Living the Full Catastrophe

living-the-full-catastrophe-24I’m self-employed alongside my husband, and together we are hands-on running a busy restaurant at the Quay. We have a two-bedroom B&B in our house, built in 1892, and in need of constant upgrades. Our daughter, born in that very home, is now four. People ask, “are you guys all right?”

It’s a good question. I’ve grappled with it for a while. Our business and lifestyle mean we go through prolonged periods of extreme stress, joy, guilt, doubt, regret, and physical hardship. A better question to ask us might be, “why are you guys ok?”

These days, it’s trendy to talk about ‘work-life balance’ and take a ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos, but I beg to differ. This catchphrase implies that work and life are a dichotomy—when work is done for the day, you can start living life.

This is a problem.

When you’re self-employed, the boundaries between work and life are blurred by working from home or being a master of your own schedule. One freeing realization that can come from being your own boss is that work is really just a part of life, not separate from it. My journey from having no life, always working and having too many unattended chores, into enjoying work as part of life, had three major turning points.

Seek Counsel

During the craziest and most stressful period in the last five years, my husband Michael and I decided that relationship counselling was probably a good idea. We were with each other 24/7 and not communicating at all about work. Most conversations were arguments. We blocked each other constantly with stubborn bickering.  

Our counselor said one thing that really stuck. I paraphrase: “figure out who is in your tribe, find your goal, and unite in achieving it.”

Be ok with achieving your goal…and check in with your people about it

Our tribe ended up being pretty vanilla: myself, Michael, and our daughter.  A tribe can be anyone: you and your three cats or 12 of your closest relatives—it doesn’t matter. Our team of three decided we wanted to be free from financial obligations to other people and organizations. Now we had a goal and, all of a sudden, things that I had seen as sacrifices and regrets suddenly became ok. They were now problems to solve, challenges—full-contact, augmented-reality Sudoku if you will. Just my cup of tea.

United, we went forward. I stopped beating myself up over our finances and life choices. I stopped punishing my husband for going to work at 7am and coming home at midnight. I took on home economics like I was balancing Canada’s national budget. Whatever I was doing at the time was fulfilling, because there was purpose.

It wasn’t a gendered division. Michael and I often switched roles at home and in the restaurant. We found that having a singular goal and regularly checking in on our progress meant we could get rid of what wasn’t working and ‘finesse’ our lives in the right direction. Every week, relieved of the anxieties and arguments over ‘not doing it right,’ we found more free time to exercise, be with friends, and go on family outings (you know, the ‘life’ part of the balance).

Do a full Marie Kondo on your monthly budget (if you don’t know who I’m talking about, Google her!)

So much of ‘life’ is a financial puzzle, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you just work harder and get that raise or promotion, you’ll make enough money to buy your way into doing life better. Not so. We found our balance by slashing our home expenses.

Another self-employment superpower manifests from being forced to live on zero income while building one’s business. So, we had the “advantage” of having to cut our monthly home budget by more than half. With some effort, we shaved $3000 per month from our cost of living, and stayed this lean for about 12 months. Our plan—if you can call it that—included not getting haircuts for 16 months, shopping exclusively at thrift stores, ditching cell phones, planting kale in the yard, and eating nothing but rice, leafy greens, and scraps from work for an entire winter. Seriously.

Once there was a hint of stability in the restaurant, we were able to make unified, thoughtful decisions about spending. A year in, we still spend far less than we used to, having removed the financial clutter.

Post clean-up, we made a few lifestyle decisions that cost some money. They sound an awful lot like the traditional fixes to work-life balance, except that we came to them from the ground up as a team.

We wanted to drink better coffee at home and at work, so we invested in a decent coffee grinder and two Chemex systems from Canteen and Supply at the River Market.

We decided to start going to the gym and took out memberships at The Strong Side Conditioning Gym.

We bought a picnic cooler and three day packs from MEC so we could go on hikes or picnics on weekends.

We love cooking and friends (who doesn’t?), so we spend some money every week on food and drink and have someone over for a meal.

