The Built Environment and People's Health

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer defines the built environment as “the external physical environment where we live, work, study and play. It includes buildings, roads, public transit systems, parks, and other types of infrastructure. It is linked to how we design, plan and build our communities.”

Today, both communicable diseases such as COVID-19, and non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, challenge us to build healthier communities. Our built environments, which include our buildings, streets, neighbourhoods, and their amenities, play major roles in helping us address the risk factors of these diseases to enhance community residents’ health and well-being. Physical activity, healthy diets and social connections are three important ways the built environment can affect our health, both physically and mentally. With non-communicable diseases now key risk factors for severe infection from today's communicable diseases (from COVID-19 to seasonal flu), it is more important than ever that we plan, develop and design our community environments to address these health priorities.

The built environment and physical activity: Physical activity has been linked to the reduction of non-communicable diseases and the improvement of mental health and quality of life. A well-designed built environment can increase opportunities for physical activity.

  • Shorter distances between people’s homes and destinations such as public transit stations or recreation facilities encourage walking or cycling rather than driving.
  • Communities with higher levels of residential density and mixed land use can help shorten the distance between homes and other destinations such as schools, retail services, and parks.
  • Lower crime rates and less frequent traffic hazards enhance community environmental safety, encouraging people to walk and use public spaces such as parks. More walkable community designs have in turn been associated with lower crime rates.
  • User-friendly environmental factors, such as visible and slip-proof sidewalks and well-designed ramps, help to optimize people’s mobility (especially for elderly people and those with disabilities).
  • Creating more visible, appealing, and user-friendly stairs in the interior of buildings has been shown to encourage people who are able to use them to do so, rather than taking elevators. Where feasible, inclusion of ramps can also increase physical activity opportunities in everyday life for people with disabilities.
The built environment and healthy diets: Canada’s Food Guide ( recommends that we eat a variety of healthy foods each day, including vegetables and fruit, protein foods, and whole grain foods. The Guide recommends that water be our drink of choice and advises us to be mindful of our eating habits, cook more often, enjoy our food, eat meals with others, use food labels, limit foods high in sodium, sugars, or saturated fat, and beware of food marketing.

Accessibility and availability of healthy foods and beverages, and exposure to unhealthy foods and beverages, impact people’s behaviours when buying foods and beverages. In other words, the built environment impacts Canadians’ ability to adhere to Canada’s Food Guide.
  • Access to healthy food is an important factor in encouraging dietary diversity, especially among elderly people. Healthy food sources such as full-service grocery stores, should be located within walking distance of people’s homes, and should have benches near the entrances and exits of the shopping area to allow people to rest.
  • Grocery stores, restaurants, and other food retailers in the community are encouraged to offer multiple healthier food options and place them in more visible locations.
  • Farmers’ markets and community gardens are encouraged to provide additional local healthy food options for residents.
  • Water fountains and water-bottle refilling stations in public spaces can provide opportunities for healthy beverage access, availability and affordability.
  • Unhealthy food and beverage exposure, and the numbers and density of venues that are major sources of such exposures, should be limited and discouraged.

The built environment and social connections: A sense of community and belonging, created through engagement with your community and supported by the built environment, can lead to a healthier and longer life.

  • Walkable community and street designs have been shown to be associated with decreased social isolation.
  • Safe, dense, walkable, and accessible neighbourhood environments may encourage people to join social activities within the community.
  • Green spaces such as parks, community gardens, and sidewalk pocket parks provide opportunities for people to play, rest, and garden together.
  • Third places, community spaces other than home (first place) or work and school (second places), can allow for informal social interactions. Examples of third places are recreation centres, pedestrian plazas, and healthy cafes.
  • Soft edges, the connecting spaces between private residential buildings and public streets, may also be designed as social connecting spaces; for example, people gardening in their front yards may enjoy chatting with neighbours walking past.
  • Street amenities such as benches, sidewalk railings, and water fountains create an environment for social activities.
  • Co-located active recreation amenities such as adult exercise equipment and children’s play areas may encourage healthy social interactions among community members of different ages.