Canada’s healthiest cities 2008

Our analysis of the health of 20 cities’from Vancouver to Toronto to Lunenburg’revealed that west really is best

Canada's healthiest cities 2008

Source: Best Health Magazine, Spring 2008

More than a collection of streets and buildings, cities provide work, homes and culture for the majority of Canadians. Likewise, cities can be powerful determinants of health. The air we breathe, the number of doctors available to us’even the number of nearby parks and fitness centres’all affect our well-being. By analyzing the components of a vigorous metrop­olis, we also provide a blueprint for the programs we should be advocating for across the country.

To determine Canada’s healthiest cities, Best Health compared two municipalities in each province’for a total of 20’using exhaustive data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), Statistics Canada, Environment Canada and others. (See our chart, criteria and expert data sources.) We went beyond the typical mortality stats to measure the comprehensiveness of smoking bans, the availability of OB/GYNs and mammography, and other issues uniquely important to Canadian women.

While these results aren’t scientific, they do provide a revealing snapshot of the relative vitality of cities across the nation. ‘The quality of the place where you live can influence a lot of different aspects of health,’ agrees Dr. Indra Pulcins, director of health reports and analysis at CIHI in Toronto.

We learned that when it comes to healthy cities, west actually is best: Our top four are all in Canada’s two westernmost provinces. But if you live east, take heart: Canada is one of the healthiest and most livable nations in the world according to the United Nations, and it’s possible to live a healthy life in almost any community, countrywide.

#1 Vancouver

Nestled between B.C.’s Coast Mountains and the Georgia Strait, Vancouver took the top spot in five different categories, and had a top-five finish in five others. The city boasts the lowest number of overweight residents, the lowest rates of heavy drinking, the best community care, a tight smoking ban (there was a five-way tie for toughest), and is privileged to have the highest number of general and family physicians per 100,000 people.

Consistently ranked among the best of the best for its livability by organizations such as The Economist Intelligence Unit and the Mercer Quality of Life Survey, Vancouver has a lot to offer, affirms resident Alisa Smith, 36, co-author of The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. For one, it’s not hard to find healthy food. ‘There are a bunch of different organic food stores and lots of farmers’ markets, and in the last two years they’ve even opened a winter market,’ she says. It’s a great city for a delicious stroll, too. ‘I like to walk along the oceanfront to Granville Island,’ says Smith. ‘You can buy from the fishermen at the docks. Plus, Go Fish restaurant nearby serves some of the freshest fish tacos and salmon soups that you can find.’

#2 Victoria

Perched on the southern tip of wild, wonderful Vancouver Island sits our healthy city runner-up, edged from the top spot by a mere three points. Victorians breathe some of Canada’s cleanest air, they’re the most likely to get active, and they eat nutritious fare. Not surprisingly, the Garden City has the second-lowest level of overweight people and is tied for the second longest life expectancy. Plus, the city racked up top five finishes in a number of other categories, including commun­ity care, low levels of heavy drinking and high numbers of mammogram machines.

‘It’s very easy to get around in Victoria. I don’t have a car, and I’ve never felt that I needed one,’ says Melanie Laverick, 32. She’s the manager of Cascadia Whole Foods Bakery and a 14-year resident. ‘Everything is close by and accessible by bike or public transit.’ And, she adds, it’s nice not to have to worry about smog days. ‘We’re right on the ocean, and that sea breeze kind of sweeps everything away.’ Noting that it only snows about once a year, Laverick says Victorians’ high level of activity is aided by the city’s mild, temperate climate. ‘There’s so much to do outside, and you can bike, jog and be active in all seasons. Even in the winter, it’s pretty damn warm compared to the rest of Canada.’

#3 Calgary

Calgary is one of Canada’s fastest growing urban centres’only Barrie, Ont., is faster’and, given these healthy results, it’s easy to understand why. Calgarians feel good about themselves, perhaps because they’re so fit: They ranked second in self-rated health and level of active pursuits. The Stampede City had the lowest number of people with diabetes and high blood pressure, was tied for the strictest smoking ban in the nation, and has the fifth-longest life expectancy.

Named by Forbes magazine as the world’s cleanest city in 2007, Calgary is a great place to get outside, says Karen Brinkman, 37, a teacher, triathlete and five-year resident. The trails along the Bow and Elbow rivers that flow through the city are well used. ‘At lunch time, you’ll see the paths downtown, along the Bow, filled with people walking and running on their lunch break,’ says Brinkman. Green spaces dot this healthy city. Mere minutes from her home, Fish Creek Provincial Park’one of Canada’s largest urban parks’is one of Brinkman’s favourites for rollerblading and jogging. ‘From there you can see the downtown skyline to the north and a beautiful view of the mountains to the west, and I feel like I’ve escaped the city,’ she says. ‘When I run, no sounds from the outside world invade my thoughts.’

#4 Edmonton

Canada’s 2007 Cultural Capital scored solidly on well-being, too, ranking in the upper 10 in 12 of the 16 criteria. It ranked sixth for more than one-third of all the healthy city categories, including life expectancy, self-rated health and number of mammogram machines. Plus, it earned top-five finishes for its smoking ban and community care.

There’s plenty to do in summer, and Edmonton offers healthy delights in winter, too. Consistently cold winter temperatures are perfect for making great outdoor ice, and rinks pop up all across town, from backyard and neighbourhood affairs to the oval at Victoria Park, where speed skaters ply the edges, leaving the middle for everyone else. ‘Skaters are thankful for the cold,’ says Jillian Footz with a laugh. The 29-year-old YMCA program director adds, ‘People figure skate outside, there are community leagues as well as shinny and pick-up hockey games, and many families go out skating together.’ Those finding it a bit too nippy can retreat to the West Edmonton Mall, North America’s largest. With a rock-climbing wall, bungee jumping, a skateboard park and 48 blocks’ worth of power-walking space, there’s plenty to keep you busy and fit’and, of course, there’s skating there, too.

#5 Ottawa

Canada’s capital registered strong scores in many healthy city categories: leisure time spent active, healthy blood pressure, low levels of heavy drinking, and an impressively stringent smoking ban. And Ottawa natives love their produce’only Victoria and Mont­real residents eat more fruits and veggies.

Ottawa also benefits from a great physical layout, says Georgina Hunter, 48, a communications specialist who moved to the nation’s capital from Toronto 15 years ago. ‘Many neighbourhoods in Ottawa are alongside water and pedestrian-oriented,’ she adds. ‘Where we live, people walk their children to school, the library, shops and restaurants. It’s like living in a small town. We love that we don’t have to spend our
time commuting.’

That’s all the more remarkable in a city known for its record snowfalls and brutal winters. In addition to paddling on the Rideau River and Canal, many residents pedal’for play or to get to work’on the city’s 170-plus kilometres of bicycle trails. ‘You get used to people walking into the office in their cycle gear,’ says Hunter.

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