That’s really all we have time for while each working more than 50 hours a week, putting a four year old to bed, and paying debt down fast, but unity in the decision-making process has made the little pleasures seem all the more sweet when paired with hard work.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’ll let my husband conclude my train of thought. Here is Michael’s perspective:

living-the-full-catastrophe-25‘Work-life balance’ is a poor phrase because it categorizes work as a pejorative term when, at its best, work can infuse life with interesting goals and strong discipline. ‘Life’ is euphemistic because it fails to account for emptying the dishwasher and toddler tantrums. American author and and mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says it best when he speaks about life as “the full catastrophe.” Joy and sorrow, work and play; we can’t have some of one without plenty of the other.

Can you do this too? Probably. The transition is difficult, and involves many long conversations, some which sound an awful lot like arguments. You have to decide what you want as a person and harmonize this with your tribe. Neither are easy. Once you have done this, the only essential step, as I see it, is to get to poverty and rebuild from there. Otherwise, your ‘things’ and accounts will own you—you will not feel ok with making changes. It is not equal unless you all give up everything and start fresh as a team

One in Five

1-in-5-19I am one in five. A statistic so familiar to me, it’s as if it has become part of my identity. Thanks to my seven years battling depression and an eating disorder, I became one of the thousands of Canadians who personally experience mental illness in their lifetime. One in five.

The ‘why’ behind my mental illness is fairly typical. Shifting from high school to university, low self-esteem, and a family history of mental illness was the perfect storm, allowing depression to rule my life. I’d miss classes, cancel plans with friends, and even forget to shower. I began to turn to food in order to self-soothe and numb my feelings. I went through the motions of life but never really lived.

It’s true what they say about depression feeling like a heavy fog. It weighs down on you until you feel as though you can no longer breathe. The eating disorder was just as bad. I would blindly eat until I felt sick, and then continue to eat some more. My days were a continuous cycle of sleeping and eating, eating and sleeping. It was an attempt to protect myself from pain, but ultimately it was just hurting me further.

The decision to heal was not easy, and I didn’t come to it quickly. Mental illness, no matter the specific diagnosis, has no logic. Wanting help didn’t mean I would get myself help. Getting help didn’t mean I’d put in the work required to heal. Finding help wasn’t easy.

1-in-5-20The stigma surrounding mental illness was the biggest obstacle I faced in overcoming my depression. This wasn’t because I was ashamed every time someone invalidated my lived experience by telling me to “just snap out of it.” It wasn’t even because I had been told I “simply lacked willpower” or needed to “just exercise more,” despite having completed a half-marathon while battling my disorder. The real problem was the lack of education, awareness, and social stigma, which made it so difficult for me to move forward.

I didn’t know where to get help, and I didn’t know what help to get. The idea of medication frightened me because of stigma. Counselling intimidated me because of stigma. Because of stigma, I thought those were my only options.

The reality is there are countless ways we all can care for our mental health—and there is no shame in doing so. One problem is not many people talk about how mindful methods can work in conjunction with supportive counselling and/or medication. We close off from discussing what supports the most important part of ourselves: our minds.

Ultimately, the first step I took was counselling, as terrifying as it was for me. But after two or three different counsellors, I knew it wasn’t enough. No matter how hard I seemed to try, I put up a wall the second I entered a counsellor’s office. To be completely honest, I never really knew what to talk about. I had numbed myself for so long, I had become completely disconnected from who I was.

1-in-5-21To truly make a difference in my mental health, I had to reconnect with myself. This realization was the turning point that completely changed my quality of life. I started to explore so-called alternative methods, from yoga to meditation to essential oils. I began to see life through a holistic wellness lens, and how I felt about my life finally began to change.

1-in-5-22In 2013, I was put on medication, with my doctor and I in agreement that I would maintain a low dose that simply worked to support my brain chemistry. I use medication as one part of my overall treatment to this day. But a very effective tool—one I couldn’t go without in caring for my mental health—surprised me in the end: acupuncture. I never saw that coming!

My battle with mental illness lasted for seven years–30% of my life. There are still days where I struggle with old emotions, but they are becoming few and far between. I wouldn’t change that period of my life for anything. I no longer allow my mental illness to define me, but I cannot deny how it influenced me, shaping me into who I am now. Because of my experiences, I began The Vibrant Lives Foundation, a non-profit that engages youth to end the stigma.

