Health and the Built Environment

What is the built environment? 

The "built environment" includes the human-made design and layout of the communities in which people live, work and play. 

The built environment is made up of:

  • Neighbourhoods;
  • Homes;
  • Workplaces;
  • Schools;
  • Shops and services;
  • Sidewalks and bike paths;
  • Streets and transit networks;
  • Green spaces, parks and playgrounds;
  • Buildings and other infrastructure;
  • Food systems (the path that food travels from field to fork: the growing, harvesting, processing, transporting, marketing, consuming, and disposing of food).

How does the built environment impact health?

Changes to our physical world can lead to better or worse personal health.

What makes a healthy built environment?

The built environment can affect our behaviours and how we feel.  For example, well-designed communities that make it easy to access healthy food and get around by transit, foot or bicycle can contribute to better health and happiness.

A healthy built environment can:

  • Promote being active, eating healthy and other healthy habits;
  • Encourage social connectedness;
  • Prevent injuries and promote safety;
  • Improve air, water and soil quality;
  • Provide access to natural and green spaces;
  • Ensure all members of the community have good opportunities to be healthy regardless of their age, income level, gender, ethnic background, or any other social or economic reasons.

Healthy communities can help create environments that give everyone opportunities for all people to thrive and live their lives to the fullest. They have the potential to make the healthy choice the easier choice for residents.

The 5C’s of healthy communities are some community design features that promote healthy built environments.

Healthy communities are:

  • Compact and Complete
    • A diverse and compact mix of housing options for all ages and incomes, with shops and services, access to healthy food options, schools, employment, public transit, and open green spaces that can promote walking and social connectedness by making it easy to get out and meet.
  • Connected
    • Safe, complete streets and transportation networks that promote walking, cycling and transit use, making it easy and pleasant to get around.
  • Cool
    • Parks, trees and green spaces provide shade and improve air quality, making the community  cooler, and promoting active living and positive mental health.
  • Convivial
    • Attractive and lively public and community spaces where people can easily connect with each other and with day-to-day services make communities vibrant and livable.

The built environment is shaped by policies and regulations, planners, engineers, developers, governments, elected officials and engaged community members. 


Why Focus on Health and the Built Environment Today? 

The way communities are built has impacted people’s health and well-being throughout history- and continues today.  Even though we have access to sophisticated health care such as immunizations and antibiotics, we are faced with new, complex, and growing health challenges and accompanying health-related costs.

Read our discussion paper: The Building Blocks for a Healthy Ottawa

Several chronic illnesses

The Pain That Sticks - Chronic Disease 

  • 56% of adults report being overweight or obese.
  • 22% of 12-17 year olds reported being being overweight or obese
  • Almost half of older adults (42%) have high blood pressure, 14% have heart disease and 15% have diabetes.
  • For more info:  State of Ottawa’s Health 2018

Cartoon characters in a park

A Community Buddy-System- Social Connectedness 

It’s essential for overall health and well-being. Neighbourhoods can be built to promote mental health, and encouraging social connections and belonging.

  • 20-44 year olds report the lowest levels of strong community belonging
  • 60% of kids in grades 7-12 reported they wanted to talk to someone but did not know where to turn for help.
  • Older adults over 65 years old report lower self-rated mental health, life satisfaction and psychological well-being. 
  • For more info:  Status of Mental Health in Ottawa Report 2018

Cartoon people cycling

Keeping the Big Scrapes and Bumps at Bay - Prevent Injuries and Promote Safety

People walking, and biking are disproportionately injured or killed compared to people driving. Safety and well-being is impacted through injuries and deaths from vehicular traffic and street characteristics.

  • Ottawa - in 2017 there were 5 pedestrian deaths, 335 injuries and 226 cyclist injuries
  • Ontario - Older adults represent 35% of pedestrian fatalities even though they only make up 13% of the population.
  • For more info:  2017 Ottawa Road Safety Report

Too Hot to Hold - Climate Related Heat Health Hazards

The impacts of climate change will be increasingly felt through more hot days and more extreme heat events.

  • Ottawa - each year approximately 86 emergency room visits directly related to exposure to extreme heat, such as dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
  • The urban heat island effect is created in built-up areas where buildings, parking lots and other dark surfaces absorb and retain heat and become hotter than greenspaces and water. They release heat back overnight. See an example of the urban heat island effect on a hot day in 2019 for the entire City of Ottawa and for the area within the Greenbelt (City wide map (pdf - 2 MB) and Greenbelt map (pdf - 3 MB). These maps highlight areas of potential risk created by the urban heat island effect. Additional factors that influence an individual’s risk include access to air condition at work, school, home and during commutes, if they work or exercise outdoors, their age, and pre-existing health conditions.

The increase in hot weather could result in more heat-related deaths in urban centres, especially for those that don’t have good access to air conditioning at work, school, home and during commutes.

For more information visit the Environmental Health page and Climate Resiliency page.


Read the 2019 Ottawa Board of Health Report (pdf - 264 KB) and the 2022 Ottawa Board of Health reports (pdf - 109 KB) to learn about Ottawa Public Health’s work in support of climate action and health.

A cartoon person cycling in front of a store window

What are the Building Blocks to Building a Healthy Ottawa?

Getting Around - Transportation

  • One quarter of grade 7 to 12 students meet the recommended daily requirements of Physical Activity Guidelines.  Only 18% of grade 7 to 12 students walk or cycle to school.
  • One in ten (10%) employed Ottawa residents aged 15 years and older reported that their primary mode of transportation to work was walking or cycling in 2016.
  • About 3.1 million daily trips were made in the capital region during a typical workday in fall 2011 by those 5 and over.  Of the total, about 21% trips were less than 2km and about 44% trips were less than 5km, trips that may be of a practical distance for walking and cycling, with the right conditions.
  • The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) leads 13 Walking School bus programs for the English elementary school boards.There are two French pilot projects (“Trotti-bus”) being piloted in the French elementary school boards.

