Location, location, location. Three things a realtor will tell you are key when buying a property. Of course the realtor is talking about price but there are many other things to consider when looking for a place to live.

Some of this will be the size, if there’s parking or a yard. We might also consider things about the neighbourhood; is it safe, how long will it take to get to work or school, where’s the nearest grocery store?

But what about your health? Will your neighbourhood help you lose or gain weight? Will it increase your stress, give you diabetes or heart disease? This might sound ridiculous, but the connection between where you live and health is much stronger than we think.

Of course there’s the obvious aspects, such as living close to a large industrial complex spewing out smog and other pollutants. Or if you live by a frat house with parties every night making it hard to sleep. How about sidewalks, though? Does it matter if the streets are lined with trees? Do they have streetlights? Are the streets connected making it easy to get from A to B? Is there a lot of traffic?

When it comes to neighbourhoods, how they’re designed can play a big role in how much physical activity we get and what, as well as how much, we eat. This in turn can affect our health many years later.

People living in neighbourhoods with sidewalks, low crime, and parks and community centres tend to be more active. Likewise having a community with a grid-like street network is more likely to get us walking than ones with meandering streets and dead ends. This is because getting from place to place is easier when streets are designed to provide the most direct route. Of course, it only makes a difference if you have somewhere within walking distance.

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Neighbourhoods with row upon row of houses may look idyllic but they are actually making us sick. Going anywhere usually requires getting in a car whether we want to or not. It increases our sitting, which is bad for us, and decreases our activity. And those hours in the car add up to poor health; each one hour of commuting is associated with a 6% greater risk for obesity.

However, if we have shops, places of work, schools, etc. close to us, we’re more likely to walk or bike to them. It should come as no surprise that people who walk or bicycle (among other types of physical activity) to get to work/school or run errands are more likely to be active, but they’re also less likely to be obese and have diabetes.

Together these things form what is often termed as ‘walkability’; how easy is it for people to walk throughout their neighbourhood on a regular and daily basis. You can easily find out the walkability of anywhere in Australia, Canada and the USA by going to the Walk Score website.

When it comes to our diet, what food is offered in our neighbourhood is linked to what we eat. If we live in an area of convenience stores and fast food restaurants, most likely our diet will consist of foods from these places.

All of these things affect our chances of getting obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

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It’s not just through our behaviours that neighbourhoods affect our health. Living near a highway and major street can increase our chances for heart and lung diseases, and even dementia. This is due to the pollution from cars, but also the noise coming from busy streets. This noise does more than keep you up at night, it can lead to stress and activate hormones that increase risk for heart disease.

With this information in hand, many cities throughout the world are changing how they approach their design. Instead of making cities with the car in mind, cities are putting people, and their health, first. Starting as early as 1974, Bogota, Colombia’s Ciclovia closes off dozens of miles of roads every Sunday morning to allow pedestrians and cyclists to take over, leading to a carnival atmosphere of physical activity. Many other cities have followed suit with their own Ciclovia.

Cities such as Hong Kong, Olso, London and New York City are undergoing initiatives such as from putting in more walking and biking infrastructure to banning cars outright in certain parts of the cities. One of the main reasons is to reduce pollution within the cities and make it easier for people to get around.

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In Denmark, the bicycle is king. People can also move through the city faster than in a car. And because of the infrastructure is cheaper for bike paths than roads, plus the healthcare savings of being active, the city of Copenhagen has found the cost of each kilometre driven by car is six times that by bicycle.

Newer cities and neighbourhoods can even go beyond what old cities can do as they’re stating from a clean slate. These cities are being designed to allow people to live, work and play in the same area. In China, outside of Chengdu a neighbourhood is being developed so that everything is within a 15 minute walk.

All of us want to do things the easiest and fastest way, and often means using motorized transportation or eating convenience foods. While we all bear some individual responsibility in our health and our lifestyle habits, if we live in an area that makes it hard to be active, eat nutritious foods and breath clean air, realizing our potential to be healthy will be practically impossible.

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