Because one in five will experience mental illness, but five in five have mental health.


Go Outside and Play!

go-outside-07Go outside and play!” How many of us grew up hearing that from our parents? This phrase is wrapped up in nostalgia. New Westminster, like childhood, has evolved. What was once row upon row of single family homes is now a patchwork of busy streets with high rises and mixed commercial spaces alongside quiet, tree-lined streets with those single-family homes. Our children still hear this command, as they grow old enough to leave our condos and townhouses and hit the neighbourhood park. “Go outside and play” is as much about growing up in a single-family home, as it is about plain old growing up.

What did we do out there? I roamed the neighbourhood on foot and by bike, and explored the bush near my house. I built tents and forts in the yard. One glorious week, my cousin Wendy and I transformed our picnic table into a river boat and spent hours cruising the canals of England without leaving the backyard. My brother hunted “bad guys” in the woods and built terrible wooden cars.

In our modern cities how do we get our kids to engage in this style of free play? After all, condos don’t come with yards, sheds, basements, or attics. How do we let our children create and be messy without having the space to keep scrap wood and paint around just for the purpose of playing with it?

The solution can be challenging, but is not impossible, and 99% of the solutions don’t involve moving to a community where you need a car. In fact, many of the solutions can be found right here in transit-friendly New Westminster.

go-outside-08A major no-cost way to get outside is to go to the park! New Westminster has more than 40 parks suitable for play. Thirty minutes of outside time surrounded by trees and plants are all that’s needed. At the park, you can play in dirt, splash in puddles, climb rocks or trees, hide in bushes, or hunt for bugs—activities will help your kid connect with nature in a way that’s guaranteed to make them happy and dirty.

One great activity we’ve done to help connect our daughter with nature is borrowing tree identification books from the library and learning the trees in our local parks. Did you know there are over 30 kinds of cherry tree? We’ve learned the names of many flowers, and stopped to observe bees, bats, squirrels, coyotes, and birds in the city. We’ve taken the long way home and picked up enough sticks and flower petals to build a small house. Buckets of water and small objects such as leaves, rocks, flowers, and feathers are entertaining whether in the middle of a lush lawn or a small apartment balcony. We’ve planted flowers in small pots and raised mason bees. We’ve gone for lots of walks. We’ve made boats from peapods and sailed them in birdbaths, although a puddle would have worked just as well.

One great place for a nature walk is Sapperton Landing Park. While there, you can go on the dock to look for fish, herons, or check out the restored marsh areas. Lower Hume Park has great trails where you can learn to identify both native and invasive species. You can watch for fish here too—many an elementary school child has released salmon fry into our rivers. Glenbrook Ravine Park is a sheltered, hidden gem with a little creek running through it. Put on your boots and enjoy hours tramping through mud. Bring a book and relax while the kids explore on their own.

go-outside-09New Westminster Parks and Recreation offer programs to get out and explore such as Club Royale, Junior Club Royale, and Tot Explorers programs. Girl Guides of Canada and Scouts Canada is a great way for your child to connect with nature and the environment. You can take your kids to numerous free play and engaging activities. Recently, we’ve attended Spare Parts Adventures, Young Makers at River Market, and Arts to Go workshops. In the summer, playground leaders are at most of the major playgrounds in New Westminster, offering drop-in outdoor crafts and games.  

More fun activities on our to-do list include building a bug hotel, going berry picking, painting rocks, carving spoons from chunks of wood (indoor friendly!), and creating art inspired by Andy Goldsworthy, a nature artist from Scotland. On rainy days, small thieves can steal pillows and blankets and turn them into forts almost anywhere.

The important thing is to let your child lead and make mistakes. Yes, they may slip on the steep hill, split their pea pod, cry when their boat sinks, or get frustrated when their blanket fort falls down for the eleventh time, but these moments inspire perseverance, imagination, and problem-solving skills. It can be hard to hang back and let your child be out of sight at a busy park, but this is when growth occurs.