How Health is Impacted:

  • The way we design our roads (i.e., transportation network) and how people choose to move through their communities impacts health, such as exposure to harmful emissions, physical activity, and access to services, amenities, employment, education, and social networks. 

Building Communities for Everyone

  • Some groups experience more barriers to walking, biking and using transit. For instance, older adults are more susceptible to road injuries.  Issues such as sidewalk design, traffic, rest areas, and aesthetics all affect the safety and comfort of older adults using active transportation.

The decrease of children who walk and bike to school is in part due to the barriers to getting to school safely and conveniently.  For example, community design that promotes high traffic volume and speed, and has less pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure, can lead to more injuries and fatalities.

Parenting in Ottawa: Walking and Cycling Safety for Youth

The LINK: Getting Around in Ottawa

City of Ottawa: 

EnviroCentre: Cycling Tips 2018

NCC: Multi-Use Pathways in the Capital

Canadian Urban Institute: Laneways as Bikeways

Two apartment buildings with trees

A Place to Call Home - Housing

  • Of all female lone-parent rental households, 46% are in core housing need - the highest rate in Ottawa.  The next highest rates are for rental immigrants households, households with one 65+ renter and renters with at least one child under 18 years of age.
  • 20 per cent of Ottawa rental households spend over 50 per cent of their income on rent and utilities.  

How Health is Impacted:

  • Having access to housing that is suitable to your stage of life, affordable and safe, promotes physical and mental health.
  • Good, affordable housing supports health by increasing the amount of disposable income households have, which increases the accessibility of healthy foods and supports healthy lifestyles and healthy relationships.  Building Communities for Everyone
  • Some groups may be more affected by inadequate housing, such as recent immigrants, lone-parent households and visible minorities.
  • Children living in unsuitable, inadequate or unaffordable housing conditions are especially vulnerable to poor health as it can limit their ability to reach their full potential.

A cartoon marketplace with food vendros

Bellyfull of Nutrition - Food

  • Only one third (33%) of Ottawa residents consume the recommended minimum serving of 5 vegetables and fruits per day, 48% of calories come from ultra-processed foods, and many do not meet the recommended daily intakes of vitamins and minerals. 
  • 21% of neighborhoods in Ottawa are classified as food deserts, where grocery stores and other food retailers are not available or easily accessible. How Health is Impacted
  • Lack of nutritious food in the average diet can lead to chronic diseases like heart disease.  Being able to access healthy food locally supports healthy eating. 

Building Communities for Everyone

  • Income is the strongest predictor of food insecurity.  Individuals and families living on low and fixed incomes often do not have enough money to afford nutritious food after for paying for rent and other basic life necessities.
  • Children are more severely affected by food insecurity and are more likely to develop depression, asthma and to have issues with hyperactivity and inattention. 

Ottawa Public Health:  

2018 Nutritious Food Basket Report

2018 Nutritious Food Basket Infographic

Nature Lovers Unite - Natural Environments and Greenspaces 

  • Climate change will make our communities hotter in the summer.

How Health is Impacted

  • Greenspaces with trees help reduce stress, promote physical activity, buffer noise, wind and rain and filter and cool the air.
  • Exposure to greenspace may help reduce stress, anger, fatigue, sadness, anxiety and increase individual energy levels independent of other benefits such as physical activity

            Building Communities for Everyone

  • With climate change, people who are vulnerable will be more seriously impacted.
  • For older adults vulnerable to social isolation, greenspace has been shown to provide an environment for mental restoration and social connections. 

Canadian Institute of Planning:  Policy on Climate Change Planning

United Nations Sustainable Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

The David Suzuki Foundation:  The Impact of Green Space on Heat and Air Pollution in Urban Communities

Halifax Regional Municipality:  Trees of All Trades (Available in English Only)

(For FR web page) Envoyé spécial.  Le secret des arbres - 26 octobre 2017 (France 2)

Region of Waterloo:  Shade Audit Information Guide + Tool: A Guide for Creating Shady Outdoor Spaces

Region of Waterloo:  Video:  Shade Matters (Available in English Only)

A cartoon streetscape

Drawing the Right Picture - Neighborhood Design 

  • Neighborhood design impacts the look and feel of a community, and influences lifestyles and behaviours, such as whether people choose to travel on foot, by bike, or by car. 

How Health is Impacted:

  • Designing walkable communities where people of all ages and life situations can shop locally, and meet and interact with each other, promotes better physical and mental health.

Building Communities for Everyone

  • Cities designed for all stages of life, for the young to the old, will promote better health. Designing our cities to be age-friendly, means thinking about how communities can be planned so people can age in place, and how the needs of children can be designed into our communities. For instance, a mixt of housing types, safe active transportation networks, and places for people of all ages to mix and mingle with one another can help ensure that our communities are welcoming and inclusive for everyone.
Public Health Agency of Canada:  Designing Healthy Living; The Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada 2017

Canadian Institute of Planning:  Policy on Healthy Communities Planning

Canadian Journal of Public Health:  Healthy Canada By Design

UrbanAdvantage: urban design photo transformations (English only)

Inspiring Stories and Insights from:  8 80Cities:  “We believe that if everything we do in our cities is great for an 8 year old and an 80 year old, then it will be great for all people.”

Ottawa Public Health has released two videos to raise awareness of the link between health and the built environment and highlight how residents can get involved to make changes in their communities.  

Share this video Twitter Logo Facebook logo Email share icon

Share this video Twitter Logo Facebook logo Email share icon

Contact Us