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André Picard at Healthy People, Healthy City says Vancouver's health depends on economy and environment

André Picard

Vancouver may be healthy compared to many cities across Canada, but it still has a lot of work to do, award-winning public policy writer André Picard told the packed conference room at the Healthy People, Healthy City in SFU's downtown Goldcorp Centre on West Hastings Street. Organized by the City of Vancouver, the event was a "summit" of sorts for people involved in public health, with participants ranging from public health officials to housing activists. 

Picard, a much-decorated writer who has won many awards for public service journalism, praised Mayor Gregor Robertson for holding the event.

Mayor Gregor Robertson

It's refreshing to hear a mayor speak about public health so openly,” he remarked. Then he got to his main argument: real public health is not all about the diet and exercise of individual citizens, but about environment and socio-economic circumstances. 

Don't be fooled by the beauty of your city,” Picard said, challenging Mayor Robertson and City Council to have concrete, measurable goals for health. In his view, Vancouver is much better than cities like Calgary but still lags behind Ottawa and Victoria in terms of overall healthiness due to issues such as stress and lack of leisure time.

Signs of a healthy city

While noting that there was no precise method on measuring one city's health agaisnt another, the Michener award-winning journalist said that there are some distinct signs of a healthy city. These include:  

  • The availability of “real food” such as fresh fruit and produce,
  • The presence of greenery in the city
  • The prescence of people walking around downtown at nighttime.
  • People walking downtown at different at night-time.

Reflecting on his recent experience traveling and speaking across Canada, Picard recalled his observations when jogging during early morning in major cities. He said that when running in Regina, he came across “not a single soul who wasn't passed out on the sidewalk” and remarked that the downtown streets were empty while the casino was full: all signs of a mentally, as well as physically unhealthy city. 

Even though Calgary was much much better, he said, there was low availability of fruits and produce downtown, and a “distinct odour” that permeated the city when the wind blew a certain direction.

When he came to Vancouver, he said the city offered a much more positive experience. 

Vancouver screams out healthy,” Picard said. “There were people on the streets at all hours...The city is really green.”

Still, he said, signs of trouble were present: a drug addict was shooting a needle into his arm at the crack of dawn by the seawall. At another turn, a homeless man emerged from the woods, rolling up his sleeping bag after a night out in the cold.

While it was good for individual citizens to be health-conscious, he said, more people needed to realize that socio-economic factors were the most vital aspects of creating a healthy city and community. Vancouver -- with its vast gap between rich and poor and social isolation among newcomers -- still had much room for improvement.

More than individual choices

Picard criticized the mainstream media for its simplistic articles on health, which he explained could be summed up into points such as "eat a balanced diet", "be physically active" or "eat chocolate". All of these were easy to do, he said, but in order to truly make an impact on health, people were much better off to keep in mind the following: 

  • Don't be poor (poverty diminishes health and prevents people from receiving adequate treatment)
  • Pick your parents well
  • Graduate from high school/university
  • Don't work at low-pay stressful job
  • Be able to afford a foreign holiday
  • Don't be unemployed. If you are, keep your mind and body active by volunteering. 
  • Live in a community where you have a sense of belonging. 
  • Don't live in a ghetto, a major road or a polluting factory.
  • Learn to make friends and keep them.

Picard elaborated and said that for the workplace, individuals feel far less stress when they can exercise a degree of control over their surroundings.  

He stressed the need for Canada to invest more in urban public health, now that over 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities, and remarked that public health -- despite public perception -- goes far beyond the medical field. 

Civil engineers, city planners, garbage removal workers all should be considered "public health officials," he said, for creating a healthy and clean environment for citizens. Such workers helped with the prevention of diseases and disorders, which he said was far more effective than administering treatment.

Mental health just as important as physical health

 “Health isn't just about eating bran muffins and jogging and riding a bike,” said Councillor Kerry Jang. “ It's about making sure that people who have a mental illness recognize they have a mental illness and get proper health. It's safe housing, having a mix of housing. It's everything that contributes to to public health.”

Councillor Kerry Jang 

Homelessness is part of it...The mental illnesses in Vancouver are a lot worse than any other city in – it's the neglect of years, provincial government policies, not having housing for many years. My concern is that even though we're getting housing, the mortality rates are still high because we're so far gone.”

I think Vancouver has a lot of assets that contribute to health generally. It's a population that really values health in this city,” said Community Action Initiative provincial director Laura Tate, whose organization gives grants to groups addressing mental illness and substance abuse. " That said, there's always more that can be done."

Laura Tate

There's a lot of people who really care about community. This is a community that cares about being fit, there's been a lot of investment in cycling and pedestrian networks. I think that's a really incredible benefits of for years to come.”

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