You may have heard of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, a term coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. Louv himself has said since publishing his book that he hesitated to use the term as “our culture is overwrought with jargon.

Louv’s intention with publishing his book was to give parents a wake-up call that things needed to change and that children needed to get outside again in their most vulnerable developmental years. He argued that a child who does not get enough exposure to nature may become more anxious, less able to self-regulate, and lack an understanding of their place in our surrounding environment.

But the book—and the concept—are not without criticism.

Dr. Elizabeth Dickinson, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina, argues that it is a ‘misdiagnosis’. She suggests that modern culture’s disassociation with nature has occurred gradually over time, rather than very recently, and warns that the “cure” is not simply being immersed in nature, rather to examine one’s relationship with nature.

Regardless of semantics, free play opportunities and outside time can go a long way for both adults and children. It can be hard to make time, but added together, even brief moments will help us establish a stronger relationship with nature.

So, yes, give your child a bucket of water knowing they will likely spill it. Let them create for the purpose of creating, and don’t worry about the finished product. Neither of you need the pressure of doing everything right. Let your kids get dirty, break things, and shed some tears while you grow with your child as they learn they can do things on their own. Ultimately, everyone will be better for it.

Homelessness Here

Think about this: how would life change if you or your partner were injured or became ill and could no longer work? What would you do if the depression you were diagnosed with became unmanageable and you no longer had a doctor?  What would your life look like if you were a senior with no family and were experiencing dementia? Although the outcomes of such scenarios are unique to each of us, one thing is certain: aspects of our personal well-being will be challenged.

Our wellness encompasses the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Keeping well means looking after each of these at the same time. Sometimes, life throws curve balls that knock us off our feet and we find ourselves relying on other supports to help us through.

Not having resources to support our basic needs can lead to poverty and homelessness for short or a long periods of time. Declining or a sudden loss of wages, inefficient health care, increases in rent, and domestic violence are all contributing causes. Because of the  countless factors and scenarios that can lead to homelessness, it cannot be ‘fixed’ with one fell swoop.

So what is ‘homelessness’? The Canadian Homeless Research Network defines it as:

“[…] the situation of an individual or family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it. It is the result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination. Most people do not choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, stressful and distressing.”

Between 2002 and 2008, the unsheltered homeless population increased by nearly 120% in New Westminster. (“Sheltered” homeless are considered people who sleep at emergency and temporary shelters, or are staying with friends: “couch-surfing”. “Unsheltered” refers to people who sleep on the streets.) Starting in 2005, the City undertook a number of actions, including developing a Needs Assessment and Strategy, establishing the New Westminster Homelessness Coalition Society (NWHCS), hiring a Social Planner and partnering with BC Housing to develop 28 emergency shelter beds and 84 longer-term transitional and supported housing units, that were eventually occupied in 2009/10. Based on the homeless count in 2014, it would appear that the efforts of the City, BC Housing, and the NWHCS is making a difference. Between 2008 and 2011, there was a 43% reduction in unsheltered homelessness and by 2014, a further reduction of 17%.

The NWHCS is a collaborative effort. It brings together representatives of service providers, community-based organizations, and residents who want to support initiatives to fight homelessness in this city. The Coalition has created subcommittees to oversee initiatives such as Homelessness Action Week (HAW) events, and a community street-cleaning social initiative called, I’s On the Street.

A case manager at Union Gospel Mission notes; “I think there are various distances from couch surfing to the street. I believe the term ‘homeless’ can be used in a literal way and there is also a more broad way of using the term that covers various aspects of the experience of being homeless. Not having a fixed address can be quite a headache day in and day out. In a scenario where an individual has work and is working full time, he/she needs to drag every piece of belonging he/she owns to the place of employment. That is obviously going to raise some questions with employers, but the difficult thing is that there are not a lot of storage resources in areas that have a higher population of people who are homeless. Then there are issues like mail, communication, and other logistics that most people take for granted. I have not even brought up the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of not having a home to return to each night.”

homeless-11“From different accounts,” the case manager continues, “I often hear there is the feeling of shame, embarrassment, guilt, and powerlessness. It is undoubtedly one of the most challenging and difficult experiences anyone can go through in their lifetime.”

