A recently-released report from the Vancouver-based Suzuki Foundation warns Canadians that the ever-expanding sprawl of Canada's cities must be one of the first issues addressed by all levels of government because it is seriously affecting the health of Canadians.

Entitled "Driven to Action: Stopping Sprawl in Your Community," the report explains that sprawl is responsible for increased air pollution, rising obesity rates and loss of agricultural land. This report advocates that everyone from individual property owners to the federal government must work together to stop urban sprawl, but that this must be a priority for provincial governments.

"The time to address this critical issue is now," said David Suzuki, an award-winning Canadian scientist who is familiar to audiences around the world as host of CBC TV's long-running series The Nature of Things. "The more cities sprawl outward, the more we damage the environment and our health. We need to design communities so that the people who live in them use their cars less and have a much lower impact on the environment, and a better quality of life in return."

Addressing sprawl now is also crucial to help Canada meet its commitments under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol. Sprawling communities are a major contributor to climate change and air pollution because of their over-dependence on automobiles, which burn polluting fossil fuels. By reducing sprawl, we will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, explains Dr. Suzuki, Foundation Chair.

Since 1990, the David Suzuki Foundation has worked toward balancing human needs with the Earth's ability to sustain all life and has promoted practical ways to achieve that balance. Focusing on four program areas -- oceans and sustainable fishing, forests and wild lands, climate change and clean energy and the web of life -- the Foundation uses science and education to promote solutions that help conserve nature. This environmental non-profit organization with about 40,000 members is supported entirely by donations and foundation grants, not government funding.

The "Driven to Action" report also includes a user-friendly toolkit designed to help communities stop sprawl and encourage them to put pressure on all levels of government. You can also join the Foundation's Nature Challenge and take 10 simple steps at home to conserve nature.

"Most Canadians do not personally build the houses, streets, schools, parks or water lines that make cities possible," said report author David Gurin, a former Metro Toronto commissioner of planning. "But citizens can help set the rules for the immense amount of city building that is going on. These planning rules determine how people live and work in the city. They can produce an environment of parking lots and traffic or a city that is green and sustainable."

Many studies show strong correlations between sprawl and health and environmental problems. In a sprawling community, homes are far from work, stores and schools, and safe walking and biking is difficult. More cars on the roads mean more air pollution, which can trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.

Sprawling suburbs are also contributing to the near-epidemic levels of obesity for all age groups in North America. A recent US study revealed that people living in the most sprawling communities are likely to weigh six pounds more than those living in the most compact communities.

"Today's suburbs are designed to reduce social contact and interaction between neighbours," said former Toronto mayor John Sewell. "For most suburban residents, the private car is the only reasonable transportation choice to daily destinations. That's why some suburbs don't even have sidewalks. The street system isn't designed for public transit, and densities are so low that transit requires very large subsidies."

The Suzuki Foundation is calling on provincial governments to:

  • Protect agricultural and rural areas by establishing a legislated urban growth boundary;
  • Increase funding for public transit;
  • Intensify town centres by enhancing economic activity and promoting mixed-use development;
  • Create more compact cities, with better bike paths and pedestrian-friendly walkways.

    "City residents need access to the countryside," said Gurin. "Rather than pave it over with new subdivisions, highways and malls, we should make better use of the land and infrastructure we have within our cities. Let's use that before we expand outward. The result will be cleaner air, better health, reduced climate change and a better quality of life."

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