategies for promoting health. As individuals we make choices that affect our health, but it was estimated in a 2009 Canadian Senate Report that 60% of health outcomes can be attributed to the places we live and socio-economic determinants of health.i

Evidence shows that people have better health when they live in communities that are designed to support day-to-day healthy choices, such as being physically active, eating healthy food, and engaging in positive social interactions.

People with low incomes generally have poorer health status, more barriers to making healthy choices, and less of a voice to advocate for changes that result in better health. Living in neighbourhoods that offer opportunities to be active and provide access services is a boost to health.

Designing, building, and retrofitting communities to be healthy is about making it easy for all residents to move around, be connected with one another, feel safe, and access services that they need.

Why is healthy neighbourhood design important for health and well-being?

Enables physical activity

If routine neighbourhood destinations (shopping, work, etc.) are near to home, and if it is safe and easy to get there by active transportation, residents are more active in daily life.

  • People living in mid- to high-density neighbourhoods offering a mix of services within walking distance are 2.4 times more likely to meet their 30 minutes of recommended daily activity requirements for better health.ii
  • Parks, trails, and playgrounds are a key part of a healthy design because they encourage active transportation and exercise among all age groups. Both physical and mental health benefits are gained by those who have access to greenspace.iii
  • The number of people who get regular exercise (3 days a week) increases by 25% in neighbourhoods with parks, trails, and playgrounds.iv
  • In places with direct pathways connecting homes with multiple destinations (stores, transit stops, parks), people are more likely to engage in moderate physical activity for 30 minutes or more per day.v 

Encourages healthy eating

The location of grocery stores and other sources of healthy food in close proximity to home can positively affect our ability to make healthy choices. Easy access to unhealthy food sources can negatively impact health as over-consumption of "junk foods" raises the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and certain Residents living in a neighbourhood with at least one grocery store are 1.5 times as likely to be physically active than residents living in an area with no grocery store. Each additional grocery store within a one-kilometre distance from an individual's residence is associated with an 11% reduction in the likelihood of being overweight.vii

Increases social capital and safety

Social capital is commonly referred to as the glue that holds the people in communities together. Communities where people are active and socialize have high levels of social capital and are associated with greater prosperity, lower crime, greater overall community cohesion, and better engagement with local government. Connected communities are also safer. Safety is linked with a higher residential density and mixed land use since such places can be vibrant with social activity in daytime and in the evenings.viii,ix

Strengthens social connections and improves access to services

Children, elderly adults, people with disabilities, and people with lower incomes particularly benefit from healthy community design and land use because it provides them with convenient access to community services and connections close to where they live without driving.

Such benefits include:

  • improved child development: the neighbourhood distribution of programs and services, including childcare, parks, recreation centres, and child- and family-friendly locations, can improve the quality of life for children and their families. University of BC research shows that children in mixed income neighbourhoods have the best access to these services and the best early learning development outcomes, which bode well for their long-term health outcomes.x
  • enhanced community connections and networks: mixed housing types build social ties and understanding among neighbours with different economic and life circumstances. Healthy design includes spaces that help people to interact and build these social connections.xi Having social ties within the community is associated with lower stress, improved overall health status, lower mortality rates,xii and longevity.xiii

Why does healthy neighbourhood design matter for local governments?

There is an unmet and growing market demand to live in complete, compact, and connected communities.xiv Such communities are necessary to meet environmental, economic, and social planning objectives.xv Resident and political support for these planning directions may be bolstered when evidence that links progressive community design and land use with positive health outcomes is provided.

Municipal plans contain the building blocks for community design and land use: street layout, land use, park locations, and buildings and public space design. Planning processes are important opportunities to build a healthy community – without adding extra cost to the process.

Take Action

Policy and Planning

Develop community plans with goals and principles for health and well-being, accessibility, and active transportation. Provide for a variety of housing types and tenures in each neighbourhood, local commercial opportunities, and prioritize on investment in social infrastructure.

City Terrace’s Strategy for Sustainability includes a vision and strategic directions that embrace a healthy community.  This strategy has led to projects such as the Grand Trunk Pathway, a paved walkway used by community members for hiking, walking, jogging, dog walking, rollerblading and biking.

Design policies and guidelines that emphasize street connectivity, mixed land use, and human-scaled developments in existing town centres.

North Vancouver's Active Design Guidelines 

The Regional District of Nanaimo’s 
Cedar Main Street Village Plan includes design ideas and a plan created by a design charrette process.

LEED-Neighbourhood Design and Healthy Neighborhoods Expert Panel Review shows which environmental design could contribute to health benefits.

Amend zoning bylaws. Zoning can facilitate the development of buildings that provide end-of-trip amenities such as secure bike parking, showers, and lockers; require that buildings face the street to create a walkable and safe environment; and locate a mix of uses in neighbourhoods to increase housing affordability and provide residents with services nearby.

City of North Vancouver's Zoning Bylaw amendment enables bicycle parking, street friendly design, etc.

Develop community-wide and local transportation plans that calm traffic and encourage active transportation.

The Built Environment & Active Transportation Community Planning Grant Program provides links and information on multiple active transportation plans, budget information, etc.

Create and review neighbourhood plans to facilitate a mix of land uses. Include parks and public investments in these plans, targeting areas that are currently park deficient.

The Town of Gibsons' Gospel Rock Neighbourhood Plan includes waterfront land,  environmental considerations, and open space as key issues.

Develop plans to address the needs of different populations in the community. Ask specialized service groups and representatives to identify their priorities and participate in the planning process to ensure their perspectives are included.

The Social Planning and Research Council of BC (SPARC-BC) Accessible Community Bylaws Guide includes sample policies and bylaws to enhance community accessibility for people with disabilities.

The City of Coquitlam's Multiculturalism Strategic Plan and Policy is designed to make the City more welcoming, inclusive, and responsive to its increasingly diverse residents.


Support neighbourhood groups to define their visions for an active and healthy community.

The North Vancouver Capilano Gateway group has been active in neighbourhood issues and planning.

Engage community residents in designing and programming public spaces to reflect their preferred activities.

The City of Surrey's Park-It design challenge invited proposals for a temporary park project.

Use a health impact assessment process (or invite others to do so) on proposed major plans and land use policies to inform decision making from a health perspective.

The CIP Healthy Communities Practice Guide outlines health impact assessment approaches.

Engage community service organizations and partners to reach out to population groups who do not usually have a voice in land use planning processes to ensure that their needs are included.

The City of Victoria's OCP process included citizen insight councils and community circles.

Partnerships and Programs

Work with health authorities to support healthy built environments and provide the health evidence to support higher density and other changes. Health authority staff can help to explain the health benefits of such changes to the public.

Work with non-profit and community-based organizations with strong ties to the community. They can help engage local citizens and build support for healthier built environments. Such organizations may include cycling groups, seniors’ organizations, school boards, public health agencies, and developers.

Work with community partners to promote celebrations supporting active transportation, neighbourhood milestones and events, the grand opening of a facility, and more.

Work with local police departments to increase safety, especially in areas with a high rate of traffic accident areas or crime so that residents will be safe in walking, cycling, and using local parks.xvi

Work with schools to support healthy school policies that promote changes to school environments encouraging active play and active transportation to and from school.