The case manager stresses that each individual and situation is unique. Each person must have their needs assessed individually and with respect.

“We should take the time out to walk alongside each person and his or her situation.”

In addition to the emergency shelters (two for men and two for women and children), New Westminster’s service providers focus on a wide spectrum of needs. Carole Neilson, a Deacon at Holy Trinity Cathedral and coordinator for their weekly community breakfast club shares; “I am impressed with the many services and programs available to the homeless and at-risk persons in New Westminster. The city, the community, and churches are working together to assist those in need.” Just a few of these services include:

  • Fraser Mental Health offers counselling and addiction programs
  • Canadian Mental Health Association supports youth and adults experiencing mental illness with various levels of housing
  • Family Services of Greater Vancouver has a range of counselling services, and works closely with the New West Police Domestic Violence Response Team and offers programs for newcomers and their families
  • The Purpose Society‘s Stride with Purpose team cares for those living with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C (including youth) through outreach and case-management, health workshops, clinics, and distributing harm-reduction supplies
  • UGM New Westminster Resource Centre serves community meals, offers client services (including free hearing tests, haircuts, and income tax assistance), programs, and resources
  • Along with their shelter, the Salvation Army has programs for children, adults and seniors, and provides community meals and distributes produce
  • Quest Food Exchange makes it possible for people struggling to access healthy, quality food  
  • The Seniors Services Society focuses on programming and housing for seniors  
  • The Lookout Emergency Aid Society aims at providing emergency and transitional housing
  • FraserWorks BC prepares and connects people to employment
  • Elizabeth Fry works with women in the judicial system and their families
  • The Westcoast Genesis Society offers transitional housing and programs for adult male federal offenders on conditional release  
  • The Spirit of The Children Society serves the Aboriginal community

This is not a complete list! There is an excellent interactive map called the Community Service Asset Map developed by the City of New Westminster that provides a very comprehensive list of low-cost and free community services and supports:

In addition to these social services, churches have stepped up by tirelessly preparing community meals. Other low cost and free community meals are available, too. In addition to meals, there are a few places where people can access free groceries—the Food Bank that operates from Shiloh Church on Wednesdays is one of them.  Breakfast and lunch is available on various days. 


Day Breakfast Lunch
Sunday The Redeemed Christian Church of God (third Sunday only) Salvation Army Church
Wednesday Queens Avenue United
Thursday Holy Trinity Cathedral St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Saturday Salvation Army Church

Bill Wong, who has managed the UGM New Westminster Resource Centre for 18 years, says; “There are many good things all of us can do to help the homeless including the most obvious that is to give to proven charities that focus on helping the less fortunate. People can also give toward immediate relief resources such as food, clothing and hygiene products.”

homeless-10Neilson believes giving financial support to organizations that help those in need is crucial to every outreach program; “it is my hope that the citizens of New Westminster will support outreach services in this city by learning about them. In this way, both the volunteer pool and financial aid will increase.”

So how can we help? Organizations are always looking for volunteers. Perhaps you have specific skills you want to use. Are you a professional hairdresser, an accountant, an attorney, a cook, a driver, or a retired teacher? There is a strong likelihood that your expertise can be used to help others. Buy tickets to fundraisers that support these initiatives. Donate, if you can.

The one thing, however, that makes the greatest impact is giving those around us—the woman who walks up and down the street talking to herself and the man who pushes a cart full of empty bottles—their personhood. We dehumanize and marginalize these people by making them feel they are a burden. By seeing past a person’s exterior, we can help them reclaim something that was taken. We are all so much more than a label. Steve (not his real name), said to me recently; “I know I look shabby on the outside, but I wish people could just see through to my heart and realize I am a good person and I’m fighting every day to go forward. It feels good when people look me straight in the eyes and call me by my name. It might seem like a small thing but it’s everything.”


Homelessness Action Week in New Westminster: October 10 – 14, 2016

Union Gospel Mission’s Community Thanksgiving Meal October 10th 12pm and 2pm at UGM New Westminster Resource Centre, 658 Clarkson Street

Connect Day at Holy Trinity Cathedral October 11th Free community breakfast, service providers “one stop shop”, and free clothing. Plus! A delicious meal prepared by the Sikh community. 541 Carnarvon St.

9th Annual Fundraiser Dinner and Silent Auction on October 13th Hosted by the NWHCS at the Columbia Theatre located at 530 Columbia St. Tickets: $75. For general enquiries and information about tickets, donating items for the silent auction, please contact Martha at 778-847-4468,


Recovery Capital of Canada

Only three percent of persons with addiction show up on skid row. The others walk among us. Addiction is often seen as a problem to be tabled, something to be put away, a behaviour to change, or even as rebellious disobedience with a touch of social disregard thrown in for good measure. My son is an avid cyclist, my friends ride bikes. Both will tell you that when the wheels of a bike get into a rut on a mud road and you struggle for control, balancing the bike is almost impossible, and falling becomes the norm. However, if the rider sees the rutted road as a path leading to the right destination, looks ahead, and sets his mind on the way, the rut becomes a groove and a steady sense of direction and a pathway to destination can be found. It’s time to get out of our rut of thinking about addictions, and begin to see the groove of recovery. The results are life-changing and treatment isn’t reduced to a housing issue.

The earliest signs of addiction can be mood swings; those subtle changes in behaviour that seem irrational, from short and snappy to pout and sputter. They are gradual and often missed by the closer observers. They are also easily discounted as, “she was having a bad day.” The next sign is usually financial unmanageability often presenting as a request for cash advances, cheques cashed at yellow banks, requests for overtime, repossessed vehicles, and uninsured vehicles.

Addiction by prescription looks like the proverbial medicine cabinet comes to the office. People are taking an upper to get started, a downer to manage a mood, a psychedelic at the bar and seeing three different doctors for the same medication with different symptoms presented in each case. Prescription addiction is difficult in that normal conditions have been amplified by drug-seeking behaviour and the constant seeking for designer and psychotropic drugs.

We need to open the doors to helping people who suffer. In the last 30 years, New Westminster has become a national destination for recovery services, with two internationally-renowned treatment centres, some of the largest 12-step fellowship meetings (such as Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous) in North America, and a disproportionately large number of young people living clean and sober in New West. Those are each solid foundations for life in recovery.

Sometimes, recovery starts with a coffee and a conversation. The coffeeshops at Sixth and Sixth in Uptown New West have become a stage for people in recovery to meet, mingle and talk recovery before a 12-step meeting. When you chat with someone over coffee and talk about what’s really going on… talk about and with others who have found the solution… This location makes it the ideal stage for the 5th Annual Recovery Day BC. The Festival moved to Uptown New Westminster this past September 10th, featuring Health and Wellness Booths, a Main Stage with headliner Bif Naked, a Kids’ Zone, and a Memorial Tent for those lost.

One of the most practical things about recovery in New Westminster is that people recover in community, with peers. Recovery in an urban setting allows for client health and recovery development in a supportive community because, very simply, that is their reality when they return home. People are afforded every communal opportunity to develop skills in recovery that promote participation, encourage active social and recreational life, and interact with their family, colleagues, and friends in a normalized way as their recovery progresses.

Addiction Support and Recovery Programs in New Westminster include: Last Door, Westminster House, Fraserside, Fraser Works, Lookout Shelter, Purpose, Sigma, Last Door Youth Program, as well as over one hundred 12-step meetings every week.

The mathematics of recovery is that any addict seeking recovery can stop using and find an abstinent way to live and that way saves money in the medical, criminal justice, and social care. The creation of the Recovery Capital in New Westminster has created supportive, crime-free housing, supportive 12-step fellowships, medical and mental health supports, and treatment centres all delivering an integrated, seamless approach to recovery that is enduring for persons seeking recovery, endearing for their families and hopeful for communities.


Healthy People Live in Healthy Places


From ParticipACTION to the latest in the endless parade of fad diets, a healthy lifestyle is typically framed as an individual choice. But there’s more than willpower (or lack thereof) behind the size of your waistline, the strength of your heart, and the pinkness of your lungs.

A growing body of research suggests the best indicator of health is whether the community you live in is designed to make healthy choices easy. The small, unconscious actions of our daily lives add up, and can ultimately have a bigger impact on your overall health than whether you join a gym or eat healthier.

“Where you work, where you live, where you play—that’s what keeps you healthy,” insists New Westminster community health specialist Deanna Tan. “That’s really where ‘health’ happens, at home in your community.”

Tan works for Fraser Health, which, like most public health agencies, has long focused on preventative health care through activities like providing vaccines, promoting hand-washing, ensuring restaurants comply with health regulations, and distributing condoms and clean needles. But increasingly, regional health authorities are starting to take a holistic look at the impacts of the physical design of communities on chronic disease.

healthy-places-14According the BC Provincial Health Services Authority, people with chronic health conditions represent about 34% of the population in BC but make up about two-thirds of healthcare costs. Rather than continuing to allocate resources to acute care services, public health is starting to look more carefully at prevention and promotion strategies, says Tan, one of which is creating healthier communities.

“The time in your doctor’s office, that’s treatment. There’s a little bit of prevention, but really that’s illness and sickness, not health,” says Tan.

Health authorities are increasingly focusing on the impacts of infrastructure and community planning on health based on research that links poor air quality to increases in childhood asthma; sedentary lifestyles and diet to diabetes and heart disease; and a lack of safe, affordable housing to paramedic and policing calls related to mental illness.

The idea is that planning and investment policies, such as zoning and investment rules, create a ripple effect that ultimately affects the health of the population as a whole. For example, people are more likely to walk to school or work, and do errands on foot when city blocks are short and there’s a diverse mix of businesses close to homes—factors determined by city land use and zoning policies.

Increasing walkability of neighbourhoods sounds like a ‘nice-to-have’ feature, but when viewed through a health lens it becomes a must-have for the economic health of our nation. Physical inactivity alone costs the Canadian health care system at least $2 billion annually in direct healthcare costs. While not the only factor in chronic illness, high obesity rates are linked with higher rates of type II diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and cancer. Public health specialists like Tan hope that by collaborating with city councils and other community partners, they can help decision-makers consider the public health impact of decisions involving housing, transportation, nutrition, access and inclusion, and the natural environment.

“The goal isn’t necessarily to do things differently,” says Tan, “but to view things differently.”

Not every community has been receptive to this ‘health lens,’ but in New Westminster, Tan and her colleagues have been invited to sit on several City committees, and to provide research, support, and expertise to staff as they draft an updated Official Community Plan (OCP).

The OCP is being revised in a process that began in 2014. Residents have been invited to attend numerous consultation opportunities and sit at the table. Recently, the City released the first draft of Land Use Map, which will be used to determine development in the city until 2041. It is based on the input of people who have attended meetings, written in, and voiced their opinions. The importance of getting this right can’t really be ignored as this document will define the city’s goals, policies, and vision for the future.

Councillor Patrick Johnstone, who has been an active participate on this process, says: “The OCP is ‘the big one’: it is the planning document that tells us the most about how our City will look in the decades ahead. Types of housing is a big part of it, but so is neighbourhood form, and how we will continue to support other work like our Master Transportation Plan and the Urban Forest Management Strategy as we experience regional growth.”

“A healthy community is one where you can walk or ride a bike safely, where services you need are nearby and accessible, where you are supported in raising your kids, and have comfortable options to age in place. However, in an urban area like New West, it also means protecting and enhancing our limed green space, assuring we have trees to moderate our local climate, people have an opportunity to plant a seed and grow some local food, and that neighbours can have meaningful social connections. We need to plan our community to facilitate these things, not limit them.”

“If you plan Cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places” – Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces

Johnstone continues: “We know what makes people healthy, and what makes them unhealthy. A good OCP should build healthy choices right into the infrastructure, and should limit the resources we put into supporting unhealthy alternatives.”

For Tan, the OCP is more than just a planning document. “The OCP is a health document,” says Tan. “It is so connected. To us, it’s a no-brainer.”

How Community Planning Affects Health

(source: BC Provincial Health Services Authority)

healthy-places-18 healthy-places-17 healthy-places-16 healthy-places-15